Madang Field Trips, 2014 Mary Mennis, MBE #1: Malmal Village
In June 2014 a group of enthusiasts headed by Professor Glenn Summerhayes of Otago University did two archaeological digs in the Madang area of Papua New Guinea. These were in Malmal Village, located some twelve kilometres north of Madang, and Bilbil Island which is ten kilometres to the south. There were seven of us in the team, including Professor Glenn Summerhayes, Dylan Gaffney, an MA student, Affrica Cook from Oxford University, Teppsy Beni, a fourth-year student from UPNG, Herman Mandui, Deputy Director of the National Museum, Dr Judith Field of the University of New South Wales and myself.
IN APPLYING FOR THE GRANT, Professor Summerhayes noted that, ‘This project aims to shed light on the nature of human occupation along a long-neglected area of PNG—its north-east coast—and also to determine the age of the traditional trade network along this coastline, as Bilbil is strategically located to assess prehistoric movements of peoples and ideas from west to east. As we know little of this movement or of subsequent occupation along this part of New Guinea’s coastline, archaeological research here is a priority.’
My input into the field trip was to liaise with the local people and provide background information from my own studies of the area. As I had lived in Madang through all of the 1970s, I was able to renew some old acquaintances. While the old informants I had known were now deceased, it was sad to hear that even some of the next generation had also died. We heard that the life expectancy for men in PNG is only fifty-five and for women fifty-seven years. The people I had most to do with in June 2014 were my own children’s friends from the 1970s. For example, my old Bilbil informant, Maia Awak, had died in 1979 but since then his daughter, Sibol, and husband, Masil, had also died. Their daughter, Sima, friend of my Joanna, now lives on Kranket Island with husband, Desmond Gadi, who is an electrician.
We arrived in Madang on 4 June 2014, and were kindly given accommodation at Sir Peter Barter’s residence. We decided that the best way to access Bilbil Village and Bilbil Island was by banana boat. The first day at Sir Peter’s residence, I noticed an electrician and asked if he knew Desmond Gadi. ‘Oh, yes, he’s our boss. He will be here after lunch.’ I had not seen Desmond for twenty years so that was a fortuitous meeting. Desmond knew all the owners of the banana boats, which were lined up on a nearby beach. He recommended Isaac who proved honest and reliable for the duration. A routine was established: when Isaac was ready he called Professor Glenn on his mobile and we boarded the boat within a few minutes. As it turned out we did not need Isaac for over a week because of delays at Bilbil Village.
Another useful contact was Mako Nakuk, a friend of our son, John. I had known him since he was a young boy in the 1970s. He was a grandfather now and worked for a government official. Early in our stay, Mako drove us out to Malmal and Yabob Villages. On Thursday, 5 June 2014, we drove out to Bilbil Village along a very bumpy road with potholes caused by the recent rains. At the village, the first person I met was Kubei Balifun whom I had not seen since a visit back in 1994. The people gathered and there were whoops and greetings all round. Kubei had been a young man when I first visited this village in 1974, now forty years ago, but there were many missing faces. The people gathered around eager to hear Glenn speak about what we were going to do on the island and the importance of the dig. They understood that we were not like miners looking for gold or precious metals.
Even though we had prior permission from the village elders to do a dig on Bilbil Island there was still some hesitancy. Kubei mentioned he was going to the Rai Coast at the weekend, and when he returned on Monday he would call a meeting of the councillors for their final decision. As our plan was to begin the dig on Bilbil Island that weekend, it meant everything was delayed, but in the end all worked out for the best.
Meanwhile, the elders showed off the beautiful new palangat [canoe] they built in 2013. I had written a manual for the construction of these canoes in 1978 when I organised the last of the canoe builders to build one of them.
On Sunday, 8 June, Mako Nakuk drove us out to Yabob Village, the sister village to Bilbil, where Yeyeg happily showed us the first stage of pot making and then took us to the gardens where deposits of clay were still to be found. While the women in Bilbil still make pottery, the art has come to a close in Yabob Village. Yeyeg (pictured at left) was the last of the Yabob potters and died within months of this photograph being taken.
Over the previous centuries, the Bilbil and Yabob people made pots and became the centre of a large trading zone that stretched along the north coast as far as Sarang, including Karkar Island, and south along the Rai coast to Sio and Siassi Islands. The women of Bilbil Village, which is now on the mainland, still make pots, some in the traditional fashion and others with more modern designs for the tourist market.
On Monday, 9 June, Mako Nakuk drove us out to Alexishafen and on the way back we called into Malmal Village to check a location that Dr Brian Egloff had mentioned in his 1975 report. We sat in a haus win to talk to the local people and Professor Glenn read out a section of Egloff’s report, which mentioned a possible site for future archaeological research. He also showed a mud map of the area drawn by Egloff, detailing the small peninsula of Tilu jutting into the sea.
One of the men listening got quite excited and said he remembered Egloff coming to the village and could show us the site. We were amazed. He led quite a procession under the coconuts to the smaller hamlet of Tilu. ‘I was only a small boy, but I remember that man with his notebook,’ he said as he pointed out the exact place, which then became a possible archaeological site.
It was easier to get permission from Joseph Barem, the headman of Tilu, to do a dig than it was to get the same from Bilbil Village. The dig was carried out over the next week, mainly by Dylan, Teppsy and Affrica, with help from Glenn and Herman. On the first day, the whole group took the bus to Tilu. We sat in the haus win while Pr Summerhayes talked to the people. He and Dylan then measured a metre-square research pit and Dylan began digging with a trowel. With Teppsy’s help, he filled bucket after bucket of soil that was sifted through a sieve by me, Affrica, Glenn and two village women. This revealed pottery sherds, obsidian, beads and other treasures. Malmal never produced pottery itself so most of the sherds were old Madang pottery from Yabob or Bilbil.
While the excavation continued, I sat and talked to Joseph Barem, the headman of Tilu. There are three clans in Malmal Village: Tilu, Milimakomo and Sosia. The Malmal people speak a Bel language as do the people of Sek and Alexishafen, so they were able to communicate quite well with the Yabob and Bilbil traders who once travelled as far as Malmal in their trading canoes. The Malmal people did not make pots but they did build similar trading canoes and sailed as far as Bilbil Island. The pots would have been used as part of the bride price and for trading with other places, as well as for home cooking. Pots allow people to boil water and cook vegetables cleanly and not just roast them on the fire.
When trading, the Bilbil men would arrive at Malmal with pigs and pots and there would be a feast with food cooked in a long line of pots. The Bilbil men gave their Malmal trade partners the pots, but perhaps did not pick up the trade items until they were returning home. They might continue on as far as Sarang on the north coast where they waited for the wind to change so they could sail back to Malmal to collect the galip nuts, yams, teeth necklaces and other trade items. The Malmal used some pots themselves but traded others on to Megiar and Sarang as the pots were like their money.
In 1975, when Brian Egloff did a dig here and at other points along the Madang Coast, he mentioned that, ‘The pottery recovered from these sites is directly ancestral to the modern industries of Yabob and Bilbil, particularly with respect to the predominant vessel form and the presence of a red slipped surface finish’.
#2: Bilbil Village and Island, will be featured in the December edition of Una Voce