No site in Oceania surpasses the dramatic beauty of ancient Nan Madol, perched on the very edge of the vast Pacific Ocean. Situated on the east coast of Pohnpei (also Ponape), the elite administrative and ceremonial center grew, flourished, and declined during the centuries, preceding Western contact. Here in a shallow lagoon the ancient Pohnpeians constructed a magnificent complex of ninety-two artificial islets interconnected by a network of waterways. Today the islets are mostly covered by dense jungle growth, and the waterways are largely choked with mangrove swamps. Even in their present state, the megalithic ruins of Nan Madol are present-day reminders of the splendid achievements of prehistoric people in Micronesia.

The traditional name of the island is Pohnpei, meaning "upon a stone altar." Its people are referred to as Pohnpeians. Until the recent re-adoption of the traditional name, the island was known as Ponape; its inhabitants, Ponapeans.

Pohnpei is a mountainous high island, one of the most beautiful in Micronesia. Dense forests grow down to the edge of the surrounding lagoons in most places. Numerous smaller islands lie within the barrier reef. Seemingly endless coves, fringing reefs, inlets, and outcroppings, such as the spectacular Sokehs Rock, lend variety to the coastline. Of comparatively recent geological age, Pohnpei's mountainous interior is dominated by numerous peaks. The highest rises 2,595 feet above sea level.


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Sheer cliffs occur in several locations. Often the cliffs are of prismatic basalt, the material used in constructing Nan Madol and other ancient structures around the island. Dozens of streams and rivers flow from the interior. More than 180 inches of rain annually, a tropical climate, and fertile soils account for the island's luxuriant growth. Typhoons occur here less frequently than in western Micronesia, but several struck Pohnpei in the early twentieth century.

Exceeded in size only by Guam in the Marianas and Babeldaob in Palau, 129-square-mule Pohnpei is the third largest island in Micronesia, Kosrae, 340 miles to the south-east, and Truk, some 400 miles to the west, are Pohnpei's closest major island neighbours. Guam, Yap, and Palau lie a thousand miles and more to the north and west. The mid-1981 census reported 23,920 residents on Pohnpei, most of whom live along the coasts or in the administrative center of Kolonia.

The staples of Pohnpeian subsistence agriculture are bananas, breadfruit, and yams, but more than forty different crops are cultivated on the island. Traditionally, men tended the more important agricultural crops while women exploited the fringing reefs with hand-nets (Alkire, 1977). Like the Kosraeans, the Pohnpeians have one of the most complex socio-political organizations in Micronesia. For information on social stratification and the complex rank and title system, are the bibliographic reference to Riesenberg, 1968.     

Today the island is divided into five districts, which were autonomous politics before the advent of successive Spanish, German, Japanese, and American administrations. Each district is presided over by dual leaders called nahnmwarki and nahnken, who are the equivalent to royalty in Pohnnpeian society. Traditionally, the ranked title holders who assisted them were the island's nobility. The titles of commoners were not inherited, as was largely the case with the nobility. During the German administration of 1899 to 1914, land reform was instituted with the distribution of property titles to male heads of households. formerly, only the high chiefs owned land, granting use rights to their subjects in return for tribute payments and obeisance. A principal component of traditional chiefly power was thereby destroyed by the Germans.

The environ of Nan Madol, Phonpei, based on the
1983 U.S. Geographical Survey of Pohnpei Island

Feasting ceremonies (kamatihp), the raising of giant yams to be eaten at them, and competition for titles suggest the favour of Pohnpeian life and what it means to live in a chiefdom society. Clan and sub-clan memberships, which are based on matrilineal inheritance, are extremely important aspects of Pohnpeian social organization. High chiefs generally inherit their positions based on rank inherited through the mother's side of the family.


In the following discussion of Nan Madol, the number shown in parentheses after islet names refer to the 1910 listing by the German ethnologist Paul Hambruch (1936). The complete list appears later in the section. The numbers are intended to assist the reader in locating the islet on the accompanying map from Nan Madol.

At what time the first settlers arrived on Pohnpei is unknown. Eventually stone platforms, house foundations, walls, pavings and tombs, earth terraces and mounds, and other architectural features began to appear at various locations along the coasts, in valley, and on hillside sites of the island's interior. during the first or second century A.D., people apparently were inhabiting the coastal area that became the site of Nan Madol. Here Stephen Athens (1983:53) has recorded radiocarbon dates of this time range from archaeological deposits found below the artificial fill and low-tide level of Dapahu Islet (93). Geologic subsidence coupled with sea level rise on Pohnpei accounts for the present-day inundation of early coastal habitation areas.

William Ayres and Alan Haun (1978) of the University of Oreon have documented several stages of construction for the Usendau (104) and Pahnkadira (33) islet bases, the former going back to the eighth or ninth century A.D. About 1000 or 1100, pottery ceased to be used at Nan Madol. the early use of pottery followed by its discontinuance is a common pattern in Oceania.

Apparently not until sometime around 1200 to 1300 did elaborate megalithic architecture begin at Nan Madol. By this time Pohnpei is believed to have been conquered and unified by a paramount chief called the saudeleur, meaning lord of Deleur, a small political unit that evidently encompassed Temwen Island and neighbouring areas. Eventually, the hegemony of the saudeleur seems to have extended throughout the entire island of Pohnpei.

Under the reign of the sandeleur, Nan Madol flourished and expanded to its present size. This was the time of greatest architectural achievement, when walls of stacked prismatic basalt 18 to 23 feet high were constructed around Nandauwas (113) and the number of artificial islets increased substantially. Some had coral fill u to 7 feet above sea level at high tide, while one of Pahnwi's platforms was some 20 feet high. Several of the islets measure well more than 100 yards on a side and contain areas roughly equivalent to three football fields. Immense seawalls and breakwaters were erected to protect the chiefly center from the relentless pounding of ocean waves in the exposed coastal site.

