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Humanities reaffirms its commitment to the Pacific

Friday, 24 February 2017 4:53pm

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Professor Glenn Summerhayes (right) returning from Yule Island, Papua New Guinea, with undergraduate students from the University of Papua New Guinea, after excavating the 2,000-year-old hilltop settlement of Oposisi. Professor Summerhayes takes students from the University of Papua New Guinea as part of Otago’s commitment to train the next generation of Pacific archaeologists.

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Excavations unearthing a 12,000-year-old occupation at Fundum Village, Simbai, Papua New Guinea. The excavations are part of a project led by Professor Glenn Summerhayes (Otago) and Dr Judith Field (University of New South Wales).

Otago’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology is looking to strengthen its already impressive commitment to Pacific scholarship over the next five years.

The University has a long and significant history of connections in the Pacific, and the Division of Humanities maintains a proud and important relationship with the Pacific. This is particularly so for the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Humanities) Professor Tony Ballantyne says the Department has been a leading centre for Pacific research for 50 years and this standing remains today.

“What’s very important to us is that the Department remains a very strong centre of Pacific expertise and staff, where both archaeologists and social anthropologists are working together to build a stronger collective identity.

“We are committed to our research in the Pacific, and as we move forward there will be more collaborative teaching and supervision between the staff in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. This reflects the exceptional range and flexibility of the staff and in both their capacity as teachers and supervisors. With the team we have, I am confident that our dedication to the area will become more significant.”

Professor Ballantyne says it is also important to recognise that it is not just the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology with strong focus on the Pacific.

"As a Division, Humanities has an important and established track-record in the area."

“As a Division, Humanities has an important and established track-record in the area. We have significant expertise on the Pacific and on New Zealand’s relationship with the region in law, social work, history, politics, theology and geography. Moreover, research centres and themes across the Division produce a range of new research on the Pacific. We also have an important cohort of students from the Pacific pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate work in the Division and they will be important in shaping the region’s future. Through our research and teaching, we are committed to building strong relationships with local Pacific communities and to the region itself,” he says.

Head of Department Professor Richard Walter outlines the future of the Archaeology and Anthropology Department.

“Our future is to offer a holistic vision of anthropology that draws on the combined expertise and excellence of our social anthropology and archaeology staff. We have a long tradition and international reputation in New Zealand and Pacific anthropology and archaeology, and our skills are relevant in this contemporary world.

“In the coming months we will work together to ensure that we continue to produce world-class research underpinning a strong undergraduate and graduate teaching programme.”

History of the Department

In the late 1980s the Department made a decision to consolidate its Pacific interests through appointments, and the introduction of a series of new Pacific papers with a focus on Polynesia and Micronesia. Professor Walter explains the direction the Department has taken since then:

"Through the 1990s and early 2000s we built strong field and archival based research programmes ..."

“Through the 1990s and early 2000s we built strong field and archival based research programmes involving many graduate students in the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Niue, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu and elsewhere.”

This work supported more than 20 thesis completions at MA and PhD level.

“From the mid to late 1990s we developed our Melanesian programme and we are now one of the top two departments in the world in Melanesian archaeology, with four staff with ongoing research and graduate student projects in the region.”

The Department today

At this point anthropology and archaeology staff have active research programmes in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea. There are newly funded projects coming on line in PNG and Solomon Islands in 2017. This Pacific research focus is reflected in the more than 130 published outputs on Pacific topics in the last five years.

"This is a particular point of pride for us, as it is unlikely that any other university has ever matched this level of PhD support."

Professor Walter says the Department also has a long-standing and continuing interest in supporting Pacific scholars, students and the wider Pacific research environment.

“Our staff are curriculum advisers in the National University of Samoa, Samoan Studies programme and have recently served on a departmental review of that department. As part of our partnership with NUS we have a new graduate student from Samoan Studies starting this year at Otago on a three-year programme.”

The Department also has two indigenous Solomon Island PhD students – one in Social Anthropology and one in Archaeology.

“This is a particular point of pride for us, as it is unlikely that any other university has ever matched this level of PhD support. We are in regular communication with our Pacific consulates regarding scholarship support for Pacific students.”

Long-term commitment and approach vital

Professor Walter says it is vital that the Department’s approach to Pacific research involves long-term commitments to communities, institutions and partnerships with individual Pacific researchers.

"Our research partners are frequent visitors to Otago and provide the framework for student support in the region."

“Collectively, we take this approach very seriously. Our research partners are frequent visitors to Otago and provide the framework for student support in the region.

“The long-term nature and depth of our commitment to the Pacific is reflected in the fact that our staff have taken the time to learn six Pacific languages to high levels of fluency and we regularly publish and lecture in a number of these.”

In 2017 the Department has new students from the Pacific Islands and there are plans for redesigned Pacific courses, strong on-going staff and graduate research, and new programmes coming on line over the course of the year.

“I have no doubt that with the skilled, experienced and dedicated staff, coupled with the decades of partnership we have in the Pacific, that the Department is on track to become a stronger world- leader in Pacific scholarship over the next five years,” Professor Walter says.