Imagining Polynesia

Heritage, Identity Politics and the Evolution of a New Rapa Nui architecture


  • Sue Hamilton University College London
  • Hetereki Huke Tepuku, Applied Research Center for Rapa Nui and the Pacific, Rapa Nui
  • Mike Seager Thomas University College London



architecture, Easter Island, identity politics, heritage, Polynesia, Rapa Nui, tourism


Rapa Nui’s prehistoric Polynesian heritage is iconic. From the later twentieth century the island’s economy has been dependent on the tourism its prehistory attracts. However, until recently there has been little link between the modern built environment of Rapa Nui and its prehistoric past. This article tracks how during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the island’s traditional domestic architecture was supplanted first by colonial then early modern Chilean architecture. The remains of this transformation are fast disappearing through contemporary demolition and an associated rejection of the past that the introduced architecture represents. We highlight how contemporary Rapa Nui architecture instead actively references its iconic prehistoric Polynesian past and positions Rapa Nui in a Polynesian context, for the first time detailing this trajectory and identifying how elements of past artistic and architectural traditions have become incorporated into the architecture of the present. Instead of presenting the intervening period as one of loss of traditional identity, this in fact emphasises a subtle continuity of Rapanui (indigenous Rapa Nui islander) identity. The study is relevant to exploring how the interacting demands and expectations of identity politics and heritage tourism (here in a Polynesian context) can impact on contemporary local architecture and the visitor milieu, reflecting modern concepts which promote the preservation of some architectures and cultural attributes over others.


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Author Biographies

Sue Hamilton, University College London

Sue Hamilton is Professor of Prehistory and since 2014 Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology. She has directed large-scale surveys of landscapes and their archaeology in the UK, Europe and Rapa Nui. In these she has advanced the application of phenomenology and sensory archaeology beyond their traditional boundaries. She has worked on Rapa Nui for over a decade and brought new interpretative perspectives to Pacific Studies.

Hetereki Huke, Tepuku, Applied Research Center for Rapa Nui and the Pacific, Rapa Nui

Hetereki Huke is an architect and territorial Planner working with Tepuku, Applied Research Center for Rapa Nui and the Pacific.

Mike Seager Thomas, University College London

Mike Seager Thomas is a freelance archaeologist and Honorary Research Fellow of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. His current research interests include the study of stone in prehistoric archaeology, landscape archaeology and the faking of military antiquities. Address for correspondence: UCL Institute of Archaeology, 31–34 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PY, UK.


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How to Cite

Hamilton, S., Huke, H., & Seager Thomas, M. (2021). Imagining Polynesia: Heritage, Identity Politics and the Evolution of a New Rapa Nui architecture. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 8(1), 53–88.