Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sir Ian Thomson

I'm reminded this morning my my on-line calendar that Sir Ian Thomson's 91st birthday would be coming up in early January, had he not passed away last year. Sir Ian, known fondly as "Mungo," was Aide-de-Camp to Sir Harry Luke, High Commissioner of the Western Pacific and Governor of Fiji, in 1940-41, before returning to his regiment where he served with distinction in World War II. I became acquainted with Sir Ian when -- in Fiji in 1999 -- I was told that it was too bad he had recently died, because he could have told me a lot about that critical period in the history of Nikumaroro and its elusive bones. I wrote to Sir Ian's son in New Zealand, expressing regret at his father's passing and asking if he'd left any papers. Awhile later I received an aerogramme from Sir Ian himself, in Edinburgh. "Whilst some in Fiji may equate Scotland with the hereafter," he wrote, "I am not, in fact, deceased." For several years following my rather flustered response to his note, we maintained a correspondence that I found delightful, and Sir Ian pointed me toward a number of useful sources of information -- though he said that he himself had no direct knowledge of what might have happened to the bones from Nikumaroro.

I greatly valued my contact with Sir Ian, as I have with the late Harry Maude and other veterans of the great days of the British Empire in the western Pacific. I mourn their passing, and honor their achievements.

17 December 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Buying Thirteen Bones

Anyone interested in purchasing my new novel, Thirteen Bones, can do so directly from the publisher by going to Alternatively, it's available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers. It's the fictionalized (but fact-based) story of the 1940 discovery of what were probably Amelia Earhart's remains on Nikumaroro in the Phoenix Islands, Republic of Kiribati.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Another Excerpt from "Thirteen Bones"

“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Baiteke yelped, but didn’t move. He was lying on his back under a small ren tree. Keaki didn’t move either, but curiosity finally impelled him to speak.

“What’s the problem, Brains-in-your-butt?”

“I’m lying on something that hurts my back.”

“Try moving.”

“I’m too tired.”

It was the middle of the second day of work in the former kanawa grove. They had helped the men heave on the cable dragging the first two logs – for the canoe and the flagpole – down the slipway; they had not exactly gone “whoosh.” The men had tied them together in a sort of raft, and then Temou and Abera had begun the long, laborious paddle up to the village, hauling the rafted logs behind. Kirata and Takena were resting and smoking on the lagoon shore, and had sent the boys back to the grove to finish trimming the remaining logs. This seemed grossly unfair to them both, and after half an hour of work they had grown weary and collapsed on heaps of leaves and branches. The sun blazed down on the new clearing, which seemed to shimmer in the heat.

“Ow! Ow!”

Keaki lifted his hands in mock prayer to the sky. “Please, God, save my friend Baiteke from his torment. Cause him to roll over before his back breaks in two.”

“You torment me,” Baiteke grumbled, rolling onto his side. “What is this thing?”

“What thing?”

“This thing I was lying on – well, crab shit, it’s a box!”

“You’ve been lying on a box all this time and....”

“It was under all these leaves and twigs; I thought they’d be nice to lie on.”

“Let me see.” Keaki rolled over, folded into a crouch to see what Baiteke was pulling out of the deadfall.

It was certainly a box, made of wood, with a hinged top. Rather a nice box, something over a foot on each side, half a foot deep.

“Pretty box,” Keaki said admiringly. “What’s in it?”

“I don’t know. How am I supposed to know?”

“Try opening it.”

“Yeah, all right.” Baiteke didn’t move. “Do you think it is all right?”

Well, Keaki thought, that was a good question. Not far from where they’d found the skull, and here was a box. What might be in it? More to the point, what might come out of it?

“Maybe not. Maybe you should.....”

“Oh, well, what can it hurt? Here’s a catch....”

Baiteke threw back the lid, wrinkled up his forehead. “Bunch of paper.”


“Yeah, but all brittle; look, it falls apart when I touch it.”

