A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Site Histories, Resource Descriptions, and Management Recommendations


B. Pu'ukohola Heiau (contined)

3. Modern Description

In 1969 the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, at the request of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, conducted a detailed archeological survey of Pu'ukohola and Mailekini heiau prior to proposed construction work on the Kawaihae small boat harbor. This resulted in feature documentation that was published in the Hawaii State Archaeological Journal 69-3. Because of the length of the description of Pu'ukohola Heiau, the reader is referred to that work. [104]

Between 1975 and 1979, Edmund J. Ladd, NPS Pacific Area Office archeologist, supervised emergency stabilization activities on the heiau. No archeological excavations were undertaken, but the site was mapped and observations on prehistoric construction techniques recorded.

From the descriptions of Pu'ukohola and Mailekini heiau through the years, it is apparent that little if any preservation work has been done on them, at least formally. In 1928 the "Sons of Kamehameha, a now defunct organization, are thought to have partially restored segments of the central platform and courtyard areas in honor of the sesquicentennial celebration of the European arrival in the Hawaiian Islands, but that work was not documented. [105] The records show little change in the structures, however. The question of how often they were used during Kamehameha's time and how long after the abolition of the kapu system will be addressed in the Analysis and Recommendations Section later in this report. It appears, however, that little local repair work was done and perhaps was not really needed because of the sturdy initial construction. The majority of the grass structures on top of Pu'ukohola were destroyed around 1819 according to historical accounts, and any that escaped the conflagration would have deteriorated quickly with disuse. It would appear that the temples, after abandonment, were little visited except for occasional sightseers and probably local residents who might have continued limited veneration of the area.

By the time Pu'ukohola Heiau came into NPS hands in 1972, some portions of the interior back wall had collapsed. A year later a large section on the northwest, above the entrance onto the platform, also collapsed, in addition to a smaller segment on the southeast wall. [106]

The construction method used on Pu'ukohola Heiau was characteristic of early Hawaiian architecture, involving stacking stones

one on top of another in two outside veneer facings with an inward batter (slope) from base to top for stability. The space between the two veneer facings was filled with rubble — stones of various sizes, shapes, and forms not used in the face. The lower the wall or structure, the less batter, in general. The Hawaiians did not use mortar. The stones in this and other Hawaiian stacked stone structures were held together only by friction. [107]

The integrity of the structure has been impaired over the years due to natural deterioration, earthquake activity, vibrations, rain and wind erosion, and human visitation. Weaknesses in the structure are caused by the material used, consisting of rounded boulders, some of which are very large, some small, some waterworn, some angular; the topography, which consists of the brow of a rounded ridge; and the method of construction outlined above, involving stacking of rocks with no mortar. [108]

floor plan for Pu'ukohoa Heiau
Illustration 46. Floor plan of Pu'ukohola based on 1969 archaeological surface survey. Map 1 in Kikuchi and Cluff, "Archaeological Survey of Puu Kohola Heiau and Mailekini Heiau," p. 38.

Following are excerpts from Edmund Ladd's 1975 description of Pu'ukohola Heiau:

The back of the structure is anchored to the flat-top portion on the ridge . . . while the front and sides are built over and down the slope with the front terrace. . . . The line of the lowest terrace blends into the hill side and the lines of each succeeding terrace form and lay in conformity to the hilltop terrain without creating any harsh lines against the smooth slope on the "hill of the whale."

The temple site (the platform, the kahua) is enclosed on three sides by a massive wall. . . . In cross section . . . it forms an irregular trapezoid. The inside face forms a more nearly vertical profile as compared to the outside which forms a nearly 45-degree slope. The fourth side is open and faces toward the ocean descending in three terraces from the upper terrace level, which forms the courtyard platform. The front follows the contour of the slope. . . . [109]

During stabilization work, Ladd found a pit on top of a wall that he surmised served as a coastal observation post during World War II. It had been connected, via field telephone lines buried along the top of the heiau walls, with foxholes and gun emplacements on the beach south of Mailekini Heiau. The lines and the lumber used to line the observation pit were removed and the pit infilled with stones. [110] All major broken areas of Pu'ukohola were cleared, stabilized, and restored during this project. The structure stands today as it was described by many early visitors, consisting only of a massive temple platform surrounded on three sides by high walls with descending terraces toward the sea. The pole and thatch structures that were noted historically in the temple area are gone. Wing walls extend toward the sea from the northwest and southwest corners. Occasional offerings are still made here.

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001