The downfall of the saudeleur is estimated to have occurred during the early 1600s. Pohnpeian oral traditions link the paramount's demise to the Thunder God, whose temple is located on a large, three-tiered platform on Pahnkadira Islet (33), where the saudeleur lived. The Thunder god's son, the legendary Isokelekel, is said to have established a new political order presided over by a high chief called the nahnmwarki. Perhaps as a safeguard against the re-emergence of a paramount on Pohnpei, Isokelekel divided the island into three autonomous chiefdoms.

Isokelekeo himself became the first nahnmwarki of Madolenihmw, the chiefdom that included Nan Madol, here the next six nahnmwarki resided. It is estimated that during the early 1700s the nahnmwarki removed his residence from Nan Madol, but people seemed to have continued living there a little while longer. by the 1820s, when intensive Western contact began with Pohnpei, people had ceased to live at Nan Madol though it continued to be used through the mid 1800s for periodic religious observances.


In 1528 Alvaro de Saavedra Ceron, commander of the Spanish galleon Florida, probably reached Pohnpei or one of its neighbouring atolls, Saavedra named the island "Barbudos," a reference to the beards of the natives. Sixty-seven years later Pedro Ferdinand de Quiros nearly foundered on an island that was almost certainly Pohnpei. He named the discovery "Quirosa" but did not land on the island (Hezel. 1983). In time mariners began to refer to the island as "Ascension," before Ponape and now Pohnpei became the accepted name.

Not until 1828 was Pohnpei rediscovered by the Russian explorer Capt. Pyedor Petrovich Lutke, who named it "Senyavin" in honour of his ship. Shortly thereafter British and American trading vessels began to frequent the island's ports, and a colony of often unruly beachcombers began to grow. As whaling activities increased dramatically in the 1840s, so did the numbers of deserters from visiting ships.

The population of Pohnpei at the time of initial European contact is estimated to have been in the range of 20,000 to 35,000 people (Reisenberg, 1968). The population declined precipitously, however, with the introduction of diseases by visiting whalers, traders, and explorers. The most dramatic and unfortunate event was the smallpox epidemic of 1854, when the contagion killed over 2,000 islanders, more than one-third of the then surviving population. Venereal diseases also contributed to the population decline.

Early in the 1850s American missionaries arrived on Pohnpei. They attempted to curb prostitution and alcohol trading by the beachcombers and sakau drinking and spirit worship by the natives. Today Pohnpeians continue to prepare sakau, a narcotic, on pounding stones for special occasions. After several decades of strife, Christianity became accepted, but only within the framework of traditional Pohnpeian socio-political institutions. By the 1880s money began to replace barter as the basis of the island's trade.

One of the best preserved monuments of Madol is the high-walled islet
of Peinering shown here in a reconstructed aerial view from the northwest.


The first Western observation of Nan Madol, completely abandoned, was by James F. O'Connell between 1828 and 1833. In 1852 Luther H. Gulick, an American missionary, noted that the ruins  covered one half of a square mile, and he correctly suggested that they were built by ancestors of the present-day Pohnpeians. Gulick documented the spectacular nature of the ruins and recorded accounts of the ritual activities practiced by the natives in the ruins on ceremonial occasions.

The German ethnologist Jan S. Kubary prepared the first outline map of Nan Madol in 1873. Further observations on the site and its contents were made by the Englishman F. W. Christian in 1896. In 1910 Paul Hambruch conducted a detailed survey of Nan Madol, using only a hand-held compass and tape measure in the extraordinarily brief span of ten days.

Recent instrument surveys by Stephen Athens have altered the overall configuration of Hambruch's map very little. However, the recent work shows the details of surface features on each islet, which Hambruch largely ignored. Besides mapping, Hambruch (1936) also conducted excavations, collected oral accounts, and recorded the existence of thirty other important sites elsewhere on Pohnpei.

Germany purchased Pohnpei from Spain in 1899 but was forced to sell its South Sea island possessions to Japan at the outbreak of the First World War. Limited scholarly research was conducted on Pohnpei during the Japanese administration. In 1945 the United States assumed control of the island and began its administration under the mandate of a United Nations trusteeship. Recently, Pohnpei joined Yap, Truk, Kosrae, and other islands of the Carolines in forming the Federated States of Micronesia, an autonomous political entity in free association with the United States. 

In 1963 the Smithsonian Institution conducted the first modern archaeological investigations at Nan Madol. Since that time scientific research has increased significantly including the work of Athens, Ayres, Bath, Davidson, Haun, Mauricio, Saxe, Streck, and others. Presently, substantial support is needed for clearing the site of fast-growing tropical trees, underbrush, and vines that destroy the ancient stoneworks. The magnificent monuments also are in urgent need of restoration and preservation if they are to continue to exist as the record of a distinguished past and thus an inspiration for future generations.

The second entry way in Nandauwas leads to the inner courtyard and central tomb, where the remains of the deceased saudeleur and, later, the nahnmwarki were interred.


Nan Madol was a special place located away from the main island of Pohnpei, perhaps to symbolize and reinforce the unique character of the people who lived there and their ritual activities. Built by well-organized indigenous Micronesians, the complex belongs to relatively recent prehistory. The site extends along the southeast shore of hilly Temwen Island for a distance of approximately 4,600 feet and reaches into the lagoon about 2,450 feet. The area occupied by the islet, their waterways, and the breakwaters is roughly 200 acres. The remains are accessible by a one-hour boat ride from Kolonia or by a somewhat longer journey by vehicle along the coastal road followed by a one-hour hike across Temwen.

