Mark Coleman

First Sunday


Sunday, October 6, 2002

Ross Cordy, chief archaeologist for the state's Historic Preservation Division, blends archaeology, history and oral history to understand Hawaii's past.

Hawaii’s history

Ross Cordy has been an archaeologist and historian in the Pacific region for more than 30 years, including 15 years as chief archaeologist for the state's Historic Preservation Division. Cordy came to Hawaii in 1968 directly out of high school from Davis, Calif., motivated by a National Science Foundation undergraduate grant to attend the University of Hawaii. He has traveled and conducted fieldwork throughout Hawaii and the Pacific, including Micronesia and the Society Islands. He also lived in New Zealand for a year, where he taught university classes. His writings include more than 50 published articles, books and monographs, including "Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai'i Island," published in 2000 by Mutual Publishing of Honolulu. Cordy has worked both for government agencies and in the private sector. He teaches part time at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu, and has learned much regarding Hawaii's past, such as:

>> The original Hawaiians probably came from the Marquesas, about 1,500 years ago.

>> No one knows which Hawaiian island the original inhabitants landed on, but the political structure that evolved on the Big Island eventually dominated the entire island chain.

>> There is virtually no botanical, geological or archeaological evidence to support the idea that there was a second wave of voyagers who came to Hawaii from Tahiti, supposedly about 700 years after the first settlers, as is popularly believed.

>> Despite the impressive, pride-instilling accomplishments of the Hokule'a sailing vessel, there is little evidence of sustained round-trip voyaging by the early Hawaiians between Hawaii and their ancestral homelands.

These and other points are discussed in his book "Exalted Sits the Chief," which we talked about when we met recently for our "First Sunday Conversation." We also talked about his job as chief archaeologist for the state's Historic Preservation Division.

The largest heiau on Oahu is Pu'u O Mahuka, above Pupukea. Other surviving large heiaus on Oahu are in Waianae.

The joy of analysis

Mark Coleman: I have a friend who's an archaeological geologist, and he goes to Central America a lot looking for Mayan jade mines and things like that. It sounds like so much fun, but also hard work. Is that about the way you would characterize what you do?

Ross Cordy: Yeah. The fieldwork can be kind of rugged, depending on where you're at.

MC: Have you ever done any fieldwork in Central America? My friend said he had to have guides with guns.

RC: No, my work's not like that.

MC: So, it's pretty mellow?

RC: Yeah, if you avoid the places that have nasty snakes, seagoing crocodiles and things like that. (Laughter)

MC: Where would the crocodiles have been?

RC: Well, Palau you get some, but they only come out at night. Most of them are in New Guinea and around there.

MC: Do you spend a lot of time in the field with a little brush, dusting dirt away from artifacts, like you see the dinosaur-hunter types?

RC: Not so much in Hawaii, although if you do hit a burial, and it's decided by the Burial Council to remove it, then you have to be really careful.

MC: Do you have to go scuba diving or snorkeling at all?

RC: There are some archaeologists who specialize in shipwrecks and things like that. I do some snorkeling, but not much.

MC: How do you balance that physical, outdoor part of the job with having to go back and write up your findings in an office?

RC: A lot of the fun of archaeology, the longer you do it, is the analysis and the interpretation, so coming back and having your materials sorted in the lab and actually going through the information and analyzing is an enjoyable part of it.

MC: What are the career opportunities for archaeologists?

RC: Well, I think probably most people go into it with the idea of being a university teacher. But now there are governmental archaeologists, such as with the state, the Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers. There's also 16 private companies here that do contract archaeology.

The state's interest

MC: Why does the state have an archaeology branch?

RC: Well, there are a lot of state and federal laws that are geared toward development, called historic preservation laws.

MC: How old are these laws?

RC: They were established in the '60s, but the real teeth didn't start until the early '70s.

MC: Does your office have the authority to delay or halt development?

RC: To a degree.

MC: Does that occur often?

RC: Most developers are pretty cooperative because they know they have to do this. Some people don't like it. They want to develop instantly. But the bigger developers are used to it.

MC: I noticed that you're called upon to testify in court occasionally. Is that nerve-wracking for you?

RC: (Laughter). No, not really. The historic preservation system is really complicated, and oftentimes the lawyers don't understand it, so you sometimes have lawyers arguing for a position that is going to create more damage than good. My role in court was to clarify what the system actually was so reasonable solutions could hopefully be reached.

MC: It must actually be kind of horrifying for developers to have projects under way and then come across something archaeologically significant. Do you have any sympathy for that quandary they find themselves in?

RC: I don't know if it's that much of a problem. Our concern is more that if they find a new site, that they identify it and then figure out what to do with it: preserve it or do salvage archaeology, or maybe it doesn't need much of anything. Sometimes, if you're building a road or a sewer, then it can create dilemmas, and then all the parties just have to sit down and try to work them out.

Finding a burial site

MC: What do you do if a developer finds a burial?

RC: They're supposed to notify our office, and if they don't have an archaeologist hired, we go out to see how old the bones are -- if it's native Hawaiian or not, if it's a police case or belongs to us. Once we figure out the context, it passes over to our burials program side.

