Excavating and interpreting ancestral action: Stories from the subsurface of Orokolo Bay, Papua New Guinea

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The Gulf of Papua, Papua New Guinea, is a rapidly changing geomorphic and cultural landscape in which the ancestral past is constantly being (re)interpreted and negotiated. This paper examines the importance of subsurface archaeological and geomorphological features for the various communities of Orokolo Bay in the Gulf of Papua as they maintain and re-construct cosmological and migration narratives. The everyday practices of digging and clearing for agriculture and house construction at antecedent village locations bring Orokolo Bay locals into regular engagement with buried pottery sherds (deposited during the ancestral hiri trade) and thin strata of ‘black sand’ (iron sand). Local interpretations and imaginings of the subsurface enable spatio-temporal interpretations of the ancestors' actions and the structure of ancestral settlements. These interpretations point to the profound entanglement of orality and material culture and suggest new directions in the comparative study of alternative archaeologies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279–306
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Social Archaeology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • hiri
  • Indigenous archaeology
  • memory work
  • oral tradition
  • Pacific
  • Papua New Guinea
  • social memory

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