Greater Nan Madol extends beyond the immediate vicinity of the islets proper. For a discussion of the neighbouring islets, structures, and other architectural features closely associated with the elite center, the reader may wish to refer to the bibliographic reference for Saxe, Allenson, and Loughridge, 1980b. One such neighbouring islet is Nahnningi, located in the lagoon some 2,000 feet south of Nan Madol. A short distance south of Nahnningi lies Mall. Both of these islets appear to have been constructed by the builders of Nan Madol. They are surrounded by stacked prismatic basalt walls several feet high and their surfaces are raised well above the high-tide level on coral fill. Another important islet contemporary with Nan Madol is Nakapw, a basically natural island with some stonework. It is located across the bay east of the ancient center.

Nahnningi also is known as Joy Island. The rectangular islet contains numerous coconut palms through which the prevailing north-easterly ocean breezes blow constantly. The reef protecting the lagoon from the open Pacific lies a short distance east of the islet. Nan Madol consists of ninety-two artificial islets, many surrounded by retaining walls of immense basalt boulders and stacks of naturally formed prismatic basalt. Some islet walls extend only to the surface of the interior coral rubble fill, while others rise 6 to 30 feet above the surfaces to form enclosures for mortuaries and residences. For stability, the higher walls on some islets rise in parallel rows linked with crosspieces. this is a system of horizontally laid stones in alternating parallel and perpendicular courses, known to brick masons as headers and stretchers. Stone pavings and platforms - foundations for residences and meeting houses, walls, tombs, tunnels, and other features - are found on the islets.

Not all of Nan Madol's islets are surrounded by basalt retaining walls. The coral fill of Pahnkatau (94) terminates at the water's edge with no protective basalt facing at all. The perimeter stones of this low-lying islet may have been robbed to construct other islets. Pahnkatau contains three tombs consisting of coral mound walls with large basalt cobbles on top. Other low-lying islets with partly eroded perimeter walls are Sapwengei, Sapwolos. Sapwenpwe, and Sapwuhtik.

Loose coral taken from the nearby reefs was used to fill and pave islet cores, and considerable remodelling by successive occupants has occurred on many of the islets. Most islets are orthogonal in plan and have flat platforms that originally supported pole-and-thatch structures. The spaces between the islets are flooded at high tide. Thus, the ancient center is interlaced by a network of waterways reminiscent of Venice. Most of Nan Madol's islets were used for burials or residences. The more spectacular burial places with four vertical walls of stacked prismatic basalt. These structure stacked prismatic basalt. These structures usually are surrounded by an enclosing wall. Other burial places are indicated by only a simple rectangular or square basalt cobble paving on the islet surface. House platforms are rectangular stone foundations elevated several feet above grade. They often have fire pits received into the centers of their platforms and range in size from about 60 square feet for commoner's houses to some 800 square feet for dwellings of the nobility. The residence of the saudeleur was even larger, containing an area of about 1,470 square feet.

Mortuary islet of Karian anchors the east corner of Nan Madol.
An unusual arch-way gives entry to the courtyard.

The Pohnpeians call meeting houses nahs. Among the largest traditional structures on the island, nahs will be described in greater detail later in this section. Another type of structure found in Nan Madol is an enclosing wall. Enclosures seem to have been erected for special purposes, such as providing privacy for dwellings of high-status people or setting apart sacred areas for tombs or religious activities.

Nan Madol is divided into two main areas separated by a central waterway. To the southwest lies Madol Pah, the lower town. It was the administrative sector, where royal dwellings and ceremonial areas were located. To the northeast lies Madol Powe, the upper town. this was the mortuary sector, where the priests dwelled and major tombs were located. Recently, more burials have been found along the lagoon breakwater islets, suggesting that mortuary activities may have been more important at Nan Madol than previously realized. The maximum population of the ancient center may have been between 500 and 1,000 people, although it is very difficult to arrive at a precise estimate due to the lack of reliable information.

Two lines of rectangular platforms with canoe channels left between them form the southeast and southwest seawalls, about 3,500 and 1,500 feet long, respectively. The northern edge of Nan Madol apparently was left open to the elements. A number of the structures in the complex in fact seem to have been left unfinished. The seawalls were built stoutly of huge basalt boulders packed with smaller stones on which prismatic basalt was stacked in a cribwork of header and stretcher coursing.

Provisional Map for Nan Madol

The map of Nan Madol presented here is based primarily on Paul Hambruch's original map, the 1983 topographic map of Pohnpei prepared by the U.S. Geodetic Survey, recent detailed surveys of twenty-nine islets directed by Stephen Athens with Joyce Bath and Charles Streck; surveys of Pahnkadira, Usendau, and Pahwi by William Ayres and Alan Haun, and aerial photographs provided by the Bishop Museum. Joyce Bath, and Newton Morgan. The map is termed provisional because of the lack of precise current information on the remaining sixty-one islets and other features of the elite center.

Hambruck's original map, dated August 1910 and published in an obscure German journal in 1911, was unknown for a long time until it was rediscovered a few years ago. The map named each islet, showed a scale, and presented an identification on the legend. A later version of the map accompanied Hambruck's widely circulated 1936 volume, published after the author's death. Hambruch listed two breakwaters as the remains of unfinished islets. One lies north of Karian, the other east of Lemenkou. Hambruch also listed a total of 130 features for Nan Madol, indicating channels, canoe passes, red pools, building foundations, and other architectural features. Of these features 93 were islets, some with more than one number denoting features associated with individual islets. Subtracting the 2 breakwaters originally recorded as islets, 91 islets remain. During a recent survey, Stephen Athens discovered that Likinpei actually consists of two neighbouring islets. Thus, the total number of islets shown on the provisional map is 92.

