|Story by Julia Steele
Photos by Elyse Butler
David Burney is standing in the middle of a cave on Kaua‘i. Chickens wander in and out, squawking; students mill about, talking. Burney is silent, peering at a small rock he’s holding.
David Burney, seen here ten feet down in a pit and four hundred years back in time, has been digging at Makauwahi cave for nearly two decades. "It's the richest fossil site in all Hawai'i," he says. "When we first penetrated down to the layers that no longer had any human artifacts, this whole other world opened up."
“What kind of rock is that?” someone asks.
“Look how hard it is,” Burney replies. He chips at it. “It feels like granite.”
Except … that that can’t be right because this rock has just been pulled up from a pit ten feet deep on the cave floor. That far down into the earth everything excavated dates from four hundred years ago, well before the arrival of Europeans in Hawai‘i. And this rock, well …
“It’s not a Hawaiian rock,” concludes Burney, who’s now holding a tiny magnifying glass to his eye and peering at the rock again. “The closest place it would naturally occur is California or Japan. Also, it’s an artifact,” he adds, holding it up to admire its rounded form. “It’s been shaped by human hands.”
Out come the theories. Could it be a ballast stone from a “ghost ship,” a vessel that wrecked on the reef offshore after its crew perished at sea? Or could it have come from a ship whose crew was alive and well, a crew that made landfall in Hawai‘i two centuries before Captain Cook? Is there any way a Polynesian could have brought it? “The only place in the Pacific that you can find rock like this is Fiji,” says Burney. Could this bit of rock have been a treasured heirloom transported a millennium ago from Fiji to Tahiti or the Marquesas and then brought to Hawai‘i?