Keaki stood up and looked over Baiteke’s shoulder. The box, he saw, had a lot of pieces of paper in it, with handwriting on them, but they were crumbling away right before his eyes. Some of the writing was gray, like pencil lead, some of it was red and smudgy.

“I wonder what the words say. Can you…..?”

“I don’t know, but nobody can read them if they can’t even pick them up. Look...” He held up a piece of the paper, crumbled it in his fingers.

“Wait... don’t...”

“I wonder if there’s anything else.” Baiteke held the box upside down and the fragments of paper fell out, blew away in the wind.

There was nothing else inside.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Stratigraphy of the Seven Site


Nikumaroro is an atoll about 4.5 miles long and a 1.5 mile wide, with a lagoon in the middle. The windward (NE) side of the atoll is relatively narrow, with a topography dominated by a more or less central surge ridge paralleling the ocean and lagoon shores. In other words, constant battering by the sea has gradually built up a ridge of broken coral parallel to the shore; it’s no more than 10 meters high, and usually a good deal lower. The Seven Site lies along the crest and SW (lagoon-ward) side of the surge ridge.

Because it’s made up of broken coral, the ridge is roughly equivalent to a pile of gravel, though the individual pieces of coral are more variable than in your average gravel pile, ranging from fingernail size to the size of your head. In the one place we’ve dug relatively deeply (about 110 cm., at the site of the hole where we think the cranium might have been buried, near the SW base of the ridge), the coral becomes relatively consolidated at about 1 meter depth into something resembling bedrock, but with extensive void spaces.

The coarse nature of the material making up the surge ridge means that fine material – sand, small pieces of coral, organic detritus, and many artifacts – filter through the topmost stratum and wind up somewhat lower. We’ve found that there’s a relatively stable “surface” at about 10 cm. depth; almost everything we’ve found in the way of features and artifacts have been in that top 10 cm. But not in the top 5 cm. – that’s made up of relatively coarse material through which (or through voids around which) the lighter material has sifted. As a result, a close inspection of the surface itself may reveal very little, but once the top 5 cm. or so is raked or scraped away, one begins to encounter fire features and artifacts – which, however, peter out at about 10 cm. depth.

Typical stratigraphy (North wall of "hole" excavation"

Imagining the Bones Discovery

Here’s an excerpt from Thirteen Bones, imagining the 1940 discovery of the cranium that may have been Earhart’s, at the Seven Site.

“Maybe there’ll be ai” Baiteke gasped hopefully, slashing at a wall of mao.

Keaki grunted, and fell to considering coconut crabs, why they congregated in some places and not others, their relative scarcity and shyness near the village, how much his father liked them and how he, on the other hand, had eaten about as many as he cared to, ever. Musing, he slashed down a curtain of mao and stepped into a clearing. And stopped so abruptly that Baiteke ran into him.

“Ow! Did you decide to stop and shit?”

Keaki put out his arm to stop Baiteke from blundering into the clearing. Pointed.

The mao had ended because the kanawa grove was beginning, its canopy depriving the shrubs of sun. The relatively clear ground ahead was shady and rather gray compared to the brilliant green of the mao thicket. The land under the big trees sloped sharply upward – the inland slope of the surge ridge. At the foot of the slope, directly in front of them not ten feet ahead, lying on its side looking at them with big vacant eye sockets, was a very round, very white skull.

“Is it – a person?” Baiteke whispered.

“I think so.”


“I don’t know, stupid!” Keaki stood transfixed, afraid to move or speak above a whisper for fear the thing would see him, hear him. Rise up out of the forest floor dragging its bones behind it, grinning like Teng Beiaruru on Moamoa’s moonlit bow, with finger bones reaching, grabbing….

Without another word, the boys turned back along their trail, first creeping silently, then running, jumping over stumps and piles of cuttings.

