Historical archaeology often focuses on the study of dispossessed, subaltern, or marginalized groups in the modern world. One such group is the community of the Hansen's disease (leprosy) settlement at Kalawao, Moloka‘i, which was established by the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1865. The first people diagnosed by the state with Hansen's disease arrived in Kalawao in 1866, and around 1900 settlement shifted to the other side of Kalaupapa peninsula. Hawaii would not end its quarantine policy until 1969. Archaeological research on Kalawao's recent past draws from the theoretical frameworks of the archaeology of colonialism, which focuses on the study of unequal power relations in situations of intercultural interaction, and the archaeology of total institutions, which focuses on the lives of inmates and staff in socially bounded places of isolation, such as prisons, almshouses, and insane asylums. Archaeology can be used to reveal patterns that are often not apparent in the written record, providing valuable insights into the everyday lives of people living in colonial and institutional situations. These insights in turn can inform different interpretations of the nature of power and its use by individuals coping with stigma and isolation, and living in created communities.
A multiscalar archaeological research project provided some valuable data about the community at Kalawao, focusing primarily on the period from 1866-1900, but also drawing on archaeological evidence from earlier and later periods. Landscape and settlement pattern analyses revealed that the spatial ordering of the settlement followed the form of a Hawaiian village site, rather than that of a typical total institution. Pre-existing Hawaiian ritual sites remain scattered throughout the late-19th century landscape. Detailed study, including excavations, of archaeological house sites in Kalawao revealed continuity as well as change in architectural forms, including the use of traditional Hawaiian domestic architecture through the end of the 19th century. Excavations also revealed the richness and variability of domestic assemblages. Artifact analysis of surface collected and excavated materials yielded evidence for the use of brightly colored ceramics, and the production and use of worked bottle glass tools for cutting and scraping. Glass bottles found in Kalawao provide evidence for continued human activity after what is historically considered the time of abandonment of the settlement. Archaeological patterns at all scales suggest that material in the settlement follows Hawaiian patterns of daily life throughout the modern period.
Ultimately, this research challenges the antisocial stigma associated with Hansen's disease, by showing the extent to which people worked to create a community in Kalawao. Material culture played a crucial role in this process, as goods and objects served to create social bonds. The evidence for the creation, maintenance, and transformation of social structures in Kalawao also provides valuable material for considering the ways that communities form in situations of long-term incarceration. Where the state was able to create a quarantine settlement and to establish rules, the community in the settlement actually determined the form of everyday life in Kalawao, and set about essentially creating a Hawaiian village. This suggests that in institutions that are relatively decentralized, with over-arching rules and standards set by an external power but little day-to-day regulations, people will form communities that make sense in terms of their preexisting ideas about social organization, and their social habits.