Apparently, all of the islets originally were surrounded by water except for Peinkitel, Peito, and Puilele. Built partly on the southeast shore of Temwen Island, the large mortuary enclosure of Peinkitel contains an impressive tomb within a secondary enclosure entirely on the shore. The tomb is believed to contain the remains of Isokelekel. When the German governor Berg began exploring the tomb in 1905, the natives requested him to refrain for fear of incurring the wrath of their legendary hero. The governor persisted but died a short while later of sunstroke. The Pohnpeians were certain his death had been revenge for the destruction of Isokelekel's grave. Most of Nan Madol's waterways, particularly those closer to Temwen Island, today are choked with mangrove swamps and thus are largely impenetrable. Mangrove trees, coconut palms, breadfruits, and, particularly, Thespesia populnea, along with dense tropical undergrowth, cover most of the islets, largely obscuring the original appearance of the site. Recently, efforts have been undertaken to clear the islets of the destructive jungle growth, but the task is formidable. The provisional map presented here shows water in all of the canals and waterways with the view of reconstructing the original appearance of the ancient center.

The thick black lines shown on the map denote basalt-faced walls exceeding 7 feet in height. Parallel lines define lower walls. Single lines around islet perimeters indicate the absence of basalt retaining walls, and dashed lines show stone alignments that are submerged. Small squares and rectangles indicate such features as pavings, house platforms, or excavations. Most of Nan Madol's architectural features are rectangular or linear; triangles, polygons, circles, and other geometric configurations do not appear. Exceptions are natural features, such as the reef pools on Peikap and Dorong and west of Lemenkou.

Most of the islets are oriented with respect to a generally northeast to south-west axis. House platforms usually are arranged orthogonally with respect to their islet foundations or enclosing walls, perhaps suggesting the orientation of pole-and-thatch houses with gables facing the northeast to capture prevailing breezes. Pottery remains have been found on islet surfaces and fill closer to Temwen Island, where the earliest islets were built. During the saudeleur expansion period, probably between about 1200 to 1500 or 1600k, magnificent megalithic architecture was constructed at Nan Madol and the islets farther from the shore were built. Here no pottery remains are found, indicating that pottery making had been abandoned by that time. More precise information on the sequence of constructing Nan Madol's islets presently is lacking.

Walls up to 25 feet high surround the royal tomb compound of Nandauwas. The central enclosure contains the islet's largest crypt, flanked by additional tombs to the north and south.

The Islets

The following  list of islets is based on the numbering system and names originally published by Paul Hambruch on the ancient center. The spellings of many of these names have been revised to correspond with modern orthography and, in a few cases, with information developed since 1910, when Hambruch worked at the site.


The crowning architectural achievements of Nan Madol is Nandauwas, the royal mortuary compound of the saudeleur and, later, of the nahnmarki. Certainly no more magnificent example of prehistoric architecture exists in all of Micronesia. The gracefully upswept walls of the extraordinary monument exceed 25 feet in height at their corners and entryways. The design is powerfully conceived, sensitively sited, and skillfully executed.

Although I had seen photographs and drawings of the remarkable structure previously, I was unaware of its appropriate sense of place in the islet environment. One could approach by canoe from the open lagoon and then move along the central canal that leads through Madol Powe. Passing jungle-covered islets on both sides of the canal, one could catch glimpses of Nadauwas' southwest norner through the trees. A few moments later the canoe turned to the left, slowed, and stopped before the main entry landing of the west front. For several minutes one could gaze at the magnificent west facade, the stately podium, the noble entryway, and the ascending steps that led to the interior courts, enclosures, and tombs. Nandauwas and its immediate neighbours are the only islets in Nan Madol that are oriented with respect to a due east-west axis. East, the direction of the rising sun, was the cardinal point of the compass for prehistoric Micronesians, Pohndauwas and Pahndauwas flank Nandauwas to the north and south, respectively. Perched near the edge of the lagoon facing the open Pacific Ocean, the royal mortuary is protected by two massive seawalls that project into Nakapw Harbour to the east. In places the outer seawall is 15 feet high and 35 feet thick. the sound of powerful waves breaking on the stout seawalls is ever present at Nandauwas.

The reconstructed aerial view of Nandauwas presented here is based on an accurate instrument survey directed by Stephen Athens and conducted by Joyce Beth, photographs taken in 1984. The podium or base of the islet measures some 208 x 258 feet along the centerlines. Its area exceeds 53,600 square feet, well more than the equivalent of a football field in size. The podium of Nandauwas is a unique feature for Nan Madol. The high walls of the mortuary enclosure are set back 10 to 24 feet from the podium's edge, providing a level walkway all the way around the perimeter. Along the west side the islet podium is a 4 to 5 feet higher than the surrounding canal. Huge basalt boulders form the lower courses of the walls near the islet's corners. Most of the retaining wall consists of prismatic basalt stacked in six alternating courses of headers and stretchers. The stones range in size up to 2.5 feet in diameter and 17 feet in length. One amorphous basalt cornerstone is estimated to weigh more than 50 tons.

Along the south edge of the podium, and at points on the east and north, the podium sags down almost to the water level at high tide. This may be the result of damage by jungle growth, geological subsidence, and possibly structural settling due to the immense superimposed weight over the centuries since Nandauwas was constructed. Comparatively well preserved, the exterior facades of the north and west main enclosure walls are exceptional examples of Nan Madol's megalithic masonry. They clearly illustrate the three subtle curves that together produce the illusion of gracefully upswept corners seemingly poised to soar into the air. In plan, the walls curve outward to thicken at the corners and portals. In elevation, the walls curve upward 4 feet higher at their ends than in their centers, rising to a maximum height of 25 feet above the canal. In vertical plane, each wall slopes inward about 1 foot for the lower two-thirds of its height and then corbels outward so that the top course lies directly above the base. 

