Lunch on the beach at Leleppa

Lunch on the beach at Leleppa

ANU CHL CAP Field School returns from Tongoa, Central Vanuatu

8th December 2022

Field schools are a unique experience for students who get to learn and experience very different lifestyles and cultures, and in some cases influences their research program permanently.

The School of Culture History & Language (CHL) at CAP, ANU has been a leader in this area of teaching with students getting the chance to study in many parts of Asia and the Pacific. The Republic of Vanuatu has been a focus for field schools for archaeology students since 2010 who have participated in projects led by researcher Dr Stuart Bedford.

This has included fieldwork in the very south of the archipelago, on the islands of Aniwa and Aneityum, to Efate in the centre and on Santo in the north. In 2022 the field school took place on the island of Tongoa, in the centre of the group, in association with an ARC-funded research program investigating the Kuwae volcanic eruption of c. 1450 CE, which was one of the largest volcanic events in the world over the past 2000 years.

The island of Kuwae was split in two, leaving the islands of Tongoa and Epi as its remnants, and profoundly reconfiguring the political, linguistic and ecological landscapes of central Vanuatu. Regionally, the eruption triggered major tsunamis, transformed exchange networks and caused shifts in climate.

The field school on Tongoa was led by researchers Associate Professor Stuart Bedford and Associate Professor Chris Ballard and it focused on various aspects of the massive eruption, such as refining the timing and scale of the Kuwae eruption at its source, and understanding how communities survived and recolonised the islands. Bedford and Ballard have recently returned from an ANU Field school on Tongoa with exciting results and a group of ANU students whose perspectives on the Pacific and particularly Vanuatu have been changed forever.

Bedford noted that the group of nine from ANU were extremely enthusiastic and embraced remote village life on the island of Tongoa.


“The community was hugely supportive and the students connected with that. The experience was also enhanced by regular string band performances by the local group. Some students even reciprocated with displays of line dancing to the local rhythms. It emphasised to me the really unique nature of these field schools to Vanuatu. While archaeology may be a focus and initial attraction it is the cultural experience that really makes these field schools very special. We got some very enlightening feedback from the students.” Stuart Bedford

Check out some video footage from the field school here.

Ballard, whose focus during the field school was collecting oral traditions relating to the Kuwae eruption, described how the students gained a wide array of experiences associated with community meetings.

“Each day two students came with me as we went around the island talking to each village about the research. Meetings were often delayed for hours due to miscommunication, continued for hours once they had started, with meals often forgotten and in one case we stumbled into an ongoing dispute relating to chiefly title. All came away with an appreciation of the complexities and fulfilment of anthropological fieldwork in this part of the world”.


The students got to experience and participate in a wide range of research activities as a number of other researchers joined the field school. This included mortuary ritual specialist Dr Frédérique Valentin from the CNRS in France. A number of students were particularly interested in this aspect of the research and were rewarded with excavations in a cemetery area. Full support came from the Chiefs of the village, one of whom recalled the much earlier excavations of José Garanger in 1964 at the same site!!


Sönke Stern, a German PhD student studying at the University of Auckland, provided the volcanological input, with students joining him daily on expeditions all over the island to record various features of the massive eruption. Other specialists included Siri Seoule from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, an artist and specialist on Vanuatu flora. He guided a French PhD student, Julien Ponchelet, who was also on the field school, in collecting and identifying various plant species, which will ultimately be used in his program of identifying charcoal in archaeological sites of Vanuatu.


Three other staff members of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Edson Willie, Iarawai Phillip and Lucas Savanu, all archaeologists, also helped guide the students in different aspects of the fieldwork.


The students also took full advantage of the range of potential research projects that they could initiate well beyond archaeology. As Bedford noted “we had a great range of students this year with various interests and from different disciplines, including even Law and Economics. One of the students had a linguistic background and she decided that with the help of Siri and the local community her project would be to record the local language terms and uses for all the fungi found on the island. A nice highlight for her was being brought an example of a luminescent variety, shining brightly, on the last night of the field school”.

Logistics on the field schools can often be challenging, but on Tongoa, itself a wonderful local hall in Mangarisu village, was the perfect for accommodation. There was even a water supply, excellent sea views and several kava bars!!”


Logistical challenges getting to and from the island were overcome by largely going by boat rather than plane as the airport on the island is often closed due to rain. The trip back to Efate on the last day, after a full-on two weeks, was on a luxury fishing charter boat with breakfast and lunch served. However, the sea was not terribly friendly, and while half the students partied up, the other half were somewhat under the weather. All part of the field school experience!


Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster