Geographical Information
Geographical Coordinate System Longitude :167° 18' 33.12" E
Latitude :15° 53' 53.16" S
Height Above Sea Level:9-10 meters (Bedford et al. 2011: 28)
Map Datum:WGS84
Country Vanuatu
Region Western Lapita Province, Malampa Province, Vao Island
Brief Description The site of Vao is located upon the western side of Vao Island, which lies off the northeast coast of Malakula in northern Vanuatu (Bedford et al. 2011: 26,28). The site is situated 50 meters inland upon an upraised beach terrace that drops off sharply to the south and southwestern site boundaries (Bedford et al. 2011: 28, Figure 2b).

The site was first discovered in 2002 as part of the “Distance Education in the South-West Pacific: Cultural Heritage Training 2001-2003” program run by Dr Stuart Bedford and Dr Matthew Leavesley in conjunction with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC) and the Papua New Guinea National Museum (Bedford & Regenvanu 2003: 1). Three field seasons were undertaken at the site between 2002-2004 (Bedford et al. 2011: 28).
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Floor Plan
Site Information
Distribution of Remain(s) The excavation of 24 1 x 1 meter test-pits in a grid across the surface of the site indicated that the deepest and earliest deposits were located toward the southern site boundary. Two 3 x 2 meter pits were excavated in this area (Area A and B) (Bedford et al. 2011: 28).
Approximate Size 4000 m2 (Bedford et al. 2011: 28).
Preservation Condition The site of Vao is argued to be extremely well preserved, principally due to being sealed beneath a tephra-rich soil, which is thought to have been deposited by the nearby volcano of Ambrym around 1800 BP, and by cyclonic sand deposits and accumulated debris, from later occupations, which overlie portions of the site (Bedford 2006: 547; Bedford 2007: 188; Robin et al. 1993).

Evidence for the excellent preservation conditions present at the site of Vao is provided by the presence of decorated Lapita sherds with painted surfaces, which Bedford (2007: 189) notes can only be recovered from “exceptionally well preserved sites” and “under certain specific conditions” (Bedford 2006: 547-548, 2007: 189).
Culture Type(s) Lapita, post-Lapita
C14Date(s) Conventional (uncalibrated) radiocarbon dates and sample provenance information:

2776±38 BP (WK-14040), Area A, Level IV (130-140 cm) – Charcoal (Bedford 2006: 549; Horrocks et al. 2009: 2049).

2839±40 BP (WK-14041), Sample collected from a similar stratigraphic level as WK-14040 but from a test pit located 10 meters further to the south – Charcoal (Bedford 2006: 549; Horrocks et al. 2009: 2049).

2281±37 BP (WK-21444), B2a, Area A, top of L2 – Bone (Bedford et al. 2011: Table 1).

2208±38 BP (WK-21445), B3, Area A, top of L2 – Bone (Bedford et al. 2011: Table 1).

2559±37 BP (WK-21446), B6, TP 19, L3 – Bone (Bedford et al. 2011: Table 1).

2128±28 BP (WK-18013), B4, Area B, L3 – Bone (Bedford et al. 2011: Table 1).

2514±36 BP (WK-18014), B5, Area B, L3 – Bone (Bedford et al. 2011: Table 1).

Summary of calibrated radiocarbon dates:

The oldest calibrated radiocarbon dates for the site of Vao are the two charcoal samples of WK-14041 dating to 3077-2847 cal BP and WK-14040 dating to 2948-2782 cal BP, at two standard deviations (95.4% probability) (Horrocks et al. 2009: 2049).

The remaining calibrated dates are all taken from human burials and can be broken into two categories. The first category contains dates relating to Lapita occupation of the site, including: WK-18013 dating to 2300-2000 cal BP, WK-18014 dating to 2750-2470 cal BP and WK-21446 dating to 2682-2315 cal BP, at two standard deviations (95.4% probability) (Bedford et al. 2011: Table 1). From these three, WK-18013 is believed to be erroneous due to the date being considerably younger than WK-18014 and yet being in the same sealed layer as the aforementioned date. On the other hand WK-21446 and WK-18014 have a very broad calibrated age due to falling on a flat section of the calibration curve and, due to association with Late Lapita pottery, are argued to date no later than 2600 BP (Bedford et al. 2011: 34). The second category contains dates relating to post-Lapita occupation of the site, including: WK-21444 dating to 2305-2000 cal BP and WK-21445 dating to 2155-1899 cal BP, at two standard deviations (95.4% probability) (Bedford et al. 2011: Table 1).

