Rongo-Rongo and the Raven's Tail 
PART 1. The Raven's Tail

SOURCE: Cheryl Samuel, The Raven's Tail , UBC Press, Vancouver 1987.

Firstly, those unfamiliar with The Raven's Tail may benefit from the following description provided by the publisher:

Over two hundred years ago, when Europeans first visited the Northwest Coast of North America, the weavers of the area were making robes of exquisite beauty to adorn the wealthiest of their noble class. Patterned in bold black and white designs streaked with scintillating dashes of yellows, these robes predate the better-known Chilkat Blankets from the same area.

Today only eleven robes exist, three of them as fragments. Another two are shown in Russian historical paintings by Mikhail Tikhanov The only other known robes are found in an archival photograph and in two sketches by Pavel Mikhailof.To produce this book, Cheryl Samuel travelled to Leningrad, Copenhagen, and London to examine the six robes in Europe. She also studied the robes housed in museums in Canada and the United States. Using this research material she was able to reconstruct Chief Kotlean's robe. In the process she resurrected an old weaving style no longer in use by the native people on the northern coast. In this book Samuel presents the known historical data on the robes along with an analysis of the materials used and a description of the nine twining techniques. The Raven's Tail makes an important contribution to the knowledge of early Indian weaving, and will be of interest to those in native studies as well as weavers. [ CHERYL SAMUEL is an expert weaver living in Victoria, British Columbia. Her first book, The Dancing Blanket, revealed the mysteries of Chilkat weaving.]

Secondly, in her own Introduction to The Raven's Tail ( UBC Press, Vancouver 1987:8; emphases supplied )Sheryl Samuel wrote:
The Gathering of the Robes
Patterns speaking of women and men . . . patterns recording the movement through time of the great clans . . . patterns telling the tale of transition .... When I first met the patterns of the Raven's Tail robes, my heart quickened and my soul danced. I wondered "why?" When I shared them with others through lectures, I felt an instant response, a recognition. I wondered, "why?" Neither I, nor the global audiences I spoke to, had ever seen these robes. They were not a part of "our" heritage, nor were they familiar through the vast body of the world's literature. Why, then, was it so easy to make an audience enthusiastic about them? Why, when we finally had a real robe to dance with, did the people who wore it always speak of its Power? Why did those who saw it dance, stand spellbound?

These questions have followed me through the last seven years. As I have wandered the world following the trail of the robes, I have pondered the impact they have had on me and on others.

The odyssey of the gathering of the robes has been touched with magic. It seems almost as if the robes themselves wished to come forth and be counted. The saga started in New York in 1980 at the American Museum of Natural History. I was totally involved with the Chilkat Dancing Blankets, speaking to the weavers through the products of their hands. Dr. Phillip Gifford came one morning with a box full of what looked like scraps of yarn. "You might be interested in this," he said, and left me. To my amazement, the box yielded remnants of half of a robe such as I had never seen before. It was twined; it was not Chilkat. Techniques were hidden in its structure which were completely new to me. I spent the next three days puzzling its border; by day I would prod the disintegrated threads, by night I would weave on a sample loom. Finally I figured it out. The difference between knowing something intellectually and actually being able to do it never ceases to astonish me.

In New York I also made another discovery which was to prove important. Prior to arriving there I had been in Ottawa, where I had studied a tunic which had been fashioned from one half of an old robe. On it, blocks of Chilkat design units were placed on a black and white background. I had treated it as a Chilkat robe, for I knew no better. At the Heye Foundation, having "done" the storage rooms,.l was prowling through the public display when I spotted a legging which I did not recognize. Also a piece once cut up in potlatch, the patterns were identical to those on the Ottawa Tunic. Questions produced the mate to this legging, and suddenly I had two more sections of what I now recognize as theLynn Canal Robe.

After New York my next destination was the HarvardPeabody Museum and the famous Swift Robe. Arrangements had been made for me to see it, but when I got there I discovered that "seeing it" meant looking at the front of the robe through a display case. Not only was the case wired with a burglar alarm system, but also decades of dutiful decorators had painted the glass to the frame. Undaunted, I asked if the robe could be removed, and miraculously workmen appeared to scrape away the paint, unwire the case, and free the robe. The gallery was roped off and I was left to live with that exquisite garment "as long as I wished." Perhaps they thought I would leave at closing time, but in the wee hours of the night I could still hear the footsteps of the guard doing his round. I left the robe when my eyes would no longer focus.

