In those years when most teens spend summers riding skateboards, binge-watching television or hanging out at the beach, Patrick Kirch studied Hawaiian culture and history and joined in digs with some of Hawaii’s most renowned archaeologists.
Now, after 3-1/2 decades as a professor at mainland universities, during which he became a renowned archaeologist focused on Polynesian and Hawaiian archaeology, Kirch has finally come home.
At 69 — five years after he officially retired from the University of California, Berkeley — Kirch has joined the faculty of the University of Hawaii at Manoa as a full professor.
“I’m getting to the part of my life when I want to share my knowledge with the next generation here in Hawaii,” Kirch explained in an interview at the Bishop Museum.
Kirch, born and reared in Manoa, is the author of some 20 books and hundreds of scholarly articles and is an elected member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, which makes him one of only a handful employed by UH-Manoa.
He is known for incorporating other sciences and research methods in his work to gain a richer picture of ancient civilizations.
His field research has taken him across the Pacific, from Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, to Tonga and Samoa, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and, of course, Hawaii.
His latest book, “Heiau, ‘Aina, Lani: The Hawaiian Temple System in Ancient Kahikinui and Kaupo, Maui,” describes a 17-year archaeological campaign with students and research associates to rediscover and chronicle the remains of scores of temples (heiau) in remote Kahikinui and Kaupo landscape of southeast Maui.
A lecture he presented on the topic last week was witnessed by a packed house at the Bishop Museum, an institution with which he has been long affiliated, including 10 years as head of archaeology early in his career.
At age 13 Kirch was accepted as a summer intern by Bishop Museum zoologist Yoshio Kondo, and it wasn’t long before he was joining the museum’s archaeological digs on Maui and Hawaii islands. He apprenticed with famed Bishop Museum archaeologist Kenneth Emory while in high school at Punahou.
After obtaining his anthropology degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he joined Bishop Museum ethnobotanist Douglas Yen for a two-month expedition to tiny Anuta island in the Solomons.
The experience sold him on a career in Polynesian anthropology and archaeology.
“It was like stepping back in time,” Kirch recalled. “It was kind of like arriving in Hawaii in 1800. Everything was still made in bark cloth. All the houses were traditionally thatched. It was completely subsistence living. There was no trade store, nothing. It was just this wonderful experience of living in a Polynesian society.”
After completing his doctorate in anthropology at Yale in 1975, Kirch returned to the staff of the Bishop Museum for 10 years and conducted field research in the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Hawaii.
After Donald Duckworth took over as director of the Bishop Museum in 1983, with an eye toward reducing the research mission of the museum, Kirch accepted a job as director of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, then moved to the University of California, Berkeley in 1989 while continuing active research in Hawaii and Polynesia.
Kirch, who always had a return to Hawaii in the back of his mind, continued to conduct field research here year after year.
Over the past decade, his books primarily focused on Hawaii. That includes his award-winning 2012 book, “A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai‘i,” which describes how the early Polynesian settlers adapted to their new island landscape and created highly productive agricultural systems.
His community involvement in Hawaii grew as well. In 2017 he was appointed to the Bishop Museum board of directors and he also joined the advisory board of the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, helping to advise the organization about the preservation of cultural sites.
Kirch said UH actually recruited him about 10 years ago — at just about the time of the Great Recession.
“They made me an offer, but I couldn’t do it because we were underwater in our housing situation in California. I told them sorry, I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Talks with UH officials started again last year, resulting in another offer. This time, with his housing situation changed, he accepted.
In addition to teaching a Hawaiian archaeology course this fall, the professor also will be teaching an entirely new course in the spring, “Historical Ecology of Hawai‘i.” He will be looking at how humans have interacted with and transformed the environment.
Additionally, he will be teaching a course on Pacific Islands archaeology.
Kirch and his wife have found a home in Maunawili, where he loves to garden.
The Windward side of Oahu is more like the Hawaii he grew up in, he said.
“When I come to Honolulu and see all the high-rises, I say, ‘Oh, my God.’ I mean, Waikiki, when I was a kid, had four hotels. That was it.”