The builders of Nandauwas maintained the coursing of their stones while increasing the wall height by using larger stones near corners and by introducing additional headers and stretchers in each header course. Other examples of upswept corners in Nan Madol are found in Dorong, Peinering, Kohnderek, Karian, and Iemenkou. However, the walls of these islets are less dramatic in appearance and lower in height than those of Nandauwas. The landing in front of the main entry is set down two course, apparently to facilitate access from canoes. Two tunnels also give access through the main enclosure walls. The 4-foot-high by 8-foot-wide tunnel through the south wall appears to the right in the perspective. A second tunnel, 4 feet high by 4 feet wide, leads through the north wall. The tunnel in the south wall 28 feet from the outer west corner apparently is not an original feature.

Several steps lead up from the canoe landing to the outer courtyard. The entry exceeds 14 feet in width and 22 feet in height. The south wall of the portal is 18 feet in height. The south wall of the portal is 18 feet thick at its base where the hexagonal prismatic basalt stones exceed 2 feet in diameter. he surface of the outer courtyard is about 1.5 feet higher than the podium outside. On both sides of the courtyard are raised ledges or galleries about 10 feet wide and elevated approximately 5 feet above the surface paving. The galleries continue all the way around both sides of the entire outer courtyard. Hambruch was told that the galleries served as the sites for exposing corpses before burial. The top four courses of the 13-foot-high interior enclosure wall project noticeably, forming a decorative cornice. The entry into the inner courtyard directly aligns with the entry through the outer enclosure. However, the portal of the tomb lies north of the entry alignment, suggesting that tomb portal may be only a temporary feature. Perhaps the wall of the tomb traditionally was resealed after each new interment.

The inner courtyard is elevated about 1.5 feet above the outer courtyard. The approximately 21-foot-quare central tomb is almost 10 feet high. Its west face has an unusual double stretcher coursing of carefully matched and placed prismatic basalt. 'Two stone tiers lift the tomb above the level of the inner courtyard. The roof of the crypt is spanned by eight prismatic basalt stones, each measuring up to 18 feet in length and weighing one ton or more. The north wall of the central tomb is about 1 foot lower than the south wall, probably due to subsidence. The portal of the crypt is some 4 feet thigh and 4.7 feet wide. The interior of the crypt measures roughly 10 x 13 feet in plan and about 7 feet in height. Here voluminous shell artefacts were found by Christian in 1896 and Hambruch in 1910, including adzes, circular heads, elegant bracelets, needles, breast pendants, necklaces, pearl-shell shanks of fishhooks, and other valuable objects. Even a gold crucifix and silver-handled dirk were found by visiting ships' captains between 1834 and 1840, suggesting possible Spanish contact before the 1820s.

Between the inner and outer walls of Nandauwas are three additional crypts built of prismatic basalt. Smaller than the central tomb, they still are impressive. Those to the north and south are set off by low enclosing walls. The small crypt to the east is recessed into the gallery paving of the inner enclosure wall. The surface of the east court, which is about 1.5 feet lower than the islet's podium, becomes water logged as high tide approaches. Here, near the outer enclosing wall, was discovered recently an approximately 2.5-foot-square culvert or channel  running perpendicular to the east wall. The culvert's use is unknown. The east wall of the outer enclosure is somewhat higher than the west wall, apparently an intentional feature. The east wall is protected by the two staunch seawalls of Nanedauwas facing the open Pacific. The stoutest and best reinforced walls of Nan Madol face the open lagoon, such as those of Pahnwi and Karian.  

Immense basalt boulders packed with smaller prisms
of basalt form the canal walls of many of Nan Madol's islets.


The skilfully built mortuary compound of Karian lies some 570 feet east of Nandauwas. Karian is situated on the edge of the reef abutting the deep waters of Nahkapw Harbour and the open Pacific. The islet, which forms the eastern terminus of Nan Madol's southeast seawall, has the feeling of a bastion set boldly on the edge of the sea. The sound of waves crashing on two sides of Karian is a constant reminder of the islet's exposed coastal location. The outer walls of the islet enclose a rectangular area of some 11,200 square feet, only about one quarter the size of Nandauwas. The northeast and southeast walls, 97 and 128 feet long, respectively, rise more than 17 feet above sea level. They are constructed of huge basalt boulders in keeping with their functions as bulwarks against the sea. Unfortunately, they are much in ruins today. Among the most stoutly built of Nan Madol's walls, they range in thickness from 11 to 15 feet. The aerial perspective from the southeast is based on an accurate survey directed by Stephen Athens and conducted by Joyce Bath, photographs taken in 1984. The islet base rises some 6.5 feet above sea level. Areas of coral fill retained by basalt walls extend to the northwest and southwest, protecting Karian's inshore walls.

In the foreground of the perspective is the approximately 77-foot-long southwest wall. Most of the exterior facings of this wall and the northwest wall are in an excellent state of presentation and are among the finest examples of megalithic architecture in Nan Madol. The southwest wall is about 11 feet high near the center and curves gracefully upward to its 13-foot-high corners. The tops of the inshore walls alight with those of the seaward walls. Like the somewhat higher enclosure of Nandauwas, Karian's walls are composed of stacked prismatic basalt in alternating courses of healers and stretchers above amorphous basalt boulders. Here, however, the boulders account for a larger proportion of the total wall surface, underscoring Krian's role as a seawall as well as a mortuary enclosure. The top of the north corner affords an excellent view of Nandauwas across the breakwater.

