Movie: Lapita Pot Reconstruction

In 2008 a rare pot from Vanuatu was reconstructed in our lab and shipped back to the Cultural Centre in Port Vila. It ws excavated in 2006 at a burial site and is approximately 3000 years old.

© Australian Museum
David Rawlinson
David Rawlinson, Colin MacGregor
Finton Mahony
Script Writer:
Melanie Findlay
Other Contributions:
Conservators: Isa Loo, Jolanta Mazurek, Melanie Findlay


In 2004 a surprise discovery was made while digging a fish farm in Teouma Vanuatu. Very rare pottery fragments were found leading to the discovery of an ancient cemetery. The pots had been used for burial by the Lapita culture who once lived in areas of the Pacific. The remains revealed their complex burial practices with one pot containing a skull and several other burials whose bones and skulls had been systematically rearranged in groups.

Here’s how one pot was reconstructed:

  1.  First the ceramic pieces are cleaned and checked for soluble salts that might have been absorbed by the pot while buried. Any salts are removed.
  2. Next the numbered fragments of Lapita Pottery are sorted and carefully pieced back together like a jigsaw puzzle.
  3. A thin solution of glue is soaked into the ceramic edges to give them strength. When dry a stronger glue solution is used to bond the pieces together.
  4. While the adhesive is drying, pieces of carefully placed foam are used to give it support and keep it in shape.
  5. After the glue has dried, it can be softened with mild heat to adjust the shape of the pot.
  6. Any missing areas are filled with plaster to make the pot stronger, and also to show what the original shape of this Lapita Pot would have been like. 
  7. First a silicone mould is made in the shape of the missing area. The pot is then covered in a film barrier to make sure the silicone isn’t in direct contact with the fragile pot.
  8. Next the pot is turned the right way up. It is firmly supported by foam blocks in preparation for the plaster fill.
  9. Liquid latex is painted onto the edges of the pot as a barrier before pouring in the plaster. Clingfilm is also used to cover the rest of the pots surface. The Latex and Clingfilm barrier is used to make sure that the plaster doesn’t come into contact with other parts of the pot. They can be peeled off easily once the plaster fill has dried.
  10. Next the silicone mould is put into place, making sure that there are no gaps between it and the pot where liquid plaster could leak out. A solid support has been put on the outside of the mould to help keep the flexible silicone in shape.
  11. The plaster is mixed with dry pigments and water, then spread to evenly cover the mould. The plaster is not meant to exactly match the colour of the pot. This way we can see which areas are original, and which are reconstruction.
  12. Once the plaster has dried it is filed and sanded into shape so that it complements the shape of the rest of the pot. Plaster is used as a fill material because it is slightly weaker than the fragile ceramic, and can be removed quite easily if needed.
  13. More plaster is added gradually and then sanded into shape until all of the missing area of the pot has been filled. The dried plaster can also be painted to adjust the colour of the fill. 
  14. Once the Lapita pot has been completely filled it is finished and ready for display. 

The Australian Museum has a three dimensional scanner which produces a 3D image of the pot. This image records the condition of the pot for future reference. The pot is then packed for transport. It is carefully measured and then foam is cut to fit closely around the pot. This will protect it from damage. As some foams become brittle and crumble as they age, the pot is wrapped in a material called Tyvec so that the pot doesn’t touch the foam. It is then packed into a solid crate for transport back to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre where it will be displayed.

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