The Seven Site: Background links to my in-progress report on the Seven Site. In a nutshell:

1. We think it’s the site where, in 1940, human bones were found together with a sextant box, remains of a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe, a Benedictine bottle, and some corks on chains, near the remains of a fire with bird and turtle bones. Although the artifacts and bones have disappeared:

a. Measurements taken on the bones at the time are consistent with their being from a woman of Earhart’s height and ethnicity;
b. Numbers on the sextant box strongly suggest that it once contained a sextant that was in the inventory of the U.S. Navy at the end of World War I, possibly having been modified for aviation use and quite likely sold as surplus; and
c. The corks on chains could have been stoppers from desert water bags, two of which were aboard Earhart’s plane.

2. Gerald Gallagher’s telegrams about the discovery report that the cranium was buried by its finders; he then dug it up. There’s a hole in the ground at the Seven Site that makes little sense as a well, cellar, or much of anything else; we think it may be where the cranium was buried and then excavated.

3. In 2001 we re-excavated the hole and its backdirt with no success, but on the nearby surge ridge that bisects the site on a NW-SE axis, we found fire features with fish, bird, and turtle bones together with two piles of giant clam shells, a concentration of butterclam shells, and a number of enigmatic and not-so enigmatic artifacts. In 2007 we found more features and artifacts. In summary, it appears that:

a. Somebody camped at the site, collecting and cooking a rather unselective sample of fish from the reef and/or lagoon, along with a few birds, at least one adult sea turtle, some baby turtles, and clams.
b. This somebody didn’t consume the heads of the fish, as indigenous island consumers would have;
c. This somebody didn’t know how to open giant clams, tried to pry them open from the hinge side as one would an oyster, and then busted the bejeebers out of them with rocks;
d. This somebody tried to do something with bottles in one of the fires, perhaps attempting to distill or purify water;
e. The site was subsequently used by personnel from the nearby 1944-46 US Coast Guard Loran station for informal target practice and perhaps bird shooting, resulting in a scatter of M-1 cartridges and objects probably used as targets (plates, etc.).
f. At some point or points in time the island’s colonists built a small house on the site, installed a steel tank to collect water, brought in a good deal of corrugated iron, and planted coconuts, which failed. They also probably cut down some large hardwood trees and dragged them off the site.
g. Someone, at some point, lost or discarded:

i. A woman’s compact from the 1930s;
ii. An article of clothing with an American-manufactured zipper from the 1930s;
iii. An article of clothing with a snap;
iv. An article of clothing with a large button;
v. A bottle containing some kind of crème or lotion
vi. Something (or things), probably made of wood, containing American wood screws, a small pin, and two small hand-made aluminum items with teeth;
vii. A thin, laminated ferrous metal box(?) about 40 cm. on a side;
viii. Some other ferrous metal items we’re working on identifying (they’re all reduced to tiny pieces of rust).

Here’s a map of the site, and an overhead photomosaic made in 2007 using kite aerial photography (KAP). As you can see from the photomosaic, the site is ordinarily covered in Scaevola frutescens, a really nasty shrub that we remove (with care and considerable effort) using pneumatic loppers, chain saws, and bush knives. Disposal of the detritus is always a problem.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

So Why Are We Looking on Nikumaroro?

By way of background, here's a little paper I prepared to distribute at my "Ameliaschpiels" -- talks I give about our project. The original is footnoted, mostly citing AE's Shoes, Finding Amelia, and the TIGHAR website, but I can't figure out how to do footnotes on blogger.

What Happened to Amelia Earhart? The Case for Nikumaroro

Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2nd 1937. TIGHAR hypothesizes that they landed and died on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, an uninhabited island in what is now the Republic of Kiribati. Detailed documentation of our basis for the Nikumaroro Hypothesis is found in two books published by TIGHAR members , and on TIGHAR’s worldwide web site . We have prepared this short paper to summarize the reasons we believe we are right about Earhart’s fate. Here they are:

1. In the last radio transmission that all authorities agree came from Earhart, she said she was flying "on the line 157 337” – this is generally understood to be a course heading. The strength of the transmission indicated that she was close to Howland Island at that time. She was not understood to say which direction she was flying but U.S. Navy experts, Earhart’s husband George Putnam, and her technical advisor Paul Mantz all agreed that the flight probably proceeded southeastward in the hope of reaching land . Such a line passing through Howland Island also passes within visual range of Nikumaroro.

