Easter Island's most famous images are its colossal stone figures, or moai. The moai are conventionalized representations of ancestral chiefs, in which, like the living chiefs themselves, the power of the gods was believed to reside during religious ceremonies. Between approximately 1100 and 1650 A.D., Easter Island sculptors created nearly nine hundred moai, some of which exceed thirty feet in height. Each was made under the direction of a master artist by a team of stone carvers who carved them from the bedrock using stone picks. Nearly all of them were carved at Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano that served as the primary statue quarry. Once a moai was completed, thick ropes were attached to it. It was then hauled overland, sometimes for miles, on wooden sledges or log rollers to be erected at one of the island's temples. Most moai were placed at temples along the coast where they faced inland, keeping watch over the community. Though, by the mid-nineteenth century, all of them had fallen as the result of warfare or neglect, many have since been re-erected by archaeologists.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a massive, stone head originally from the temple at Ahu O'Pepe (Smithsonian Institution). Weighing over 1,200 pounds, this robustly hewn face—one of the only two examples in North America—was brought to the United States in 1886 by an American expedition. Like other moai, white coral eyes with stone pupils would have been placed in its hollow eye sockets, when a ritual was in progress, to awaken the divine power of the ancestral chief it represented.
In addition to moai, Easter Island artists created a diversity of other art forms. Working in wood and stone as well as more delicate materials such as feathers, reeds, and barkcloth, artists produced highly refined objects with polished surfaces and supple curves. Among the most striking on view is a wooden birdman figure representing the creator god Makemake (American Museum of Natural History). Makemake was associated with the annual birdman ritual in which athletes competed on behalf of individual chiefs by descending a 1,000-foot cliff face and swimming to an offshore island in search of the first egg laid that year by the sooty tern, a migratory seabird. The winner's chief became the leader of the island for the next year. Admired by early twentieth-century European artists and intellectuals, birdmen and other figures from Easter Island became an important influence on the Surrealists, particularly Max Ernst, whose works often include birdmen inspired by Easter Island imagery.
Featured in the exhibition is a barkcloth-covered human figure whose face is brightly painted in red, black, and white stripes representing decorative body painting (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University). Among a selection of finely crafted chiefly ornaments is an elegant crescent-shaped pendant adorned with two skillfully sculpted faces (Indiana University Art Museum). This large pendant, which extended from shoulder to shoulder, was probably worn by a high-ranking woman on important occasions.
In addition, three extremely rare wooden tablets inscribed with the island's unique hieroglyph-like script called rongorongo are also on view. After the islanders converted to Christianity in the 1860s, most of these tablets were destroyed and less than two dozen examples survive today. These tablets likely record the history and mythology of the island, but their symbols have yet to be decoded.