Model of an Easter Island Moai

Easter island head

Materials: carved volcanic stone
Dimensions: 13 centimeters high
Place acquired: charity shop, London, 2007
Place of manufacture: probably Easter Island

Although found in a London charity shop with no clues to its origins, this little Moai figure is clearly carved from volcanic rock – scoria or basaltic tuff – the same rock used to carve the original megaliths of Easter Island. So it is highly probable that it was carved and sold on the island itself as a tourist souvenir. For me this is something of a thrill because it provides a tenuous, but direct link to the fascinating and catastrophic history of human occupation of this isolated Pacific island.

It’s not hard to find information on the famous Moai, or Easter Island Heads, and with it speculation as to their original purpose and meaning. But perhaps the most interesting fact about them is that we just don’t know exactly what they represented. Quarried, carved and erected over a comparatively short period between the 14th and 16th centuries AD they seem to be the product of an early, and brief, golden age of polynesian settlement that soon descended into ecological overexploitation, inter-clan warfare, european colonisation, christian evangelism, disease, enslavement and population collapse, to such an extent that all cultural knowledge of this era of megalith building has been totally lost. Twice in its recent past the island was a privately owned sheep ranch with a completely displaced population.

Easter Island is now administered as part of Chile, whose continental coast lies 2,180 miles away to the east. It is arguably the most isolated inhabited island on the planet, and this has been a large factor in the fragile environmental and social history mentioned above. The Moai are now the most well-known feature of the island and are certainly the biggest pull for tourism. Partly their monumental size and solemn presence, partly their unknown purpose and sudden demise, partly the geographical isolation of the culture that produced them, all have contributed to creating the perfect speculative environment. They have even been cited as evidence of visiting aliens amongst the UFOlogy community. The toppled, leaning, abandoned, half-buried heads of Easter Island have become the focus of our collective imaginations. Whatever their original role was, in their state of dereliction they have taken on the poignancy of a lost culture and the word 'mysterious' seems to have attached itself to them as a prefix.

This little souvenir carving represents their most practical legacy. Tourism to see the Moai is now the largest industry on Easter Island, and souvenirs like this are one of the main products of the island.