2. Nikumaroro is much easier to see from the air than Howland Island; it is bigger, tree-covered, and has a brilliant aquamarine lagoon (Check it on Google Earth: ask it to navigate either to "Nikumaroro" or to "Gardner Island."

3. After her disappearance, over 180 radio messages were received by stations around the Pacific and elsewhere, most of them by professional radio operators, some of them in a voice identified as Earhart’s by operators who had heard her in past transmissions. When the U.S. Navy’s extensive search didn’t reveal anything, the Navy decided they were all mistakes or hoaxes. If even one of these messages was really from Earhart, she had to be on land with a fairly intact airplane capable of generating power for the radio (See Finding Amelia).

4. Radio stations at Wake Island, Midway Island, and Hawaii took radio direction finding (RDF) bearings on six of the transmissions. Four of these bearings crossed in the vicinity of Nikumaroro .

5. The only radio (other than, perhaps, Earhart’s) documented as having been in the Phoenix Islands was in the possession of John William Jones, a coconut plantation supervisor on Hull (now Orona) Island, about 150 miles east of Nikumaroro. Jones’ radio is reliably reported to have been out of order between early June and late August of 1937 .

6. TIGHAR analysis of the whole body of radio messages indicates only two plausible explanations for them. Either an extremely well-informed hoaxer with an undocumented radio was on one of the western Phoenix Islands imitating Earhart’s voice, or Earhart was there .

7. Search plane crews from USS Colorado, flying over Nikumaroro, reported “signs of recent habitation,” but concluded that they were not related to Earhart, so the Colorado did not land a search party . The island had not been officially inhabited since 1892.

8. British colonial officers who visited Nikumaroro in October of 1937 to see whether the island could be colonized said they saw evidence suggesting an “overnight bivouac” (camp) .

9. Residents of the colony established on Nikumaroro in December of 1938, which lasted until 1963, report aircraft wreckage on the northwestern reef flat and in the lagoon. A US Navy pilot who visited the island during World War II reported local residents using aircraft control cable as a fishing line, which they said came from a plane wreck that had been on the island when they came .

10. TIGHAR has recovered a number of pieces of aircraft wreckage from the remains of the colonial village on Nikumaroro; these appear to have been brought to the village to use in fabricating handicrafts. Some of these are from a B-24, probably one that crashed on Canton Island, some 230 miles to the northeast (people from Nikumaroro worked on Canton during World War II). Other pieces, including aluminum fragments and fragments of plexiglass, do not appear to match a B-24 but are consistent with a Lockheed Electra like Earhart’s .

11. In 1991, TIGHAR recovered parts of two shoes on Nikumaroro, identified by footwear specialists as a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe. The former was identified as a “Blucher-style oxford” dating to the 1930s. Earhart wore such shoes on her flight, though the only example that can be measured in photographs appears to have been smaller than the one found by TIGHAR . Earhart is recorded to have had at least two pairs of footgear on the plane, probably including a pair of hiking boots .

12. In 1940, thirteen bones of a human skeleton were found on the SE end of the island next to the remains of a campfire with bird and turtle bones. Nearby the remains of a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe were found, together with a sextant box and some small corks on chains. The bones were examined by two medical doctors. One said the bones came from an elderly Polynesian, the other said they were from an adult male of European or mixed race. The bone measurements taken by the second doctor have been analyzed by modern forensic anthropologists, whose studies indicate that they may more likely be those of a woman of European ethnic background, about 5’5” to 5’9” in height. Earhart would have fit this description. The bones have been lost. (Note: This is the core of the story recounted in Thirteen Bones)

13. The sextant box – which has also been lost – is recorded as having had two numbers on it: 1542 and 3500. Recent research has shown that during World War I, the U.S. Navy acquired a large number of nautical sextants, some of which were converted for aviation use. Known sextants acquired by the Navy from the Brandis Instrument Company carried serial numbers ranging from 3227 to 5760, and were assigned Navy numbers 845 through 4705; these numbers were stamped into the boxes as well as the instruments themselves. The numbers on the Nikumaroro sextant box thus suggest that it held a Brandis instrument owned for a time by the U.S. Navy.