The most remarkable architectural element of Karian is the distinctive entry portal located near the center of the southwest facade. the lintel of the portal is composed of five carefully selected and placed prismatic basalt stones, each about 12 feet long. the lintel supports four courses of stacked prismatic basalt. Karian's entryway is the largest and most beautiful of its type at Nan Madol, mutely attesting to the excellent technical skills of its builders. The entry portal measures about 9 feet in width by 5 feet in height on the exterior of the enclosure, but increases to some 10 feet in width and diminishes to 4 feet in height on the interior. Perhaps the diminishing height of the portal is a reminder to bow when entering the sacred mortuary compound. The thickness of the walls enclosing Karian varies from 6 to 12 feet. Just outside the portal is a 7-foot-long sakau pounding stone. Six more grooved pounding stones were found outside the walls; three others in the courtyard. the presence of ten pounding stones for sakau preparation at Karian indicates the importance of the ceremonial beverage in the ancient rituals of Nan Madol.

The interior courtyard of Karian originally was surrounded on all four sides by a gallery engaging the base of the enclosing walls. The gallery varied from 3 to 6 feet in width but maintained a constant height of about 5 feet above the courtyard paving. 'Due to the present ruinous condition of Karian's interiors, the entire gallery is no longer clearly distinguishable. Unlike the similar galleries of of Nandauwas, the lower two courses of Karian's gallery are amorphous basalt boulders rather than stacked prismatic basalt. This feature may be another reflection of the concern of Karian's builders for constructing massive walls capable of resisting he relentless pounding of the sea. The proportion of the courtyard's width to the enclosing wall height is at most 5:1 in its shorter dimension and about 11:1 in its maximum extremity. The sense of spatial enclosure is less compelling here than at Nandauwas. Near the center of the courtyard is a roughly 16.5 x 25-foot tomb about 9 feet high. The construction of the tomb is unusual in that its lower two courses and its top course are entirely stacked prismatic basalt stretchers, the intermediate two courses are only headers. This is an exception to the alternating header stretcher coursing more frequently found elsewhere in Karian and other high wall structures of Nan Madol.


The most beautifully proportioned islet in Nan Madol was Peinering. According to Stephen Athens' accurate survey, the plan measures about 94 x 152 feet, a ratio of 1:1.609. This is very nearly the proportion of 1:1.618, familiar to students of Western architecture as the golden section. the appearance of this proportion in the plan of Peinering seems to have been unique among the islets of Nan Madol.

A second reason for enjoying Peinering was that it was relatively well preserved and totally cleared of trees and tropical undergrowth. In plan the four sides of the islet curve outward slightly at their corners, a configuration similar to Karian, Nandauwas, and other important monuments at Nan Madol. Peinering's 8-foot-high walls also curve upward at their corners and entry portal and are slightly concave in their vertical planes. the top courses of the walls consisted of prismatic basalt headers that tilted markedly upward and projected beyond the exterior faces of the walls to form a cornice. This feature also was employed at Nandauwas and elsewhere in Nan Madol. The ancient builders of Peinering seem to have been consciously aware of the architectural problems of defining the top and bottom of a wall and of turning the corner of a wall with clear resolution.

Peinering's entryway was the most sensitively proportioned example of stacked prismatic basalt masonry that could be seen in Nan Madol. It measure about 6 feet in width, 4 feet in height, and a 6 feet in wall thickness. The sides of the entryway are exactly parallel, and its paving is precisely square in plan. the wall stones are carefully chosen and fitted together with exceptional skill. What Peinering lacks in size and impressiveness it more than offsets with architectural proportions, scale, and craftsmanship.   

The islet's base is raised on coral fill to a level 4 feet above the waters of the surrounding lagoon. the enclosing walls of stacked prismatic basalt are some 6 to 7 feet thick at their bases. Near the center of Peinering are two approximately 20-foot-square mortuary features with holes dug in their centers by investigators during he Japanese administration. The features originally were basalt pavings elevated slightly above the surface of the islet, a type of structure found very frequently at Nan Madol. They typically contain multiple secondary interments. Near Peinering's east wall along the islet's longitudinal centreline lies an approximately 130foot-square central fire pit about 2 feet deep. The vertical surfaces of the foundation are faced with rubble basalt; its paving, with coral fill. A pole-and-thatch house originally may have been erected on the foundation, possibly oriented with its gable end toward the northeast. The structure may have housed a priest who was responsible for the preparation of coconut oil. In Nan Madol coconut oil traditionally was used to anoint the bodies of the dead and for other ceremonial purposes.

Ohter Islets of Madol Powe

Most of the fifty-eight islets of Madol Power, the upper town, apparently served as dwellings for priests. Some were tomb enclosures, including Nandauwas, Karian, and Peinkitel. Other islets seem to have accommodated special functions related to ceremonial rituals, such as Peinering. Usennamw, a large islet of irregular shape, contains several house platforms and an impressive nahs foundation. Hambruch reported that Usenamw served as the kitchen of the saudeleur and, later, of the nahmmwaqrki. Here the leaders were reported to have appeared at times to distribute food to their followers. Pottery was found primarily on the northern islet protrusion, an area that is completely flooded at high tide. Apparently, this is an earlier portion of the islet that was not resurfaced with additional coral fill during the saudeleur reign. Usennamw's fill during the saudeleur reign. Usennamw's fill elsewhere is elevated higher above the water level than most of the islets in the elite center. The impressive nahs of Usennamw will be described later in this section.

