Protecting the legacy of Nan Madol, a lost city in the Pacific

March 5, 2024

Protecting the legacy of Nan Madol, a lost city in the Pacific

Ruins of the city of Nan Madol on Pohnpei Island, Micronesia. (© Dea/V. Giannella/Getty Images)

The path to Nan Madol ends where the trees meet the water. Beyond a small canal, the ancient city of stone rises from the sea. But the site needs support to ensure that its towering walls will inspire visitors to the Federated States of Micronesia for generations to come.

This year, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced almost $1 million in historic preservation grants for sites in Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands. And the U.S. Department of State awarded $375,000 for protecting Nan Madol.

“The ninety-nine islands of Nan Madol represent a cultural treasure, but they are threatened by overgrowth,” said Robert Riley, U.S. ambassador to Micronesia. He said the major restoration project can pull back the vegetation and allow for better access by historians and tourists.

Protecting the legacy of Nan Madol, a lost city in the Pacific

King Ilten Setten, descended from the rulers of the ancient city of Nan Madol, in April 2018. (© Dea/V. Giannella/Getty Images)

The complex of Nan Madol is relatively unknown outside of its Micronesian home. Stone structures — temples, altars, palaces and tombs — stand on top of the reef. While the buildings seem to float between connective canals, individual stones weigh almost 50 metric tons. The city was the seat of Pohnpei island’s Saudeleur dynasty, which ruled the island for half a millennium. Its ceremonial sites and dwellings tell of a rich religion and culture.

The State Department grant enables scientists to map the structures to understand how vegetation is connected with the site’s architecture. “A secondary objective is to see if there are other sites buried underground or under vegetation that have been lost, as have been found at Petra,” Riley said, referring to the stone city in Jordan.

Building a solid foundation

Along with Easter Island, Nan Madol is the main archaeological site in Oceania featuring works of giant stone. UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site in 2016.

Protecting the legacy of Nan Madol, a lost city in the Pacific

Buildings of immense stone rise in the city of Nan Madol. (© Nicole Evatt/AP Images)

“Each time I go, I am impressed by several things — the expansiveness of the site, the complexity of the engineering, and the massive stones of up to 50 tons that were somehow transported to the site and fitted snugly and in accordance with a precise engineering design,” Riley said. “And all of this on a small island in the middle of the Pacific!”

Since 1986, the United States has provided more than $2.5 billion to the Federated States of Micronesia. This support, for infrastructure, health, education, and cultural preservation, has helped Micronesia flourish.

Protecting the legacy of Nan Madol, a lost city in the Pacific

“The U.S. and [Micronesia] embarked on this journey together many years ago following World War II,” said Doug Domenech of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The two states “will continue to work towards the mutual goals under the Compact of Free Association to promote economic advancement, budgetary self-reliance, and economic self-sufficiency,” he said.