Nan Modal

Nan Modal: Ceremonial Center of Eastern Micronesia

An aerial view of Nan Modal via Google Maps

An aerial view of Nan Modal via Google Maps


General Information

Built atop the coral reefs surrounding the south-east coast of Pohnpei, Nan Modal was the ritual and ceremonial center of the Saudeleur Dynasty.  Created almost entirely with basalt rocks and coral, it consists of more than 90 interconnected islets linked by canals. It is surrounded by walls of basalt and coral boulders , and is filled with the remains of temples, palaces, tombs, and residential housing. This center took hundreds of years to complete, and was inhabited for about 1000 years prior to being abandoned.

a close up view of some of the monumental architecture common in Nan Modal. @OsamuKataoka

a close up view of some of the monumental architecture common in Nan Modal. @OsamuKataoka

Social Structure

Though Nan Modal had many chiefs and religious officials inhabiting it, most of its residents were commoners. It is theorized that social hierarchy was represented within the cities through the size of the individual’s home. This theory is further supported by the discovery of beads and ornaments within the larger compounds which  could also have been used to demonstrate a higher social status(Wagilie 2002) Nan modal’s organization, served another purpose for the Saudeleur Dynasty, it served as a tool for the ruling officials to maintain their own power.

Nan Madol served, in part, as a means by which the ruling Saudeleur chiefs both organized and controlled potential rivals by requiring them to live in the city rather than in their home districts, where their activities were difficult to monitor. The highly stratified social system at Nan Madol is the earliest known example of such centralized political power in the western Pacific. (Wagilie 2002)

Religious and Cultural Practices:

Modern day oral traditions make references to small canals cut into the islets. These canals are said to have allowed sacred eels to enter the cities, where they were then honored through the sacrifice of sea turtles. Subsequent excavations have revealed traces of both the small canals, and, through the discovery of sea turtle bones,  the sacrificial turtles (Wagilie 2002)

Criteria to be on the World Heritage Site

Nan Modal was inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Danger List in 2016. As it fit Criteria (i), (iii), (iv), and (vi). These Criteria According to UNESCO’s site are

  • Criteria (i) to represent a masterpiece of human creative genus
  • Criterion (iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared
  • Criterion (iv) be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history
  • Criterion (vi) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance (UNESCO 2016, Criteria)

My site fits Criteria (i) as it is in fact a masterpiece of human creative genius, the site is a huge interconnected collection of man made islets covered in sprawling cities, the creativity needed to create this site is immense especially because of the limited technology at the time it was built. My site fits Criteria (ii) as Nan Modal serves as a prime example of complex social and religious practices in the Pacific islands, and is one of the first sites in this area to depict such apparent centralized political power. Nan Modal also is a prime example of Criteria (iv) as the scale and sophistication of the construction and architecture of the site are exemplary, and depict the beginnings of urbanization and centralized power in the region. Finally my site fits Criteria (vi) as it shows the beginning of chiefly political systems in the region which are still present today.

Endangering Factors

Environmental Factors: The Main Endangering Factors

According to UNESCO my site experiences many environmental processes that may endanger it. A few of these processes are:

  1. Settling of Wall Stones and Decomposition of Coral Fill

    The settling of wall stones and decomposition of wall fill,  though part of the natural aging process, is wreaking havoc on my site. This factor impacts my site so much as Nan Modal is composed almost entirely out of basalt rocks and coral boulders. As time goes on these rocks and coral pieces are settling, and gradually crumbling,  while the fill that holds them together is disappearing, resulting in the collapse of many free-standing walls.

  2. Wave Action and Tidal Change

    Wave action and tidal change are probably some of the most destructive forces acting on my site. Their impact is especially apparent on the seaward walls, which are beginning to collapse and crumble. This is caused by the water eroding the soil and sand components of the walls and islets, as well as dislodging the smaller rock and coral pieces. The changing tide is also responsible for the deposition of silt which is allowing for more vegetative growth which plays a major role in the sites destruction as discussed in the next section.

