Rapa Nui (Easter Island): Myths and realities of an iconic past

5th Annual Pitt Rivers Lecture, supported by the Prehistoric Society
Professor Sue Hamilton (Director of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL)
Bournemouth University
A landscape view of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, with carved stone heads in the distance.


The 2021 lecture will be given by Professor Sue Hamilton, Director of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.

The lecture is open to the public and free to attend, we hope it can take place in person at Bournemouth University and online. Please only register for your preferred ticket type. If you register to attend in person and this isn't possible we will automatically transfer you to an online place.


Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a small, remote, volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, some 2500 km from its nearest neighbour and 4000km from mainland Chile. Its extreme isolation has governed its past and ongoing existence. Many myths and enigmas about Rapa Nui have been generated by the records of early explorers, folk memories surviving from a population that had declined to about 250 people by 1915, sensationalised concepts of self-induced eco-disaster, and by the public’s fascination with the idea of societal collapse associated with the demise of an iconic tradition of colossal statue construction (AD 1200 and 1550). Today, Rapa Nui’s population of about 6000 gains much of its income from heritage tourism. It is faced with highly challenging issues of sustaining a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site which is undergoing physical erosion on an alarming scale. Over much of the past decade Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project, funded by The British Academy and AHRC, has considered these issues and the results and future development of the project will be discussed in this lecture. The lecture will also consider how Rapa Nui’s living heritage, past and present, has complex social, ideological, and ecological interfaces that need to be understood and addressed on an island-wide scale and within a Polynesian context.


Professor Sue Hamilton is Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London, its first female director. Her early research focused on prehistoric ceramics. Following appointment as a lecturer at the University of North London, and then UCL, she established two major UK landscape projects: the Caburn Hillfort and its South Downs Landscape, and the Bronze Age Landscapes of Bodmin Moor Project. More recently Sue has been advancing the application of phenomenology and sensory archaeology beyond their traditional boundaries with the Tavoliere Gargano Later Prehistory Project in southern Italy with Ruth Whitehouse. This was recently published as Neolithic Spaces: Social and Sensory Landscapes of the First Farmers of Italy. Overlapping with this she established, with Colin Richards, the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Landscapes of Construction Project, which brings innovative methodologies and interpretative approaches to Pacific Studies. The project provides the first integrated response to the island’s 1996 inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, combining landscape survey and environmental studies on an island-wide basis.