Ethnology of Tokelau Islands
Types of Ancient Houses
Types of Ancient Houses
The ancient dwelling houses were all rectangular with the four house posts in the corners. The gabled roof extended from 2 to 3 feet above the ground and was thatched with pandanus sheets. Lister (15) says, “There were no walls, but a low fence or railing formed a definite limit to the inside of the house.” A low terrace of coral pebbles retained by a curbing of coral slabs was laid under and around the house. The house floor of coral pebbles was raised about a foot above the foundation terrace.
Hale (11) describes the dwelling houses as being “of oblong shape with eaves sloping nearly to the ground. The height of the ridgepole was from 10 to 15 feet, and it projected at each end about a foot beyond the walls of the house, being covered over the whole length with thatch” (pl. 6,A).
Inside the house was divided into two parts for sleeping. There was no material boundary, but the side on which the men slept was the fasi, and the women's side, the faitotoka. The woman, who remained in her own home after marriage, slept by the entrance. Compartments were made for sick people or visitors by hanging mats from the beams.page 124
A platform (fatatakataka), entirely or partially covering the space between the tie beams, was constructed by laying several poles across the tie beams (utupotu). Small saplings were laid side by side on these poles to make the floor. If the platform entirely covered the space under the roof, a rectangular opening was left at one end (occasionally in the middle) by using shorter saplings in the flooring on either side. The platform was reached by a ladder (kakela) made of a log that was notched for steps or had short pieces lashed across it. These platforms were used mainly for storing sleeping mats and surplus mats, fishing boxes, and extra clothing.
A net (tata) was often hung between the tie-beam plates as a place for storage.
Shelves (aloalofata) for water bottles, food bowls, and small articles were made of short pieces of wood lashed horizontally to the main house posts.
People lived and slept on the floor and the household furnishings were very simple. The coral floor was covered with coarsely plaited floor mats (taka-pau). The finer mats (moenga) for sitting or sleeping were taken from the platform only when needed. Whenever a visitor entered, a young person or the woman of the house immediately unrolled a fresh mat at the place where the visitor was to sit. This was rolled and stored again when the visitor left.
A crude pillow (ulungalakau) cut from a solid block is used today and is said to be of the same type as that used formerly. The modern pillow is made of a section of pukapuka wood (Hernandia ovigera) sawed squarely off at the ends and cut away underneath to leave two stout rests. Some pillows are undercut at the bases of the rests to give the barest suggestion of feet. Only one pillow seen on Atafu had a lip or extension of the upper surface beyond the rests. The surface of the pillows is straight and slightly convex in cross section.
A softer pillow was formerly made of finely woven fala pandanus matting folded over and the edges sewed together. The inside was stuffed with coconut fiber. This made a thin but sufficient pillow.
Water bottles and oil bottles were hung from the ends of the shelves or house posts, and food bowls for bathing babies were kept on the platforms. Fishhooks and small articles were kept in fishing boxes (tulunga).
Large houses were built in ancient times as residences of chiefs and gods. The framework differed slightly from that of the dwelling house in having center poles (poutu, poulotu) to support the ridgepole and roof and a greater number of wall posts. Kingposts (poutala) were lashed at the ends of the house to the cross beams and under the fork of the end rafters. This construction is still seen in houses with heavy framework of logs (pl. 5, B) and in the page 125 long meeting houses. Hale (11) describes the ancient house of the supreme god (fale atua) (pl. 6, B):
The house was oblong about 40 feet [according to Wilkes, 50 feet] by 30, and at the ridgepole about 20 feet in height. The roof, which curved inward somewhat like that of a Chinese pagoda, descended at the eaves to within 3 feet of the ground, below which the house was open all around. The circumference was supported by many short stanchions, small and roughly hewn, placed a few feet apart. But the ridgepole rested upon 3 enormous posts, of which the largest was about 3 feet in diameter. The roof was loosely thatched with coconut leaves, not disposed with that neatness for which the Samoans are noted.
Long houses were used by the men of a group or family for their meetings (fono), feasts, and daily lounging. These houses (fale pa) were supported by 6 or 8 posts and some had a center post. Today the long house (fale loa) (pl. 5, C) of Atafu has 8 wall posts but no center post. The walls are higher than the wall of the former fale pa.
The construction of the four-post small dwelling (fale paito) was also used for the kitchen (fale umu) and other small, lightly constructed houses and shelters. The kitchen was large enough to shelter the oven (umu) and to store food baskets, a little food, and utensils. A wall screen of plaited coconut leaf sheets protected the oven fire from prevailing winds.