That journey was only the beginning. At home, I received a box in the mail addressed to me from Carolyn Osborne. I knew of her by reputation, but I had not paid much attention to her writings. At that time my work was on the Chilkat robes, and she had written on another of those mysterious"geometric Chilkats."Hearing of my investigations, she had quite independently felt inspired to pile all of the material she had into a box and post it to me. I was, and still am, extremely moved by the generosity of this woman. Initially I did all my research on the Knight Island Robe from Osborne's notes. When I found that I would be doing a workshop in Philadelphia the following year, I wrote to the University Museum requesting permission to view its remains. My arrival was uncomfortable for the staff had not been able to locate the fragments. I was there for five days, and on the morning of the fourth I received an ecstatic call from the museum curator saying they had at last discovered their whereabouts. No one had asked for them since the 1950's when Osborne had placed them in a small box....

In that same year, a visit to a good friend, Dr. Giovanni Costigan, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Washington, was to catapult me into a Russian adventure. Over tea served in cups of delicate bone china, I shared with him and his wife Amne my newborn enthusiasm for the "pre-Chilkat" robes. How I rued the fact that the largest number of them were in Russia where I would never be able to see them. "Go to Russia!" was their astonishing reaction. Me? Go to Russia? Impossible! But the seed was planted, and in time it grew and bore fruit...

The trip to the Soviet Union was extraordinary. I was treated with immense respect, given an office and the freedom to come and go whenever I pleased. Four precious robes were in my constant possession, and I was not only allowed to photograph them outside in the natural light, but also a museum staff member put them on so that I could get a real sense of the incredible impact of their designs. The graciousness of Madame Rosa Lyapunova was unbounded; she expressed only two concerns. One was that I take time from the robes to see their beautiful city, and the other was thatI see the "most important piece in the museum's collection." I did indeed tour the Hermitage and journey to the Summer Palace of the Czars on the shore of the Baltic sea, and in the final hours of my visit I stood for twenty minutes dutifully staring into a darkened display case at the small etched markings on a Rongo-rongo board from Easter Island.

" Some day you will know why you were to see it, " she told me.

Thus the first part of the mystery--one that involves an expert weaver researching Pacific Northwest Indian Robes, a courteous Russian host, and a treasured "Rongo-rongo board" from Easter Island on display in a Russian Museum.

PART 2. RONGORONGO: The Easter Island Tablets

SOURCE: Jacques B.M. Guy: RONGORONGO. The Easter Island Tablets

The following is an abbreviated excerpt from Jacques B.M. Guy's: RONGORONGO. The Easter Island Tablets
( )

RONGORONGO. The Easter Island Tablets
Easter Islanders are of Polynesian descent, and archaeologists concur to date their arrival around 400 AD. The island was stripped bare of timber by the eighteenth century. Yet in a letter dated December 1864, Brother Eugene Eyraud mentions the existence of hundreds of wooden tablets covered in hieroglyphics. Four years later, Monsignor Jaussen, Bishop of Tahiti, could only recover five tablets. Only twenty­one have survived, scattered in museums and private collections. The writing on them is extraordinary. Tiny, remarkably regular glyphs, about one centimeter high, highly stylized and formalized, are carved in shallow grooves running the length of the tablets. Oral tradition has it that scribes used obsidian flakes or shark teeth to cut the glyphs and that writing was brought by the first colonists led by Hotu Matua. Last but not least, of the twenty­one surviving tablets three bear the same text in slightly different "spellings", a fact discovered by three schoolboys of St Petersburg (then Leningrad), just before World War II. In 1958 Thomas Barthel made the whole of the Easter Island corpus available in his "Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift" ("Bases for the Decipherment of the Easter Island Script"), alas never translated into English. Almost forty years later now the tablets remain as much of an enigma. Their meaning remains unknown, except for two and a half lines of one tablet, which, beyond reasonable doubt, contain a lunar calendar, already identified as such by Barthel in 1958.

