You are here

Culture and Society

New subdivision a death sentence for heritage site

Nuku'alofa, Tonga


Feature and Photos by Mary Lyn Fonua

Tree roots protect a raised walkway leading to sia heu lupe - a chiefly pigeon snaring mound built around 1400AD with stone retaining walls and a central stone lined pit - that was used for an unknown purpose. The pit is large enough to shelter, conceal or hold many people . Va’epopua 1 August 2015.

An important Tongan heritage site at Va'epopua is threatened by a swamp subdivision that government has announced yesterday will be distributed to people today.

A star-shaped complex of sia heu lupe, joined by an elaborate network of raised walkways, built by a powerful Tongan ruler around 500-600 years ago, using manual labour to move around 4000 tonnes of rock and sand to build the complex on the tidal flats, will be wiped out by the land reclamation for new settlement.

The remains of the historic site that has been protected by its isolation is now doomed by the development.

When a Ministry of Lands cadastral grid system was drawn-up over the tidal flats in the 1980s the planners seemed to have no idea what they were carving up. Today, a cadastral marker sunk into the top of the most impressive sia heu lupe - the hub of the ancient complex - shows where a land allocation will split the unique stone-faced mound into four pieces. It is feared that new settlers will demolish the ancient construction and take its stone for cheap landfill in a mad rush to claim the most marginal swamplands around Nuku'alofa as temporary residential areas.

Oceanic archaeologist Prof David V. Burley who visited the site with Matangi Tonga Online this week, said the loss of the site and destruction of its features is a tragedy for all Tongans. “The site is very significant and its precariousness had been recognised and complained about since the 1980s, probably before it was surveyed out here and properties were allocated,” he said.

It's a really important piece of archaeological heritage that is within the confines of Nuku'alofa that could be made a national historic site with a stroke of the government's pen. For this mound, in particular, they could put a buffer around it - so there is no development out here and they could put a sign on it that says if you take the stone away you are in serious trouble.

I think the point is that the decisions that the parliament makes regarding our heritage now at this location will impact generations a hundred years from now, if they just allow sites like this to be wiped off the landscape for very little reason - and there is no reason - that this could be destroyed so they can build houses out there that themselves are going to be gone in 20 years - it's just mind blowing!” he said.

The land is exposed reef that will come back into the tidal range as the sea level rises. “The settlement will be abandoned again, there will be a super high tide combined with a wind and everything will get swamped and people will move away and that will be the end of it and in the process this place will be gone in 20 years, but in the process of trying to settle the area you've destroyed Tonga's heritage.

When you destroy heritage you can't get it back,” he said.

Sia heu lupe

Dr Burley a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Canada has conducted archaeological field research in Tonga since 1989.

On Tongatapu the sia heu lupe are known on the coast at Fatai, Popua and Longoteme. The best preserved and most spectacular sites are those at Popua. Dr Burley estimated the area was important around 1400AD “to maybe 1600AD or maybe a little bit later.”

The area located close to Nuku'alofa was investigated by the archaeologist W.C. McKern in the 1920s and later by Dirk Spenneman in 1987, who noted that the amount of labour invested in the construction of the four main Popua mounds and walkways is impressive. A total of 3000-4000 tonnes of sandy fill and 457 tonnes of coral limestone was used in the Popua complex - all moved by hand. McKern measured 4-6ft deep central pits in the sia, faced with stone, but the purpose of the depressions is still not understood. They appear large enough to enclose dozens of people. Spenneman mapped the area and made illustrations that went into an exhibit for the Tongan National Cultural Centre when it opened in the 1980s.

Dr Burley said in the immediate complex at Va'epopua there are four pigeon-snaring mounds and a small sitting platform.

The main stone-faced sia has ramps that go off from the hub in spokes to different sites over the reef - including one area that is already built over by housing. “Four arms lead to causeways radiating each to a different sia, although we couldn't find what was on the end of one,” he said.

There's another at a peninsula that has been built close to the water and channel, and I would not be at all surprised if that was not the docking area that was bringing the chiefs in for an event or some kind of ceremony here.”

A raised walkway connects the central sia to this peninsula where he envisaged the sailing kalia would land. It is in the same sheltered area off Point Hōleva where Captain Cook in the eighteenth century anchored and was entertained at Patangata before he entered the passage to Mu'a.