A gable roof with eaves resting on the ground was formerly built as a canoe shelter (fale afolau). It was long and high enough to allow men to carry in the outrigger canoe. The land end was closed, the sea end left open. The construction followed that of the roof of the small dwelling (p. 123) and the principal rafters supported the entire dwelling.
A storage house (umusokosokai), similar to the canoe shelter with the roof resting on the ground but shorter and somewhat lower, is common today on Atafu. Purlins lashed underneath the rafters hold them rigid, and lighter purlins support the thatching. A light ridgepole rests in the crotch formed by the rafters. One end is often walled with plaited coconut sheets as a shelter. The construction is identical to that of the houses (whare tuku whakararo) built on Manihiki and Rakahanga during hurricane season (30).
My informant, Mika, said that the storage house was not used formerly, but other men in the village said that it was built to store coconut husk fuel in the early days. These houses are moved about the atoll during the copra-cutting season and set down wherever the copra is drying. If bad weather page 126 seems probable, the drying copra on the beach is picked up and piled in the houses. They also serve as shelters over ovens, and their name suggests that this may have been their original purpose.
The regulations and observances held during the construction of the canoe were the same as those held during house-building.
Figure 16.—Dwelling-house framework. a, end view; b, side view: 1, supporting post (pou); 2, tie-beam plate (sasanga); 3, tie beam (utupotu); 4, principal rafter (kasomatua); 5, ridgepole (kaukau); 6, upper purlin (talava or saialoa); 7, middle purlin (palekaso); 8, lower purlin (palelau); 9, thatch rafter (tamakaso); 10, upper ridgepole (taufufu); 11, end purlin (utupotu tala); 12, log retaining wall around floor (palepale); 13, end eave batten (palelau).
The ordinary dwelling house today is similar to the ancient house but has walls and higher eaves (pl. 5, A). The most usual dimensions are 25 to 30 feet long, 12 to 15 feet wide, and 15 feet high. The framework is supported by posts (pou) sunk in holes about an arm's length deep at the corners of the house.
The posts are cut from tree trunks with the stump of a branch forming a crotch at the top of each post in which the longitudinal tie beams rest. The end tie beams lie across the longitudinal plates and over the axes of the posts (fig. 17). A third tie beam lies across the middle of the longitudinal plates. The tie beams are undercut to cap the plates firmly and the joints are lashed with 3-ply sennit cord (kafa) or 2-ply sennit cord (kafaato).
Three pairs of principal rafters (kasomatua), one at each end just inside the posts and one in the middle, are lashed onto the tie-beam plates. Near the top each pair is lashed with the tips crossing to form a crotch. The main ridgepole (kaukau) lies in these crotches and extends 1 to 2 feet beyond the end rafters (fig. 16, b). The principal purlins are lashed across the outside of the principal rafters. The middle purlin rests on the extended ends of the tie beams. The upper purlin (talava, saialoa) runs across the rafters midway between the wall plate and the ridgepole. The lower purlin (palelau) runs across the rafters a few inches above their ends, below the wall plate (fig. 16). The end purlins lie across the extended ends of the middle side purlins.
Parallel to the principal rafters and lying over the purlins, the light thatching rafters (tamakaso) are lashed at even intervals across the sides of the roof. These thatching rafters extend below the lower purlin and cross at the top above the ridgepole, forming a second series of crotches in which the upper ridgepole (taufufu) rests.
End thatching rafters are lashed at the tips to the end pair of side thatching rafters. Near the base they are lashed over the end purlin which lies beyond the vertical plane of the end pair of thatching rafters thus giving an outward slope to the end of the roof. The sides of the roof are usually braced with struts (lakautaifi, fakatapanga) placed diagonally from the end thatching rafter at the ridgepole to the tie-beam plate at a point three-quarters along the side.
To prevent the long wall screens from blowing in the wind saplings (tokapola) are set in the ground against the foundation logs and are lashed to the tie-beam plates. The screens are dropped outside the saplings, which hold them against the wind—the saplings have no supporting function in the framework of the house.
Each house has a foundation (tanunga) and a floor of coral pebbles (kilikili), spread after the house is complete. Many helpers are called to carry baskets of the white, water-washed coral from the beach. The boundary of the foundation is not always defined, but there is a broad mound of coral which extends from 3 to 5 feet beyond the walls of the house and stands 1 to 2 feet above ground level. In the finished house this is retained by a wall (lotoa) composed of slabs of coral set on end or short lengths of coconut logs. Inside the house more coral is spread to build up the floor 6 or 8 inches above the level of the foundation. The coral floor is retained by small logs (palepale) or coral slabs (fatupaepae) laid around its boundary (pl. 5, C).
During the construction of the house the women and children of the family gather pandanus leaves and coconut fronds from the family lands across the lagoon. They pick up the freshly fallen leaves about the trees and put them in piles tied with a single leaf binder. At the end of the day they gather the piles in coconut-leaf carrying sheets and transport them to the village in canoes.page 128
Each pandanus leaf is smoothed by pulling it tight around a stake set in the ground. When it is flattened, it is dropped to the base of the stake where it is held bent around the stake by the foot and leg of the worker, sitting crosslegged before the stake. The next leaf is dropped over it and drawn tight. When about 50 leaves are flattened, the tip ends and butts are lashed together and the bundle slipped off the stake for storage.
The midribs of coconut fronds are trimmed of their butts and thin tips and split. They are then cut into lengths of 4 feet, the usual span between the thatching rafters. The thatching sheets or pandanus are pinned over these splits.
Figure 17.—House framework: corner of framework supported by forked post cut out to fit tie-beam plate; tie beam rests on end of tie-beam plate and supports middle purlin; principal rafter rests on tie-beam plate and also supports middle purlin; thatch rafter rests on purlin; end purlin is above tie beam and rests on end of middle purlin.
Twelve to 14 inches of the butt end of a dried pandanus leaf is folded over the coconut split at one end. A long stitch is taken near the outer edge through both folds of the leaf with a bone needle (pl. 4, B). The folded leaf is held together with the left hand, while a thin coconut leaflet midrib is pushed through the hole made by the needle, which has been withdrawn. A second leaf is folded over the split, partially overlapping the first leaf. A stitch is taken with the needle through both leaves at the overlapping and the leaflet midrib is pushed through, securing the first leaf in its place (pl. 4, C). This technique is continued until the entire length of the split is covered.
Roof sheets (atopela) of plaited coconut leaf, and wall sheets (polatatau) are sometimes substituted for the pandanus sheets in modern houses.
The thatching (ato) of the roof commences at the eaves (tulutulu) and works up to the ridgepole. The first sheet (atolau) is laid across the thatch rafters at one end of the roof and slightly above the eaves. The rib of the sheet is at the top and the butt ends of the doubled leaves face upward. The long tips of the pandanus hang down, forming a thick protection against the heat of the sun and making a good draining surface. The sheets are carried straight up the rafters, each new piece overlapping the one below 6 or 8 inches and extending 3 or 4 inches above it. The sheets of one row are worked in between the sheets of the preceding row as they are laid down, so that they overlap 6 or 8 inches. Two men work together on a side of the roof during the thatching, each man lashing one end of the sheet to the rafter underneath.
The lashing or sewing line is of light 3-ply sennit braid fastened at the lower end of the rafter. Each worker has a thatching needle about 6 or 8 inches long made of ngangie wood (Pemphis acidula) with a barb at the pointed end. It is thrust through the thatch from the lower side close to the rib of the sheet. The free end of the lashing is brought over the upper edge of the sheet on one side of the rafter and hooked under the barb. The needle is then drawn back. The line is pulled through page 129 and down the opposite side of the rafter. The needle is then disengaged, a half hitch is made around the rafter, and the braid is taken up the other side. A continuous line is used for securing the sheets as they are placed on the roof. Assistants below pass up the sheets with long poles to the thatchers.
The finishing piece of the roof is a sheet of plaited coconut leaf which is lashed along the ridge. In stormy seasons long coconut fronds are laid over the thatching to prevent the wind from getting underneath and blowing off the sheets.
Figure 18.—Parts of mat in plaiting process: plaiting begun at “commencement corner” (a) of “commencement edge” (b) and completed at “finishing edge” (c); upper edge of last completed section is the “plaiting edge” (d), as the next section has to follow along it; the section being plaited is the “working section” (e); its right oblique edge is the “working edge” (f), composed of a number of dextral wefts; alternate ones turned back to receive the next sinistral weft; direction of these wefts is marked at left edge of working section; on left and right edges of mat, the left (i) and right (j) foundation strips project from the unfinished plaiting.