14. The second number on the box – 3500 – is also close to the number 3547, which is written on a sextant box held by the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida and is documented to have belonged to Fred Noonan . One of Noonan’s jobs in the 1930s was as a navigator trainer; it would be reasonable for him to have acquired surplus U.S. Navy sextants for use in training students.

15. In 1946 the late Floyd Kilts, a U.S. Coast Guardsman on duty on Nikumaroro, was told about the bones discovery by a local resident. Other Coast Guardsmen purchased wooden boxes built by the residents, with inlaid pieces of aircraft aluminum .

16. TIGHAR has identified a site on the southeast end of the island (the Seven Site) that closely matches the description given in British colonial records of the bones discovery site. Here we have found the remains of several cooking fires containing bird, fish, and turtle bones. There are also two clusters of giant clam (Tridacna sp.) shells on the site, apparently brought there so their meat could be consumed. Many of the clams in one cluster appear to have been opened by someone who tried to pry them open on the hinge side (as eastern U.S. oysters and some clams are opened); others have been opened by smashing them with rocks . Fishbones from the remains of cooking fires on the site suggest that whoever camped there was unselectively catching mostly rather small reef and lagoon fish, cooking them on the coals, and disposing of their bones in the fires; none of this behavior is consistent with fishing and fish preparation by indigenous Pacific islanders .

17. Finally, we have found a variety of artifacts at the Seven Site. Some of these are clearly of colonial or Coast Guard origin, but others are not . Among the artifacts recovered from the site in 2007 are:

a. a broken bottle containing traces of a substance containing lanolin, probably either a skin cream or hair dressing;
b. two broken, partially melted bottles identified as dating to before World War II, found in the remains of a cooking fire where it appears they may have been used in attempts to boil water;
c. two small pieces of thin beveled glass that appear to be the remains of a small mirror of the kind found in ladies’ compacts in the 1930s;
d. three small fragments of red material chemically identified as probable cosmetic rouge;
e. the pull from a Talon brand zipper manufactured in the U.S. sometime between 1933 and 1937.

Earhart is known to have carried a compact which, if it was like others of the period, would have contained rouge. U.S. Coast Guardsmen, island colonists, and British colonial officials are unlikely to have had such items. A photo of Earhart on a stop in Miami, Florida shows that she wore slacks with one or more side zippers. Zippers had only recently begun to be used in women’s clothes in the late 1930s ; they were used by Earhart in her own fashion design, and by her friend and favored design

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Amelia Earhart Archaeology?

Some twenty-plus years ago, as I was preparing to get out of a job in historic preservation with the U.S. government, I got a call from Ric Gillespie, head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Ric said that TIGHAR had decided to launch a search for the long-lost aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. I said I'd done archaeology in the Pacific, had some time on my hands, and if he needed an archaeologist, I was his man. I've been involved in TIGHAR's quest for Amelia ever since. Many of our adventures are documented in Amelia Earhart's Shoes (,which I co-authored with three other TIGHAR members. Ric has summarized good deal of evidence that's background to our hypothesis in Finding Amelia (, published by the Naval Institute Press. And there's a tremendous amount of information on, and opportunities to interact with, the project on TIGHAR's web site,

So why a blog? Because we're going back to Nikumaroro -- the island where we think Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, breathed their last -- next May for one of our most focused efforts yet to bring a definitive conclusion to the mystery; I'm motivated to think and write about what we plan to do, and am interested in others' reactions. And because I've written a novel based on some of the results of our work, which I'm self-publishing through Dog Ear Publications (, want to make it known, and am interested in reactions to it, too.

So what I propose to do here is write about preparations for next year's expeditions, respond to queries, challenges, and comments, and shill my novel.