Moving the Statues

Once completed, the statues were ready to be transported to the ahu for which they had been carved. Scholars continue to debate how this major effort was accomplished. Island legends claim they walked from the quarry to their ahu. Some researchers believe the moai were laid on wood sledges and moved along by means of log rollers. Others think they were moved while standing up on a sledge. One method suggests rocking the statues along on a wooden bipod/fulcrum. It is probable that the means of transport varied from time to time, depending upon size and form of the statue involved. Aside from the “walking” theory, everyone proposes that wood was involved, and a lot of rope.

Archaeological study of the roads along which the statues were moved has cast doubt on previous theories for moving the moai. Charles Love, an archaeologist from Wyoming, found that the ancient roadbeds were not flat and leveled, but were V-shaped in profile.

Once a statue reached its ahu, it was raised by means of wood poles and stones placed beneath it. Gradually the statue became upright as the pile of small rocks grew. After the statues were placed upright on their ahu, the next step was to carve eye sockets into which coral and stone eyes were placed. This “activated” the power (mana) of the statue. One of these eyes is on display at the island museum.

Many of the standing statues had large “topknots” (pukao) placed on their heads. These great cylindrical pukao may have signified hats, hair tied up into a knot, or perhaps a headdress. They likely had some connection with status and power. The pukao came from a quarry at Puna Pau, just inland from the village of Hangaroa. How these huge cylinders were set on top of the statues is still under debate. The pukao at one site, Te Pito Kura, is nearly six feet [2 meters] in diameter and weighs around 11.5 tons. It would have been a significant engineering feat to raise it onto the head of a standing statue. Some archaeologists have suggested the pukao were lashed to the statues and raised together as a unit.

(Image on this page courtesy of Charles Love)