Containing several dwelling house platforms, Usendau served as the residence of successive nahnmwarki and also of Hambruch in 1910. Relatively small Kohnderek contained nine house platforms and is said to have been used for mourning the deceased with a king of dance. The small islet of Sapwuhtohir has abundant pottery remains and a large nahs foundation. Peinioar contained a single mortuary feature, while Pahnkatau had three. Daahu is said to have been used for canoe making and for distributing food to participants in a ceremony honouring he deceased saudeleur at Nandauwas. Dau was reported to have been the place where the guards of Nan Madol resided. Surrounded by high walls of stacked prismatic basalt, Lemenkou has secondary wall enclosures in three corners. One enclosure has a raised house platform with a central fire pit. Three basalt-lined burial features recently were found in the western part of Lemenkou near the 20-foot-deep reef pool. A large number of sakau pounding stones also were found on the islet.


The residence of the saudeleur was the large, high-walled islet of Pahnkadira which probably was once the most complex and impressive compound in Madol Pah, the lower town. Known as "place of the announcement," the islet consists of the approximately 105,500-square feet. Well more than twice the size of Nandauwas. Pahnkadira contains an area equivalent to almost three football fields. A third functional unit associated with the royal residence seems to have been the islet of Kalapuel, where visitors apparently were quartered when they called on the saudeleur. The basis of the reconstruction presented here is an accurate survey of Pahnkadira by William Ayres and Alan Haun, the account of Hambruch (1936), along with photographs and notes.

The royal residential compound is surrounded by stacked prismatic basalt walls up to 16.4 feet high. Four entries give access from the canal into the main enclosure: the approximately 13-foot-wide main entry from the southwest, two 8-foot-wide entries from the southeast, and a roughly 8-foot-wide entry from the northeast. Near the center of the compound is a three-tiered platform with three fire pits outlined by basalt. The top platform measures about 62 x 120 feet. Hambruch was told that the platform was the site of the pole-and-thatch temple of Nan Zapue, the thunder God. Here Hambruch found the remains of corner posts suggesting a structure some 33 x 79 feet in size. Near the west corner of the temple platform is an approximately 33-foot-long bench of prismatic basalt. A row of pounding stones lies along the southwest side of the temple base, where two conch shell trumpet were excavated.   

In the west corner of Pahnkadira is the secondary enclosure of the residence of the saudeleur. Its 8-foot-thick interior walls enclose a courtyard measuring about 63 x 107 feet, an area of roughly 6,740 square feet. The residental platform is about 32 feet wide and 42 feet long. The royal family resided in the south-eastern area of Pahnkadira. The approximately 94 x 135-foot south enclosure, which contains a single house platform, comprises an area of some 12,650 square feet, almost twice the size of the paramount's enclosure. The almost square cast enclosure measure 64 x 67 feet and contains about 4,300 square feet in area. Less than two-thirds the area of the enclosure of the saudeleur. It also contains a single dwelling platform. Between the east enclosure and the temple platform is a paved area beside a a 26 x 33-foot excavation dug through the islet fill down to the original reef. The excavation is said to have been a bathing pool. The servants of the royal family are reported to have dwelled in the northern area of Pahnkadira.

The walls around the attendants' annex are substantially lower than those of the main enclosure. Here the first court attendant of the saudeleur is said to have lived. No portal interconnects the attendants' area with the main enclosures, and access was afforded only by two approximately 6.6-foot-wide entries through the southeast wall. Within the annex are several house platforms with central fire pits. One measures about 25.6 x 29.5 feet and has a roughly 5 x 6 foot fire pit. Like the main enclosure, the attendants' area is predominantly coral paved with basalt outlining house platforms.

Although Pahnkadira had been completely cleared and surveyed in 1981, the jungle had reclaimed it. Underbrush and dense jungle grass up to four feet high rendered observations at the site very difficult. The spatial relations of the enclosures were easily perceived by walking on the tops of the interior walls, but finding house foundations, the bath, and the temple's base was arduous. Kalapeul lies just across the canal from the main entry to Fahnkadira. It appears in the foreground to the right in the aerial perspective. The last saudeleur is said to have made Kalapuel available as a dwelling place for Isokelekell and his 333 warriors when they asked for hospitality. In the absence of an accurate survey of the islet, the detailed map published by Hambruch (1936) is the basis of the reconstruction presented here.

In plan Kalapuel is a slightly irregular square measuring at most 200 feet on each side and containing about 36,000 square fee, an area slightly larger than the attendants' annex of Pahnkadira. The north-western walls are perhaps 12 to 13 feet high above water level; the south-eastern walls, about 6 feet. The islet base is elevated some 3 feet above the lagoon. Four entries give access into the islet, one on each side. The north corner of Kalapuel has a roughly 69 x 95-foot residential courtyard separated by possibly 8-foot residential courtyard separated by possibly 8-foot-high walls from the rest of the islet. It once contained a single dwelling in an enclosure similar in size to the saudeleur's. Hambruch recorded four other house platforms and several low walls elsewhere on Kalapuel.   

Other Islets of Madol Pah

Most of the other islets of Madol Pah seem to have served as dwellings for the nobility, but some served special ceremonial purposes. the islet of Idehd, "place of the sacred eel," appears to the upper right in the aerial perspective of Pahnkadira. A comparatively small islet, Idehd measures only about 102 x 141 feet and contains at most 14,400 square feet, little more than one-tenth the size of Pahnkadira. The carefully built, stacked prismatic, basalt walls of Idehd are perhaps 6 feet high except at the east corner enclosure, where they rise to some 8 feet. Here, near the base of a wall, is the longest prismatic basalt stone in Nan Madol which measured 19 feet 7 inches in length. A single entry, some 13 feet wide, gives access into the islet from the northwest. the foot courtyard where the sacred eel reportedly was kept in a well about 2 feet square. Periodically, turtles were brought to Idehd, where they were killed and cooked and their entrails were led to the eel. The turtles were kept in an artificial basin on Paset in Madol Powe.