    A sea wall that has collapsed @Osamu Kataoka

    A sea wall that has collapsed @Osamu Kataoka

    Depicts the siltation of my site, resulting in increased vegetative growth @Osamu Kataoka

    Depicts the siltation of my site, resulting in increased vegetative growth @Osamu Kataoka

  3. Vegetation Growth

    Vegetative growth is another major issue endangering my site. Due to the collection of silt in the canals that connect the islets that make up Nan Modal, several tree and plant species have been able to flourish. These trees, namely mangroves, are causing vast amounts of destruction through their roots loosening foundations, wedging apart rocks, and disturbing the fill of the islet. Also, the trees falling due to weather can result in the destruction of walls, monuments, other parts of the site. even the dead trees decay away providing the nutrients necessary  for more trees to grow.

    several trees growing out of an existing structure @Osamu Kataoka

    several trees growing out of an existing structure @Osamu Kataoka

    A photo depicting the unchecked growth of trees in Nan Modal @Osamu Kataoka

    A photo depicting the unchecked growth of trees in Nan Modal @Osamu Kataoka

  4. Bioturbation of Fill by Marine and Terrestrial Animals

    Bioturbation is the process by which plants or animals rework the soil of a site. This process is disturbing the fill of my site, through the burrowing of animals,  as well as creating a medium that is more able to sustain plant life such as the mangrove trees.

  5. Natural Disasters

    As my site is located in the ocean, natural disasters and storms can destroy countless artifacts and monuments in a mater of minutes. The site could be flooded, heavy rains aid in the erosion of fill, waves can destroy the outer wall, winds cause tress to fall and destroy parts of the site, and increased rainfall has resulted in the accumulation of  soil and sand from nearby islands that disrupt the flow of water through  the cities many canals and creating swamps.

  6. Climate Change

    Climate change, though not a huge issue now could become greater in the future through sea level rise. Which could put the entire site underwater, or at the very least further disturb the waterways resulting in increased siltation and more vegetative growth.

Developmental Pressures: A Minor Endangering Factor

Developmental and other endangering factors attributed to humans are very minimal in my site, having a very minimal role thus far, but could become more apparent over time. Some of these endangering factors according to UNESCO are the construction of tourist trails which could disrupt water flow in the canals, and allow for ease of access to the site for individuals who may scavenge the site for artifacts.

A tourist trail that is interrupting one of the canals causing increased siltation @Osamu Kataoka

A tourist trail that is interrupting one of the canals causing increased siltation @Osamu Kataoka

Insight on Global Issues

Preserving the site of Nan Modal can provide current and future day archeologists an ideal site to study urbanization and the development of complex political and social systems that result from it. This site is one of the first in its region to show such complex and centralized political systems, some of which can still be observed today. in Sabloff’s book he describes cities as places that provide safety and security, have monuments, and have economic opportunity, all of which are demonstrated in Nan Modals sprawling islets containing residences, temples,  and castles. Nan Modal, described as a ceremonial center for Eastern Micronesia, fulfilled the criteria of having monuments as much of the site is of monumental architecture, including temples and castles. Also, the entire societal make-up of the site functioned in the protection of the dynasty, as the ruler used this site to not only house himself and religious officials but to organize and control rivals by requiring them to live in the city where their activities could be more easily monitored.


Wagelie, Jennifer.

“Nan Madol.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)


Sabloff, Jeremy A.

2008 Archeology Matters: Action Archeology in the Modern World. Left Coast Press, London


Merriam Webster Dictionary.

2016. Electronic document, 12/2/16.



Nan Modal: The Ceremonial Center of Eastern Micronesia”. UNESCO, 2015


“Nan Madol: Ceremonial Centre of Eastern Micronesia”. UNESCO, 2016



“The Criteria For Selection”. UNESCO, 2016.


Google Maps
2016. Electronic document, 12/2/16,



Nan Modal: The Ceremonial Center of Eastern Micronesia. Gallery, 2016.  



5 thoughts on Nan Modal

  1. Which of these endangering factors is the most prevalent and destructive today? Are there any endangering factors that are not environmentally based? Good job explaining each of the endangering factors in detail and explaining how and why they are affecting the site.

  2. This is really interesting, especially how sacred eels are honored by the sacrifice of sea turtles (lol)! My site has some of the same threats as yours such as vegetation growth and environmental factors. Make sure you cite where your images are from, other than that great job!

  3. Yeah so what’s the deal with the sacred eels? I didn’t even know there WERE eels in the Pacific – thought that was a North Atlantic sorta deal

  4. Awesome page, Jesse! I also loved reading about the sacred eels and how they are honored by sacrifice of sea turtles. So interesting to think about the ways that past people used their resources. I really hope that some of these threats can be dealt with in the most productive way to help preserve this beautiful site! Great job!

  5. I thought it was interesting how you talked about in class that the connecting “bridges” and looting of rocks as building materials was the biggest developmental factor. I would have thought looting of valuables played a larger role.

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