MC: In the early 1960s, my family moved out to Portlock, when it was country, more or less, and six months later, developer Henry J. Kaiser showed up and started digging away. I remember when they first started digging trenches for sewage and other infrastructure, my friend's brother found some bones and a skull. We don't know who it was, probably an old Hawaiian, but I remember they just had him in their utility sink, just washed him off. That never would have happened now, right?

RC: No. Now if you move them, you'll get in trouble.

MC: Are you surprised to hear that happened and nothing occurred?

RC: No. Hawaii Kai (was built) before these laws were in place, and there's lots of stories of construction companies hitting burials and hiding them and just going on with their construction. A lot of kids find them in caves.

MC: Caves? Why would those bodies be there?

RC: Because usually the Hawaiian burials were pretty near the house sites, like on a platform behind the house or in caves nearby.

Hawaii's heiaus

MC: You have to visit heiaus and other formerly sacred locations. Have you ever come upon people warning you about ghosts?

RC: Yeah. I worked on one large heiau in Hana that partly we were doing oral history with the folks, and they were telling us stories about how their parents had told them not to go in the heiau. There were a few ghost stories, and that's one heiau that I'd never go near after sunset.

MC: What's the largest heiau on Oahu?

RC: Probably Pu'u O Mahuka, above Pupukea.

MC: What would be the second largest on Oahu?

RC: There are several on the Waianae coast that are pretty large.

The military impact

MC: I used to go camping a lot at Makua, on the Waianae coast. Do you think it's helped that the military took over that valley, thus keeping it pretty much off-limits to development?

RC: Along most of the Wai-anae Coast, development hasn't sprawled very much into the valleys, and I think there's a lot of cases where the backs of those valleys are going to be zoned so they won't have sprawl. You've got archaeological sites, tons of them, in the back of each one of those valleys. But as far as Makua goes, I don't think it would have changed a whole lot without the military. The military has actually graded a lot of the front of Makua. Civilian use probably would have been in the same area at the front of Makua. That was the case when the military took over the valley. So, no, military presence possibly has not dramatically increased protection of the valley's historic sites.

'Exalted Sits the Chief'

Ross Cordy's "Exalted Sits the Chief" earned an honorable mention for "Excellence in General Hawaiian Culture" from the Hawai'i Book Publishers Association in 2001.

MC: Why did you decide to write a book about Hawaii island?

RC: I suppose because I've done an awful lot of work there. When I first started working for this office, I was the Hawaii island archaeologist, and I still get over there once every two or three months. Also, there's tons of technical reports that you'd die reading, because of the excruciating detail, but there aren't very many summaries of those reports for the public. So this was written more as a summary for the local public, who already know something about Hawaii history.

MC: Was Hawaii island the cradle of Hawaii civilization? Do we know for sure that the Hawaiians landed there first?

RC: Right now we don't know which island the folks first arrived at. By European contact you had the four kingdoms --Hawaii, Maui, Oahu and Kauai -- and each one was sort of equally important. If anything, Oahu was a bit more powerful at the time of contact.

MC: As you say in your book, a lot of people who focus on Hawaii history really are thinking about the years just before European contact through annexation by the United States.

RC: Yeah, most school kids here learn everything from Kamehameha on, but that's just a tiny fraction of Hawaiian history. So that's also why I wrote the book: so more people can familiarize themselves with the years before.

MC: I really enjoyed it, though it was hard to follow at times because of all the names.

RC: Yeah, it's too bad you can't avoid the genealogies. But the genealogies are an important part of understanding Hawaii's past.

The limits of interest

MC: Where does your interest in Hawaii archaeology stop?

RC: About 1850, maybe earlier.

MC: Because after that it's just too contaminated or it's not relevant?

RC: The Mahele land records of the 1840s and 1850s, when the land was privatized, help us understand how settlement was before European contact. So my interest really is before the kapu system was abolished.

MC: Do you think there is an undue obsession with preserving things from the past? For example, the pillboxes on Diamond Head, or ...

RC: There can be. (Laughter)

MC: Where do you draw the line?

RC: I don't know. It depends how big of a constituency is in favor of something. The older Hawaiian sites, obviously, a large bulk of the population sees that as being important. How many people would consider the pillboxes on Diamond Head to be important are probably the people interested in World War II, which is a growing interest, actually.

Looking ahead

MC: Where are you going from here? Are you going to stay with the Historic Preservation Division? I mean, you don't have to retire, obviously, for some years.

RC: Yeah, I originally was going to be here just for three years, but it's turned out to be a little longer. I'd eventually like to teach full time and write up my research. In the short run, we're on the verge of publishing two other little things: one about the Oahu kingdom and the other about the early settlement on the Waianae coast.

MC: To be published by Mutual Publishing?

RC: Yes. I'd written an article about the rise and fall of the Oahu kingdom. It was a scientific article, but after "Exalted Sits the Chief" did well, they're going to reprint that one.

MC: Was it written for the layman?

RC: No, but it's not that difficult to read. The Waianae book, on the other hand, was written for the public. I wrote it so the Waianae folks would know generally what the settlement in that area is like.

Mark Coleman's conversations with people who have had an impact on our community appear on the first Sunday of every month. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

E-mail to Editorial Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --