Researcher profile: Helene Martinsson-Wallin


Focus on island archaeology

An interest in island archaeology has followed Helene Martinsson-Wallin throughout her career as a researcher. Her roots are in northern European archaeology and she has carried out archaeological research primarily on the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland – and also in Polynesia.

Helene Martinsson-Wallin recently published a research book on Pulemelei, the largest known cult site in Polynesia. It looks like a large stone platform and is on the island of Savaii in the Independent State of Samoa.
“The first time I went there, you couldn’t see the platform. It was completely overgrown. It looked like a kind of Machu Picchu but in Polynesia,” she says.
The tribal chiefs sat up on the platform during ceremonies but Helene Martinsson-Wallin does not know whether the stone platform was also used for funerals. She has examined the platform using georadar but has not found any hollow spaces of note.
But there are similar monuments in Tonga and there they were funeral sites for kings.”

Pulemelei is inside what was a large settlement which was abandoned in the 1700s when the Samoans moved down to the island’s coasts. This social upheaval probably resulted from contacts with Europeans.
“I’m very interested in island societies in particular and how migration and integration processes work. When something new comes to an island society, they either adopt it and it becomes accepted very quickly or they reject it.”
Quite early in her career as an archaeologist, Helene Martinsson-Wallin went to Polynesia to study social organisation and migration processes. After studying in the library of ethnologist Bengt Danielsson on Tahiti in 1985, she was given an opportunity to join a research trip to Easter Island. Since then, an interest in Polynesian and island archaeology has followed her throughout her career.

Her interest in archaeology started at an early age during her childhood in Släbro, Nyköping.
“I remember when I was 6 and went to playschool and we went down to two rune stones by the Nyköping river. One of them has in fact a face which might be a picture of the god Thor. This made me very fascinated in runes. That area itself is very exciting and interesting and includes kasberget where they hauled boats.”
There were also major excavations in Nyköping when the city centre was redeveloped and she often stood and looked down into them.
“This caused my fascination with archaeology and that’s how it all started. For me, archaeology means feeling a buzz of interest when something is found in the ground which isn’t mentioned in texts or the oral traditions and which might then become the subject of some interesting stories.”

Helene Martinsson-Wallin has studied Easter Island for many years. The island is the most eastward of the Polynesian islands. In the 1940s, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl had a theory that Easter Island was colonised from South America and sailed from Peru to Polynesia on the balsa raft Kon-Tiki in order to prove his theory. But we know today that Easter Island was colonised by Polynesians.
“Easter Island was probably populated during 1100s and 1200s by Polynesians, at about the same time that Iceland was populated. I’ve excavated one of the earliest settlements and found traces of Polynesians. These included traces of the Polynesian rat which we know comes originally from the Indonesian islands.
“My research shows, however, that ceremonial sites on Easter Island probably have South America influences. We also know that the sweet potato came to Easter Island and the sweet potato originated in southern Ecuador. This means that there has been contact with South America and that Thor Heyerdahl was right in certain respects.”

For Helene Martinsson-Wallin who has worked on Pacific archaeology for more than 30 years, the general Swedish image of South Pacific paradises rankles her.
“The Independent State of Samoa is a developing country although people think of it as an island paradise. I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind. We Swedes could send more aid to a country like the Independent State of Samoa so that they can improve the management of their cultural heritage and attract culture tourists which would help them economically.”
“That’s my dream.”

Anders Berndt


Footnote: There are two Samoas: The Independent State of Samoa (previously called Western Samoa) which gained independence in 1962 and American Samoa which belongs to the USA but enjoys a degree of autonomy.

Facts: Helene Martinsson-Wallin

Title: Lecturer in Archaeology at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History
Researches into: Monuments, power structures and cults on islands, especially in Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean and on Gotland.
Lives: On Gotland for the last 30 years but the Independent State of Samoa in Polynesia is her second home.
Number: Easter Island keeps a count of the foreign archaeologists who have worked on the island. Helene Martinsson-Wallin is number seven.
Relaxes doing: Pottery, making things from wool, silverwork.
Reading novels: “The last time I was in Samoa I read Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson. Her use of language is absolutely superb.”
Tattoo: Has a petroglyph from her home district Släbro tattooed on her back.
Major interest: Supporting the local community. She has worked to arouse interest in archaeology and has put together courses in archaeology both on Easter Island and in the Independent State of Samoa. She has repatriated (returned) archaeological finds and has acted as an adviser on a proposed law for protecting ancient remains and creating a national heritage board in the Independent State of Samoa.