Archaeologist makes desperate "tiny bid" for Pulemelei, plantation

The archaeologist, who conducted the first complete survey of the Letolo Plantation in Palauli, has made a US$100,000 (T$264,797) offer to its owners it in a desperate bid to keep the National University of Samoa (N.U.S.) involved in the land’s future.

Gregory Jackmond, who in his 20s lived in Savai'i as a Peace Corp teacher and then archaeologist, is adamant the largely untouched, historically significant 1150 acre plot should be preserved as a national park and research site.

In an urgently placed bid five hours before expressions of interest were due to close on 01 June (the owners have since extended the deadline for six months), Mr. Jackmond made a US$100,000 offer.

“I didn’t know what they were expecting, so I put in a little tiny bid but I am sure they are just laughing,” he said.

“It’s a lot of money to me but I am sure they expect millions.”

He said the company has not responded to his expression of interest and imagines that because the deadline has been extended he will not.

“They probably don’t even know about it, they probably have a real estate agent who looked at that and said no, no, no.”

The Letolo Plantation, owned by the O.F. Nelson Properties Limited and its 26 shareholders, is one of the largest freehold land sites in Samoa. 

It encompasses the largest ancient structure in Polynesia the Pulemelei Mound, a mound of volcanic and foundation stones which measures 65 by 60 metres and reaches 12 metres in height, which was probably built between 1100 and 1400 B.C.E.

Mr. Jackmond said he was shocked to learn the land was on sale after being party to discussions between the Universities Centre for Samoan Studies (C.S.S.) and the Nelson family for at least five years. 

 “C.S.S. has been trying to talk with the Nelson family about at least giving part of this as a reserve because it’s so important to Samoan history and pre-history,” Mr. Jackmond said, scrolling over a detailed geographic information system map of the plantation.

“There is so little known about this. People have come and studied but they just scratched the surface.”

“Even with the Pulemelei and the work that was done there, they just have a vague idea that it was built in three layers and there were different times over several hundred years but we have no clue about what these other things around it mean.

“Guessing what this big pile of rocks was used for, the stories we get, the things that have been remembered, they are really open to discussion.”

One of the challenges with basing knowledge on the stories of the past is the consequence of “virgin soil epidemics,” when new diseases wipe out vulnerable, typically older populations of people without immunity to foreign illnesses.

This would have happened in Samoa when the first Europeans landed from 1830, Mr. Jackmond said, and it suggests some older traditions and knowledge may have been lost with the generation that was most afflicted. 

“Oral traditions are something you have to be careful about,” Mr. Jackmond said. 

Today Mr. Jackmond is a Research Archaeologist at the Centre for Samoan Studies in the National University of Samoa. 

He had retired after a long career in the field but chose to return to his Peace Corp service home to continue to develop the surveying and research in Samoa.

He said the Letolo Plantation presents a unique research space for Samoa and for the Pacific. Having conducted the original survey of the land on his own and largely without equipment, he knows the depth of history out there to be studied. 

“This is really a great opportunity to do something in Samoa that hasn’t really be done any place else in the Pacific.

“There hasn’t been much developed in Samoa as far as heritage goes and this is an opportunity to set up a fantastic heritage park that would take generations to develop, as far as understanding, but it could be used for a lot of things.

“It would be a cornerstone in the tourism industry that could be developed to look at the heritage of Samoa.”

C.S.S. lecturer and researcher Dionne Fonoti said she envisions the plantation being enjoyed by tourists and researchers simultaneously, comparing the experience to visiting the Terracotta Warriors in China where visitors can watch researchers studying the ancient artefacts.

Ms. Fonoti, who is currently on leave completing her PhD, said she believes it can be an interactive place that should benefit the University, the villages around it and the family which has owned the land since around the late 19th century.

“It could be set up where everybody could come and have an experience of visiting the past and seeing the fact that there is modern day research happening.

“It’s really vast, so many there are parts we could set aside where only researchers go for the time being, and parts where visitors can go to.”

She said the Palauli community need to be involved in the future of the plantation and the Pulemelei mound.

“The story of it comes from the village and the district. There needs to be, I think, some sort of bigger collaboration that includes the village, you can’t just cut them out.

“The story we are looking at is much, much older than the tenure of the Nelsons. It’s a big undertaking, it’s not a small thing.”

Unlike other large, relatively untouched plantation land across Samoa that could be similarly studied, Letolo is unique in that it is fenced in by two rivers, Mr. Jackmond said. It makes it a solid entity that can be studied in isolation from neighbouring land.

“One of our big problems is there is so much, there is too much. You don’t know where to stop.”

“When an archaeologist comes into this they realise that what they are working with is maybe one tenth of what was there to start with, so what they have to make all their guesses and assumptions from is very, very little.”

The survey of the plantation reveals thousands of housing platforms, ancient earth ovens (umu ti), walls and roads and the scale of the famous Pulemelei mound.

It paints a picture of significantly more populous Samoa than ever written about previously.

But because there has been so little research done, and a lot of materials moved over the years, Mr. Jackmond cautioned that just because one thing is next to another does not guarantee they were built at the same time or by the same generation of people. 

That is the scale of work he hopes can still be done in a protected Letolo Plantation.

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