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Moais

This page was written with help from NOVA Rapa Nui

What do the Moai statues mean?

The Moai and ceremonial sites are along the coast, with a concentration on Easter Island's southeast coast. Here, the Moai are more 'standardized' in design, and are believed to have been carved, transported, and erected between AD 1400 and 1600. They stand with their backs to the sea and are believed by most archaeologists to represent the spirits of ancestors, chiefs, or other high-ranking males who held important positions in the history of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, the name given by the indigenous people to their island in the 1860s.

Photo of Moai
 

Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has studied the Moai for many years, believes the statues may have been created in the image of various paramount chiefs. They were not individualized portrait sculptures, but standardized representations of powerful individuals. The Moai may also hold a sacred role in the life of the Rapa Nui, acting as ceremonial conduits for communication with the gods. According to Van Tilburg, their physical position between earth and sky puts them on both secular and sacred ground; secular in their representation of chief and their ability to physically prop up the sky, and sacred in their proximity to the heavenly gods. Van Tilburg concludes, "The Moai thus mediates between sky and earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and gods."
 

Van Tilburg's painstaking effort to inventory and carefully measure the nearly 900 Moai statues on Easter Island has enabled her to construct a digital version of an average Moai. This digital statue has informed her hypothesis for a potential transport method for moving the Moai; the statue which Van Tilburg's team will attempt to move and erect for the NOVA program has been made to the exact dimensions of this digital Moai. The dimensions are as follows:

  • Statistically average Moai:
    Height: 13.29 feet (4.05 meters)
    Width at Base: 5.25 feet (1.6 meters)
    Width at Head: 4.86 feet (1.48 meters)
    Depth through body at midpoint: 3.02 feet (92 cm.)
    Total volume: 210.48 cubic feet (5.96 cubic meters)
    Center of gravity: 4.46 feet (1.36 meters)
    Total weight: 13.78 tons (12.5 metric tons)

What is an ahu?

The word "ahu" has two meanings in Easter Island culture. First, an ahu is the flat mound or stone pedestal upon which the Moai stand. The ahus are, on average, about four feet high. The word 'ahu' also signifies a sacred ceremonial site where several Moai stand. Ahu Akivi, for example, is an ahu site with seven standing Moai.


Moai Stats

The following statistics on Easter Island's Moai are the results of Van Tilburg's survey in 1989. She reported, "A total of 887 monolithic statues has been located by the survey to date on Easter Island...397 are still in situ in quarries at the Rano Raraku central production center.....Fully 288 statues (32% of 887) were successfully transported to a variety of image ahu locations....Another 92 are recorded as "in transport," 47 of these lying in various positions on prepared roads or tracks outside the Rano Raraku zone."

Number of Moai

  • Total number of Moai on Easter Island: 887
     
  • Total number of Moai that were successfully transported to their final ahu locations: 288 (32% of 887)
     
  • Total number of Moai still in the Rano Raraku quarry: 397 (45%)
     
  • Total number of Moai lying 'in transit' outside of the Rano Raraku quarry: 92 (10%)

     

Less than one third of all carved Moai actually made it to a final ceremonial ahu site. Was this due to the inherent difficulties in transporting them? Were the ones that remain in the quarry (45%) deemed culturally unworthy of transport? Were they originally intended to remain in place on the quarry slopes? Or had the islanders run out of the resources necessary to complete the Herculean task of carving and moving the Moai?
 

Size and weight of Moai

Measuring the size, weight, and shape of the 887 Moai on Easter Island has been a 15-year process for Van Tilburg. The most notable statues are listed below:

Photo of Moai

  • Largest Moai:
    Location: Rano Raraku Quarry, named "El Gigante"
    Height: 71.93 feet, (21.60 meters)
    Weight: approximately 145-165 tons (160-182 metric tons)

     
  • Largest Moai once erect:
    Location: Ahu Te Pito Kura, Named "Paro"
    Height: 32.63 feet (9.80 meters)
    Weight: approximately 82 tons (74.39 metric tons)

     
  • Largest Moai fallen while being erected:
    Location: Ahu Hanga Te Tenga
    Height: 33.10 feet (9.94 meters)

     
  • Smallest standing Moai:
    Location: Poike
    Height: 3.76 feet (1.13 meters)






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