The calibrated dates discussed above, in combination with artifactual material excavated from the site, is used by Bedford et al. (2011: 32-33) to argue for two distinct phases of occupation; a Lapita occupation occurring between 3000 and 2600 BP, followed by the Post-Lapita occupation, between 2300 and 2000 BP (Bedford et al. 2011: 32-33).
Artifact Type(s) Pottery, worked shell (shell rings), lithics, worked bone (drilled sharks teeth, shark vertebrae beads) and faunal remains (Bedford 2007: 189, 200; Szabó 2010: 123; Reepmeyer 2009: 91, 226).
Ceramic Type(s)
Cultural information
Significance The site of Vao is significant for a number of reasons:

Firstly, Vao is one of a very small number of sites that contains Lapita burials (Bedford et al. 2011: 26). A total of seven burials, three from the Lapita occupation and four from the Post-Lapita occupation, were located on the site (Bedford et al. 2011: 34, 38). The identification of Late-Lapita and Post-Lapita burials is significant as a comparison between the two sets of burials provides a means of studying changes to mortuary practices from the Late-Lapita period through to the Post-Lapita periods. Additionally, a comparison between the burials at Vao and those excavated from the Early-Lapita cemetery complex at Teouma, Vanuatu, provides a means of expanding this study to include the Early-Lapita period (Bedford et al. 2011: 42).

Secondly, excavations at Vao revealed a number of well preserved, painted, dentate stamped Late-Lapita style pottery sherds (Bedford 2006: 547). The analysis of the painted pottery from Vao indicated that only two colors of paint where applied, white and red and that the paint was applied over the top of the dentate-stamped designs with the effect of leaving them partially obscured (Bedford 2007: 548). Importantly from the sherds excavated, 20 were found to belong to a single vessel and thus allowed for a reliable reconstruction of vessel form and overall decoration. The reconstructed vessel has a globular base, a slight carination and gently incurving sides. Decoration, consisting of both dentate-stamping and painting, is restricted to the upper half of the pot. Two colors of paint were found upon the vessel, white, which had been applied over the entire surface of the upper portion of the vessel (including the underlying dentate-stamped decoration), and red, which was applied to “blank areas” within the dentate-stamped decoration (Bedford 2006: 547-548).

The identification of painted dentate-stamped Lapita pottery is important for two main reasons. Firstly, it suggests that dentate-stamped Lapita pottery excavated from other sites may also have been painted and that taphonomic processes may have had a larger impact upon such pottery than previously thought (see Bedford 2006). Secondly, it also suggests that a reevaluation of the role that dentate-stamped pottery played within Lapita society maybe necessary, as the painting over of decorative elements suggests that the process of producing the pot maybe as socially and culturally important as the resulting vessel (Bedford 2006: 553).

Finally, the site on Vao Island is situated in close proximity to other Lapita sites upon the islands of Uripiv, Atchin and Wala, which are collectively located off the coast of the island of Malekula, and therefore constitutes an important component of a larger landscape of Lapita settlement in the region (Bedford 2007: 188-189).
Brief Research History 2002 – Site first discovered during a survey of the Kowu area of Vao Island as part of the “Distance Education in the South-West Pacific: Cultural Heritage Training 2001-2003” program. Five 1 x 1 meter test pits were excavated (Bedford & Regenvanu 2003: 7).

2003 – First full field season undertaken at the site. Eleven 1 x 1 meter test pits and one larger area measuring 3 x 2 meters were excavated (Bedford 2006: 547).

2004- Second and final field season undertaken at the site. Thirteen 1 x 1 meter test pits and one larger area of 3 x 2 meters were excavated. The two field seasons excavated a total of 36m2 (Bedford 2006: 549; Bedford et al. 2011: 28).
Reference(s) Bedford, S. 2006. The Pacific’s earliest painted pottery: an added layer of intrigue to the Lapita debate and beyond. Antiquity 80: 544–557.

Bedford, S. 2007. Crucial first steps into Remote Oceania: Lapita in the Vanuatu archipelago. In S. Chiu and C. Sand (eds.), From Southeast Asia to the Pacific. Archaeological Perspectives on the Austronesian Expansion and the Lapita Cultural Complex, 185–213. Taipei; Taiwan: Academia Sinica.

Bedford, S. and R. Regenvanu. 2003. Summary Report to the Vanuatu Government on Distance Education in the South-West Pacific: Cultural Heritage Training 2001-2003. Unpublished Report.

Bedford, S., Buckley, H., Valentin, F., Tayles, N. and N.F. Longga. 2011. Lapita Burials, a New Lapita Cemetery and Post-Lapita Burials from Malakula, Northern Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 2(2): 26-48.

Horrocks, M., Bedford, S. and M. Spriggs. 2009. A short note on banana (Musa) phytoliths in Lapita, immediately post-Lapita and modern period archaeological deposits from Vanuatu. Journal of Archaeological Science 36: 2048–2054.

Reepmeyer, C. 2009. The obsidian sources and distribution systems emanating from Gaua and Vanua Lava in the Banks Islands of Vanuatu. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Canberra; Australia: The Australian National University.

Robin, C., Eissen, J and M. Monzier. 1993. Giant tuff cone and 12-km-wide associated caldera at Ambrym volcano (Vanuatu, New Hebrides arc). Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 55: 225-238.

Szabó, K. 2005. Technique and Practice: Shell-Working in the Western Pacific and Island Southeast Asia. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Canberra; Australia: Department of Archaeology and Natural History, Australian National University.

Szabó, K. 2010. Shell Artefacts and Shell-Working within the Lapita Cultural Complex. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(2): 115-127.