Sacred landscape

Historian Dr Wendy Pond, who has studied Tonga since the 1960s, has written about what she calls “the sacred historical landscape at Point Hōleva.”

At Point Hōleva Tu'i Tonga Pau received Cook's party in the landscape of his sacred, historical origins. The lineage which kept Tu'i Tonga Pau in office in 1777 was descended from 'Aho'eitu,” she wrote.

Pond stated that landmarks in the area and in the nearby passage to Mu'a preserve the account of events of Tongan origins whereby, “'Aho'eitu was born of this union between a colonizing power and an indigenous woman.” She is continuing research into the area around the Va'epopua mounds that she believed were used for important ceremonies.

But Wendy also reported that coral boulders from the ramps and walls of the Va'epopua mounds have been removed in recent decades.

Sia 1 has retained its stone walls only though the guardianship of Salesi Tu'amelie the school teacher who lives opposite this mound,” she said. Wendy strongly believed that the land allotments marked over and around the sia should be reallocated, “to ensure that the sia and access to them are not harmed through...reclamation.”

She believed that the complex of seven sia, if restored, could become a significant tourist attraction.

In an appeal from the Tongan National Museum to the Lord Ma'afu, the Minister of Lands four years ago, she stated, “The ancient art can be reconstructed from ethnographic and historical records and physical restoration of the mounds will ensure that the Tongan people remain aware of their heritage.” Wendy detailed seven sia at Va'epopua for restoration, including what she described as the most magnificent of the sia, which was close to the mala'e of the Tu'i Tonga at Patangata.


Dr Burley fears the site is doomed for short term gain because the heritage is not well understood by the decision makers.

He said that universities in Auckland and Canberra are turning out all kinds of people who understand heritage and who are Tongan. “These are the kids that need to be brought back to take over the roles of the research permit process and who have an email that works,” he said.

See also:

Opinion - Petitioners urge govt to safeguard Popua Sia


Thank you for bringing this very important and urgent story to public attention. I've been aware of this significant heritage site for many years and on many occasions taken people out there in hope that it would bring some special attention to this place and other sites around Tongatapu.

For an extremely proud people we are as Tongans, I cannot understand how our Koloa Tukufakaholo-heritage sites are not valued and treasured yet talked about over and over again on social media or around Kava but no action to help preserve these national wonders of our rich past. There doesn't seem to be much interest from our authorities in preservation of our significant heritage sites. This is the real thing and the physical evidence of an advanced complex empire, yet we would prefer to sing about it and let these significant sites disappear.

I have often heard people mention the opportunities of these sites for tourism, yet how about valuing these for ourselves our own national identity, Tonga pride and for generations of Tongans to come. In fact 80% of our tourist arrivals into Tonga are return family and friends. The diaspora of Tongans overseas has grown immensely opening opportunities and resources for Tonga in our Tongan communities overseas. From my experience, Tongans returning are extremely disappointed with the condition and respect among many things Tongan including our heritage sites. Tonga and everything Tongan have a huge importance for many of our people living overseas. Another reason why these sites are important to be cared for.

By preserving our heritage is an investment in ourselves for the future of Tongan people and Tonga.

It would be great if the businesses in Tonga advocate for the restoration, preservation and protection of these historical sites. Push for government protection, and incorporate community participation and stewardship. Some of these sites can become tourist attractions that can generate revenue for the respective villages, businesses, and Tonga as a whole. Finding the right model for Tonga that protects its cultural and heritage sites. Responsible and sustainable development that does not destroy Tonga’s historical sites but promotes it.

Tonga can learn from the mistakes that have occurred in other parts of the Pacific. For example, tourism and militarism has only benefited the machine that is the American political economy and hegemony here in Hawaiʻi - and a very, very small portion of those revenues stay in Hawaiʻi, the lion share goes back to the US or wherever the proprietor is from.

This begs the question for me, how much of the profits that Chinese business owners in Tonga remains in Tonga? I am of the opinion that if foreigners want to do business in Tonga, then there should be regulatory laws and stipulations that state that much of their profits must be reinvested in Tonga, rather than reinvesting their profit back in China or other offshore investments/accounts. That should be stipulated if they want to do business in Tonga, to give back to Tonga. And not just come and make their wealth there and invest elsewhere. So many examples for Tonga to learn from. It is time to stop the rush for temporary gains and look at sustainable longevity.