ANU Fieldschool group in front of the 1860 stone church, Anelcauhat, Aneityum, 2015

ANU Fieldschool group in front of the 1860 stone church, Anelcauhat, Aneityum, 2015

Grassroots badly burnt: The loss of ni-Vanuatu archaeologists whose careers spanned 50 years

28th April 2022

This year marks a remarkable 50-year connection and collaboration for ANU Archaeology with the Republic of Vanuatu. However, it is also tinged with a considerable degree of sadness and loss.

Key to the success of any of the research undertaken in the last five decades across the archipelago has been collaboration with local communities but particularly the Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworkers (filwokas) network. These are volunteers throughout the 82 inhabited islands, who are nominated by their communities and who have a broad and challenging remit: to promote, protect and preserve kastom. They are key mentors and collaborators with foreign researchers facilitating a remarkably diverse range of research. Over the last year, Vanuatu has lost five long-term fieldworkers who contributed hugely to the understanding of the deep history of Vanuatu and the region. They also mentored whole generations of researchers and PhD students.

A recently published obituary by CHL Associate Professor Stuart Bedford, CASS Emeritus Professor Matthew Spriggs and others attempts to put their contributions into perspective and at the same time emphasises their role in raising the profile of ANU. The fieldworkers were Uminduru ‘Jerry’ Taki (Erromango), Jimmy Sananbath (northwest Malakula), Frank Inhat (Aneityum), Sempet Naritantop (Erromango) and Eli Field Malau (Vanua Lava).

FrankFrank Inhat

Sempet1Sempet Naritantop

When the Department of Prehistory was set up at ANU in 1969, its annual report in 1970 outlined three principal areas of research interest, one of which was the New Hebrides (Vanuatu in 1980). The first ANU archaeological expedition was undertaken in 1972 by Norma McArthur, Winifred Mumford and Les Groube. The latter was guided around Erromango by none other than Jerry Taki who retained a key role in any research on Erromango and the wider southern region until his death in 2021, a 49-year career. Those early connections with Vanuatu archaeology and ANU continue to be sustained into their 51st year. A remarkable 8 PhDs in archaeology have been completed by students at ANU focusing on Vanuatu since the early beginnings. They include Norma McArthur (1974), Graeme Ward (1979), Matthew Spriggs (1981), Stuart Bedford (2000), Meredith Wilson (2002), Christian Reepmeyer (2010), Stuart Hawkins (2015) and Mathieu Leclerc (2016). And the 50 plus year-old connections with PhDs continues with current CAP students Robert Williams and Robert Henderson, both focusing on different aspects of Vanuatu’s archaeological history. James Flexner, another author on the obituary, further strengthened connections. Based at ANU from 2013 to 2015 he undertook his DECRA project in southern Vanuatu, focusing on Erromango in collaboration with none other than, yes you guessed it, Jerry Taki.

Jerry2Jerry Taki in 1972

Jerry1Jerry Taki in 2020

These fieldworkers, along with a whole series of others, have made a massive contribution to training generations of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, bridging the gap between scientific research and Vanuatu kastom. They have also proved crucial in disseminating archaeological information to the wider Vanuatu community. In another chapter of ANU/Vanuatu archaeology connections, and one that is long overdue, ANU also hopes to welcome in the near future, Vanuatu’s first archaeology graduate, Edson Willie, who has been granted a scholarship to undertake a Masters course at the ANU.

EliEli Field with kastom water container

Jimmy2Jimmy Sananbath

Jimmy1Jimmy after pig hunting

It is with a deep sense of remorse that we bid farewell to Jerry, Jimmy, Frank, Sempet and Eli. Their vision, work and role in shaping the face of archaeological research in Vanuatu over decades is irreplaceable, but at the same time it leaves a substantial and long-term legacy for the young nation.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster