Mauna Kea Adze Quarry

The AO system was broken, nothing really bad, but something I would need to go up and fix. Reading the nightlogs each morning there are occasionally surprises like this, a sudden re-planning of an otherwise lazy Sunday.

A workshop in the Mauna Kea adze quarry

I suspected that the fix would not take me long at all. But I would be on the mountain… What to do with the rest of the day? I load camera and hiking gear along with my backpack of tools. If I do complete the job quickly I will go hiking. The Mauna Kea adze quarry springs to mind as a likely spot to spend a few hours.

The ancient Hawaiians had no access to metal on these volcanic islands. What they did have was a source of very hard volcanic rock. High on Mauna Kea there were once glaciers, a place where the fury and heat of the volcano met ice. Cooling quickly in the icy realm the lava formed a dense, fine grained rock suitable for making tools.

The rock from this quarry could be shaped and ground into a number of tools, particularly adzes that could be used to cut wood or carve the great ocean going canoes. Tools made from this particular rock were so prized that they have been found in archaeological sites on distant islands across the Pacific.

I have known how extensive the adze quarry is for years. The numbers are abstract, number of find sites mapped, square kilometers of area, just numbers on paper. What I found was quite different than what I was expecting, nothing conveys the actuality of being there.

I was amazed at the sheer size of the piles of flakes. These are sites that were worked for centuries, each workshop accumulating many tons of waste rock flake to tumble down the slope. Having worked with my hands continually over my lifetime, I know how hard hand labor like this is. I stood amazed at the sheer amount of human effort it took to accumulate these piles.

I found I had another misconception to correct… Looking from a distance you see the caves with piles of waste rock spilling down. I had assumed that the caves and ledges are where the actual mining took place, where the basalt was pried from the mountain. Visiting one of the workshops I quickly see this is not the case.

The rock into which the caves were hewn is softer, often cindery material. These locations were chosen simply for shelter, here a cave could be excavated, or a shelter constructed to shield the workers from the harsh high altitude weather.

Rock Shelter
A rock shelter and workshop in the Mauna Kea adze quarry

These shelters are often well constructed. A small entrance allowing access to a space large enough for half a dozen men to sleep. A little matting, a simple doorway, and these small caves could be quite comfortable on a cold mountain night.

I could find no place where the rock was mined. Indeed it appeared that quite a bit of suitable material was simply scattered about the mountainside by the glaciers. I suspect the miners simply gathered likely looking pieces, bringing them back to the workshop sites to be sorted and shaped into rough blanks.

Adze Blanks
Rejected adze blanks scattered about in the waste pile

And there are rough blanks lying about, dozens of them at some of the sites. Picking them up and inspecting them usually shows some flaw, a crack, a bad angle. These are the rejects, the blanks formed and roughed into shape, but not worth the effort of hauling down the mountainside.

I explored only a small portion of the quarry, between the road and the trail. The adze quarry stretches for several miles around the mountainside, not the mere half mile or so I wandered back and forth across. Even within this small area I checked several major workshops and found numerous other sites of lithic scatter. I had intended to explore this area for many years, looking over at the sites from the road as I drove past. I was glad I made this chance to properly see this ancient remnant.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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