Let us wind the story back to the discovery of the first tablet. I can do no better than quote the excellent little book by Catherine and Michel Orliac, "Des dieux regardent les étoiles" ("Gods gaze at the stars", No.38 in Gallimard's paperback series "Découvertes"):

"In 1868 newly converted Easter Islanders send to Tepano Jaussen, Bishop of Tahiti, as a token of respect, a long twine of human hair, wound around an ancient piece of wood. Tepano Jaussen examines the gift, and, lifting the twine, discovers that the small board is covered in hieroglyphs."
The bishop, elated at the discovery, writes to Father Hippolyte Roussel on Easter Island, exhorting him to gather all the tablets he can and to seek out natives able to translate them. But only a handful remain of the hundreds of tablets mentioned by Brother Eyraud only a few years earlier in a report to the Father Superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart. Some say they were burnt to please the missionaries who saw in them evil relics of pagan times. Some say they were hidden to save them from destruction. Which side should we believe? Brother Eyraud had died in 1868 without having ever mentioned the tablets to anyone else, not even to his friend Father Zumbohm, who is astounded at the bishop's discovery. Monsignor Jaussen soon locates in Tahiti a laborer from Easter Island, Metoro, who claims to be able to read the tablets. He describes in his notes how Metoro turns each tablet around and around to find its beginning, then starts chanting its contents. The direction of writing is unique. Starting from the left­hand bottom corner, you proceed from left to right and, at the end of the line, you turn the tablet around before you start reading the next line. Indeed, the orientation of the hieroglyphs is reversed every other line. Imagine a book in which every other line is printed back­to­front and upside­down. That is how the tablets are written!

What Then, Do We Know?
Very little. We will probably never know what the tablets mean: too few have survived. Let us then be content with the little of which we can be sure.

Each tablet was prepared before carving. Shallow grooves were cut lengthwise, probably using an adze with a blade of shell or of obsidian. They are 10 to 15mm wide, and can be clearly seen in a photo pp.64­65 of Catherine and Michel Orliac's excellent little book. The signs themselves were engraved in those grooves, probably with shark teeth or obsidian flakes, as oral tradition has it.

Of the 21 tablets we have, three bear almost exactly the same hieroglyphic text. A fourth one, called "Tahua" or "The Oar" bears only part of that text, and in a very different, more lapidary, style. Indeed this tablet is an oar made of European ash, as were used in the British navy two centuries ago. At the earliest, it could date from the beginning of the eighteenth century, at the latest, from the end of the nineteenth. There must therefore have been then literate Easter Islanders, because this "Oar" is not a mere copy. It looks like a compilation, a digest of earlier texts, lost, except for its beginning, found on those other three tablets (see "On a Fragment of the Tahua Tablet" in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, December 1985).

The overwhelming majority of the hieroglyphs are anthropomorphic. They are little figures, facing you, or sideways; standing with dangling arms; or sitting with their legs sometimes stretched, sometimes crossed; with a hand up, or down, or turned to the mouth; some hold a staff, some a shield, some a barbed string. Some sport two bulging eyes (or are they ears, or coils of hair?); some a huge hooked nose with three hairs on it; some have the body of a bird. The writing often looks like an animated cartoon. You can see the same little fellow repeated in slightly different postures. One tablet shows the same figure in three successive postures, sitting sideways, playing, it seems, with a top. Or is it a potter at the wheel? A jeweller with a drill, making shell beads?

There are also many zoomorphic figures, birds especially, fish and lizards less often. The most frequent figure looks very much like the frigate bird, which happens to have been the object of a cult, as it was associated with Make­Make, the supreme god.

When you compare the tablets which bear the same text, when you analyze repeated groups of signs, you realize that writing must have followed rules. The scribe could choose to link a sign to the next, but not in any old way. You could either carve a mannikin standing, arms dangling, followed by some other sign, or the same mannikin holding that sign with one hand. You could either carve a simple sign (a leg, a crescent) separate from the next, or rotate it 90 degrees counterclockwise and carve the next sign on top of it."  (Jacques B.M. Guy, RONGORONGO. The Easter Island Tablets; emphases supplied)

PART 3. The Animated Rongorongo Graphic

So, Weavers of the World, in view of the information in the second part and the closing statement by Madame Rosa Lyapunova in the first, what do you make of the animated Rongorongo graphic and sequence supplied by Jacques B.M. Guy to illustrate the above analysis? All linguistics aside, or in addition, that is.....

The animated Rongorongo graphic representation by Jacques B.M. Guy:RONGORONGO. The Easter Island Tablets



John N. Harris, MA (CMNS) July 7, 2000. Last Updated on August 11, 2004 (SPIRA SOLARIS, The Last Viking, Part VI: The Warp and the Weave)