Friday, June 8, 2012

That Freckle Cream Jar

The media have been all over the story of “Amelia Earhart’s freckle cream jar” (eg., and several people have asked me about it, so here’s a little information and a bit of grumping about the perceived and actual nature of archaeology.

The jar was found in several pieces, fairly well dispersed over the Seven Site on Nikumaroro, during our major excavation there in 2010. TIGHAR researcher Joe Cerniglia has been particularly persistent in trying to nail down exactly what may have been in it when it was whole and in use. It most likely dates to the twentieth century no later than the 1930s and was manufactured in the U.S., but Dr. Berry’s Freckle Cream is only one of several cosmetic lotion-type products that Joe and others have identified as having been marketed in such containers. The freckle cream association is particularly intriguing, because Earhart had freckles and is said to have been sensitive about them.

The catch, though – not mentioned much in the popular press – is that all the genuine Dr. Berry’s jar’s that Joe and others have been able to locate are made of opaque white glass, presumably to protect their contents from the sun. Our jar is transparent. Was Dr. Berry’s ever packed in clear jars? We don’t know, though Joe and his bottle-brethren are trying hard to find out.

What tends to be lost in the hype, though, is that the jar is only one of several pieces of mutually reinforcing evidence suggesting that an American woman camped at the Seven Site for a time in the years before World War II. Besides the jar, we have:

A broken bottle that appears to have contained Campana Italian Balm, a popular American skin care product in the 1930s;

Two pieces of flat, beveled glass that match the shape and size of the mirror in a 1930s rectangular compact; and

A number of pieces of red substance whose chemical composition suggests that it is rouge, possibly from the same compact.

Less gender-linked items include:

A fragmentary Mennen’s Skin Bracer or baby oil bottle, again American and (to judge from its embossed Art Deco lettering) from the ‘30s;

A pre-war beer bottle and a smaller bottle that probably contained St. Joseph’s Liniment, again from the U.S., which had been set upright in a campfire, perhaps in an attempt to purify water by boiling;

An assemblage of fish and baby turtle bones that’s consistent with the more or less random foraging of an inexperienced castaway, and not with the subsistence practices typical of indigenous South Pacific populations.

A feature made up of giant clam (Tridacna) shells, some of which show evidence of attempts to open them from the hinge side (like oysters in the eastern U.S.), and others of which have been opened by smashing with a rock – neither behavior typical of indigenous Pacific populations.

Historical, archaeological and photographic data also suggest that the site is where a partial human skeleton was found in 1940, associated with a sextant box and parts of a woman’s and man’s shoes. The sextant box was marked with numbers indicating that it held a Brandis sextant acquired by the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War I and probably disposed of as surplus thereafter; some sextants in this series were modified for use in aviation.

The Discovery News item in which the freckle cream story was broken mentions some of these pieces of data, but most of the other press has focused on the jar as though it were an isolated find. This may reflect an understandable but unfortunate belief on the part of the public that archaeology is all about finding definitive artifacts – and moreover, THE specific definitive artifacts that one sets out to find. A la Indy Jones, we go looking for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail or the Crystal Skull of Whateverland; we have all kinds of adventures, and eventually we find it, proving whatever it was (if anything) we set out to prove. Based on this kind of perception we're expected not just to find a smoking gun, but the precisely right smoking gun, I had a note the other day from a fellow who said he wasn’t impressed with the jar because if Earhart had been on the island, we should have found her briefcase.

That’s simply not how archaeology works, folks. We rather seldom find definitive individual artifacts, and when we do, we’re wise to be wary of them; they can be faked (See, for instance,'s_Plate_of_Brass), and even if they’re real they can be misleading. It’s far more common in archaeology, and more trustworthy, to base our conclusions on a pattern of clues – artifacts, faunal remains, the organization of sites, and so on – that collectively give us a plausible story, a reasonable picture of what happened in the past. I know that kind of research is hard to present in screen shots and sound bites, but that’s how we actually piece the past together. And that’s that kind of a reasonable picture we think we’re seeing come together at the Seven Site. It’s still murky, and it’s still possible we’re misperceiving it, but if we are, it’s because we’re misinterpreting the patterns of evidence, not because we’re missing some specific definitive artifact.

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