Madang Field Trips, 2014 by Mary Mennis, MBE #2: Bilbil Village and Island

Madang Field Trips, 2014 by Mary Mennis, MBE #2: Bilbil Village and Island

The team on a banana boat with Isaac, the boat owner

The first Madang field trip, to Malmal Village, was featured in the September issue of Una Voce. The second was to Bilbil Village and Island. I first went to there in 1974. I was thirty-six years old and the mother of four young children. My husband, Brian, worked for the government and we lived in the town for over eight years. In Bilbil Village, I met Maia Awak, leader of the Gapan Clan. He was seventy years old and explained how his people had once lived on Bilbil Island which was visible about two kilometres offshore.
IN 1974, MAIA AND I took a canoe over to the island and pulled it up on the small beach. That day, we found pottery sherds in the low cliff wall on the shore alongside the beach. It showed evidence of a long-standing occupation of the island which has been uninhabited since about 1912.
As I am not an archaeologist, I tried to interest various archaeologists in the possibility of a dig on the island and was elated when Professor Summerhayes of Otago University showed initial interest and followed this up by applying for a grant to carry out the research. He had also interested one of his students, Dylan Gaffney, in the project. That was how we came to be there in June 2014.

Group of the archaeologists with local helpers in Bilbil Village, 2014

On Tuesday, 10 June 2014, we were taken to Bilbil Village by Isaac where Glenn spoke to the people about our project and what we hoped to achieve. This was just a preliminary visit as we were still waiting for Kubei Balifun to return from the Rai Coast to chair a further meeting with the villagers about the excavation.
This was quite an interesting time for me as I had not been to the island since 1994. I noticed there were more trees and vines than before. We made our way through the jungle growth towards the spot where I had seen pottery sherds in the low cliff wall. Nearer the site, we climbed down and waded around in the water which was right up to the sea-wall. Clambering over tree trunks and boulders, we found the same site as I had seen forty years earlier. Of course, it had been further eroded but pieces of pottery were still visible. Glenn and Dylan then looked at two possible sites in the area above and inland of this sea wall. These were two mounds which may have been rubbish mounds in previous days.
On 17 June, Professor Summerhayes again talked to the headmen including Kubei who had returned from the Rai Coast. With permission finally granted, we then went over to the island with some of the village people as paid helpers. Glenn and Judith mapped out the metre square on top of a mound above the cliff wall near the water’s edge where I had first seen pottery sherds. The mound they chose may have been a rubbish dump for pottery in the past as there were a lot of pottery sherds scattered around on the surface of that area.
The Bilbil men helped dig down some little way into the mound and filled buckets with the soil containing pottery sherds, etc.
We used a sieve to sort through this material and picked out pottery sherds, beads and obsidian. The men fashioned a long seat out of bush material for our use. It was good to stand back and look at all the activity: men digging and pulling out roots, the women picking out sherds in the sieve and others helping to make the seat.
Over the next ten days the dig on Bilbil Island continued. During this field trip we were very lucky with the weather as there were no rainy days. Furthermore, June was a good time to travel as the sea was not too rough for the banana boat that took us past Kranket Island and out to the open sea to reach Bilbil Village and Island. By August the sea gets choppy. We also learnt that Madang had experienced major flooding in the previous month causing a power grid to collapse into the river and Madang was without power for days.
During the weeks we were there in June, all was well. When we were leaving Madang, the boxes containing the material from the digs weighed in at 200 kilograms. After being cleared by the National Museum in Port Moresby, the boxes were shipped to Otago University where the material will be analysed and dated. Later it will be shipped back to Papua New Guinea. The overall project on Bilbil Island was described as an outstanding success by Glenn Summerhayes in spite of the delay in beginning the dig.
In Port Moresby we were looked after by Herman Mandui, who had been with us for the first two weeks in Madang. Being Deputy Director of the National Museum, he played an important role in the negotiations with the village people of Malmal and Bilbil and in clearing the material to go to Otago. We were so lucky to have had his expertise and to enjoy his sense of humour and zest for life. Sadly, he became ill in the ensuing months and died in October 2014. He was forty-five years old and is sadly missed by his family and his colleagues in Papua New Guinea and around the world.
After the dig was finished, Dylan Gaffney and Prof Summerhayes produced a booklet, An Archaeology of Madang Papua New Guinea, with a summary of results. They had found that the initial occupation by the Bel-speaking groups was 500–600 years ago, which is in line with the oral history I had collected in the 1970s and linguistic evidence. They concluded that the technique for making the pottery has hardly changed over the centuries:
Five hundred years ago the ancestors of modern Bel potters were using paddles and anvils and bright red slip in a similar way to today. The Bel traded these pots for shell armbands, stone axes, obsidian and pigs which were uncovered in the investigation. Examples of many of these objects can be seen in the Madang Cultural Centre or other museums around the Pacific and in Europe.
Gaffney D and Summerhayes G, 2016
Egloff, B. 1975. Archaeological investigations in the coastal Madang area and on Eloaue Island of the St Matthias Group. Records of the Papua New Guinea Public Museum and Art Gallery 5.
Mennis, M. 2006. A Potted History of Madang: Traditional Culture and Change on the North Coast of Papua New Guinea. Lalong Enterprises, Aspley, Qld.
Mennis, M. 2011 Mariners of Madang and Austronesian Canoes of Astrolabe Bay. Research Report Series, Volume, Queensland University.
Mennis, M. 2014. Sailing for Survival. A comparative Report of the Trading Systems and Trading Canoes of the Bel people in the Madang area and of the Motu people in the Port Moresby area of Papua New Guinea. University of Otago, Working Papers in Anthropology, Number 2.
Ross, M. 2009. Reconstructing the History of the Bel Languages. The Australian National University.
Summerhayes, G.R., 2000a. Lapita Interaction. Terra Australis No. 15, Centre Archaeological Research, Australian National University.

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