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But with one very small exception — the tiny eastern outliers of the Solomon Islands — Vanuatu offers the first solid ground on the far side of a major but invisible maritime boundary.
In late 2003, while clearing land just above the seaside, a bulldozer driver found a broken piece of pottery in the rubble.
A meaningful national identity has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt.
Above all, however, the ni-Vanuatu are bound together by the fact of the country’s nautical isolation: Their nearest neighbors are hundreds of miles in any direction.
The villagers of Vanuatu often happen upon shards of timeworn ceramic, which spark an idly mythical curiosity; they’re said to be fragments of Noah’s Ark, or the original Ten Commandments, or the burst water vessels of powerful ancestral spirits.
These shards are often left alone, but word in this particular case traveled quickly, and the artifact soon found its way to the Vanuatu Cultural Center and National Museum, where Stuart Bedford, a New Zealand archaeologist who had studied local pot shards for years, was called in to inspect it.