A mound of rubble some 10 feet high is located in the outer courtyard of Idehd. Hambruch (1936) reported that inside the courtyards, under the sacred eel's protection, the people of Nan Madol were said to have kept weapons, including spears and stones. The wood of the weapons had perished, but beautifully polished stones the size of ostrich eggs remained when Hambruch visited the islet in 1940. Too large to be managed with a ling, the stones were thought to have been thrown by hand. In 1963 the Smithsonian Institution sponsored scientific investigation on Idehd. During the ancient ritual of cooking a turtle for the sacred eel, the highest priest is said to have performed a ceremony of atonement for himself, other priests, the saudeleur, and, finally, all the people. Over the years, cooking residue accumulated to form Idehd's rubble mound. Radiocarbon dates from the mound were A.D. 1260 near the base, 1295 toward the middle, and 1380 in the upper level. Stephen Athens and David Welch recently confirmed the Smithsonian dates and established the fact that megalithic construction with basalt columns was under way in Nan Madol by at least 1200 to 1300.

The islet of Peikap, "new grave enclosure," appears in the upper center of the aerial perspective of Pahnkadira. It is located some 33 feet northwest of Idehd. A narrow canal separates Peikap from Pahnkadira to the southwest. Hambruch recorded dimensions of about 362 x 367 feet for the islet, suggesting an area almost as large as Pahnkadira. The high walls of Peikap are built of stacked prismatic basalt on amorphous basalt boulders packed with smaller stones. Some of the boulders are shaped like turtle shells. Near the islet's south corner is a natural reef pool much smaller than Dorong's. The west corner of Dorong appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the aerial perspective. The roughly 315 x 335-foot islet, enclosed by high walls of stacked prismatic basalt, was an important ritual site. Hambruch recorded an approximately 6.6-foot-wide entry facing the canal to the northwest and a portal about 16.5 feet wide in the northeast wall. Constructed symmetrically around a large, natural reef pool, Dorong is said to have been used to raise and keep clams. At appropriate times the clams reportedly were collected ceremoniously for the nobility. Numerous clam shells lying on the islet surface confirm the oral coconut. Hambruch reported that Dorong also provided coconuts, breadfruit, pandanus, and fruits destined for sacrifice. 

The wall-enclosed basalt pavement on Dorong is a mortuary feature. Near it a huge, two-ton sakau pounding stone was found. Eleven small tunnel-like channels run through the islet's fill. they are constructed of carefully cut coral laid between basaltic prisms. One of the tunnels, which much larger than the others, is said to have been used to keep the sacred eel. A Small sakau stone is located next to it. The other ten channels apparently allowed fresh sea water into the reef pool to assist the cultivating clams. Platforms and a nahs foundation also are located on Dorong. The north half of Palskpw appears to the right in the aerial perspective. The islet lies across the canal southwest of Dorong. Palakapw measue at most 118 x 328 feet, about the size of Donong. The enclosure of Palakapw has a double wall of basalt with a core of coral fill. Not all the walls of Nan Madol used a double wall system. Palakspw has fourteen or fifteen house platforms where members of the nobility once resided. some of he platforms here were larger than those on Usennamw.

Pahnwi is located at the south corner of Madol Pah. the coral-paved islet is a complex ensemble of platforms, basalt faced tombs, house platforms, enclosures, and other architectural features. Pahnwi's walls facing the lagoon are among the largest in Nan Mado. The terraces within the islet step up to the 20-foot-high platform in the south corner, the highest platform in Nan Madol. The 36-foot-high south-corner, the highest wall in Nan Madol, is an impressive feat of engineering. Here three immense basalt boulders are piled one on top of the other and crowned by very large stacked prismatic basalt. Unfortunately, a huge tree presently threatens to destroy the magnificent corner.


The basalt boulders and prisms used in constructing the walls of Nan Madol came from quarries on the main island. Prismatic basalt columns are natural stone formations resulting from volcanic activity. Scientists have identified a number of prismatic basalt outcrops, and oral accounts also indicate several quarry locations. Each basalt flow tends to have distinctive proportions of trace elements, making it possible to match individual stones with particular quarries. David Mattey, an English geochemist had matched one stone in Nandauwas with a mainland quarry on the opposite side of Pohnpei from Nan Madol. the study of quarry sources for the structures of Nan Madol is being pursued by Stephen Athens.

In their natural state prismatic basalt columns usually are attached to larger crystalline formations. Oral traditions said that the prisms were dislodged by building large fires at their bases and suddenly cooling the stones with sea water to cause them to fracture. The stones then were placed on rafts and floated within the fringing coral reefs to the building site. Apparently not all the stones reached their intended destinations, for basalt stones can be seen on the bottom of the coastal lagoon between Nan Madol and Sokehs. The stones lie on coral and sand, clearly the result of the activities of humans rather than nature. Moving and placing the basalt stones was a highly labour intensive process. Oral accounts reported the use of levers, inclined planes of coconut palm trunks, and strong ropes of hibiscus fiber. These methods for moving megaliths were within the technical abilities of the ancient Pohnpeians. Similar systems were reported for erecting huge stone structures in Kosrae and for moving heavy logs in Yap and Palau. The nearby reef was the source of coral for islet fill and wall cores at Nan Madol. Many of the coral slabs are light enough to be passed from hand to hand, a much easier task than erecting megalithic walls of basalt.     

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