LAHAINA - For 17 years, the Friends of Moku'ula have dug through red tape to unearth ruins linked to Hawaii's ancient monarchy - and what many consider to be the greatest archeological find in the entire state.
Now, the nonprofit and its volunteers will be able to labor with picks and brushes and sweat, instead of pens and keyboards and hope, thanks to a partnership with a new University of Hawaii Maui College Archaeological Field School.
A dozen students from the class and their scientific advisers will make their first excavation at the site next weekend, digging "very, very slowly" and under the guidance of Hawaiian cultural practitioners, said UH-Maui College archaeology instructor Janet Six, who is leading the project.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Gifts to the Moku‘ula goddess, Mo‘o Akua Kihawahine, rest after the ceremony Saturday morning. It is said that Hawaii’s monarchy lived above the goddess on a 1-acre island that is nowbelieved to be buried below a baseball field in Malu‘uluolele Park on Front Street in Lahaina town.
The college's Moku'ula restoration initiative, called the Ka I'imi 'ike Program, got under way Saturday in Malu'uluolele Park with a chant, blessing and offerings to the lizard goddess believed to inhabit the site. The county park is where the sacred places and residences of Moku'ula have rested undisturbed since 1914, when sugar barons finally filled in the historic pond to combat mosquitos.
The heart of the site is an island and grotto, called Loko o Mokuhinia, located under the patchy outfield of a rarely used former Little League baseball diamond, across the roadway from the 505 Front St. commercial center.
In fact, the archaeologists, with the help of 505's understanding owners, said someday they want to move the neighboring parking lot to excavate under asphalt. Most of the park's remaining sports equipment will eventually have to be removed, and the nearby Salvation Army building could be relocated in the future.
It's said archaeology can be a science that requires imagination and plenty of patience. On Saturday, Six and other program leaders asked the audience of about 50 supporters to envision what Moku'ula could look like in the next several years.
"Wouldn't it be nice to have a 9-acre pond right in the middle of sunny Lahaina?" she said.
Friends of Moku'ula acting executive director Shirley Kaha'i said the land was once a series of taro patches, fish ponds, royal homes, mausoleums and canals - earning Lahaina the nickname "the Venice of the Pacific." The spring that fed those waterways still exists, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study, she said.
It could all be restored, right there on Front Street, Kaha'i said.
Her group has already done lots of planning and design work for the restoration of the water and agricultural features and traditional and modern meeting places, hosted countless tours of the site and even cleared the land of a number of trees. But at Saturday's event, she said she could feel the mana, or spiritual force.
"People think, 'What's the big deal? It's just an old baseball field,' " said county spokeswoman and former Friends of Moku'ula program director Mahina Martin. "They have no idea what's underneath. . . . This is such an exciting time."
After the transformation, Moku'ula could once again appear much like it did as far back as 700 A.D., when it was one of the first places settled by Hawaiians, as previous excavations have proved.
When Lahaina was capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, Kamehameha III and the Piilani chiefs made the 1-acre Loko o Mokuhinia island their home or sacred sanctuary between the 14th and 19th centuries, according to the nonprofit organization. It was kapu, or forbidden, to outsiders.
"We've heard about the island forever, and now we're finally going to see it," said Six, who compared Moku'ula to the Incas' royal mountain enclave Machu Picchu.
Not only will dozens of UH-Maui College students, many of whom are of Native Hawaiian ancestry, be a part of this new program, but residents and tourists also will have the opportunity to volunteer on weekends, said college Chancellor Clyde Sakamoto.
Moku'ula is still considered one of Hawaii's most sacred sites. In addition to the ali'i hale, a powerful goddess, Mo'o Akua Kihawahine, is believed to have lived in the island's grotto.
Because it was considered pagan after missionaries brought Christianity to the islands in the 1800s, Moku'ula was eventually abandoned in 1890, Six said.
Martin said that the site is important as a place for Native Hawaiians to reconnect to their ancient spiritual and cultural practices. Moku'ula symbolizes a return to glory and a recognition of traditions and customs that are particularly important in an increasingly modern world, Martin said.
When asked how long it will take to complete the project, even with a recent infusion of $30,000 from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Six said, "forever."
"It will take several years just to restore the island first," she said. "Eventually, we want to reconstruct the site to look like it did in the 1850s."
The nonprofit has an office across the street from the site at the commercial center. The organization already holds a lease to the site and approvals to excavate the finds, with several members giving much of the credit to Mayor Charmaine Tavares for facilitating the project. The Bishop Museum actually began excavation and recovery efforts back in 1993, and the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places four years later.
Much more recently, Six said she's gotten some tantalizing readings from magnetic resonance, radar, laser and aerial mapping equipment that indicate the presence of structures and man-made sites below the surface.
So what do they expect to find?
At the very least, Six said, it is believed that the island was reinforced with basalt retaining walls, and the outline of other structures are waiting to be discovered in West Maui's red dirt.
The UH-Maui College program will collaborate with archaeological specialists from New York and Brown universities to sort and identify the expected bounty of artifacts. But Six said there will be no treasure here, so looters should stay clear.
Whatever was of value was removed long ago, except maybe some china discarded by alii who thought of it as dirty and worthless compared to the clean ti leaves they had instead used as vessels. The iwi, or bones, that had been buried at the site were also moved to a nearby cemetery, Six said.
Part of the lot was used as a public landfill for years, so to keep bottle collectors and other would-be thieves away, the group plans to surround the dig site with a fence and install motion lights, she said.
"The naysayers think it's wrong to bring this back because it was so sacred, but was it right when they used this area as a dump?" Kaha'i said.
Some Native Hawaiians have discouraged the project, saying the site is kapu and shouldn't be disturbed.
For more information or to volunteer, go online to www.mokuula.com, or call 661-9494. The greater the public involvement, the better their chances of attracting more funding and donations to keep the work moving forward, she said.
"You've got to be a part of this," Six said. "You'll be telling your grandkids about this."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.