Monday, September 17, 2012

Artifacts of the Seven Site: A Compact?

We think we’ve found the remains of a woman’s compact from the 1930s at the Seven Site, similar to compacts that Amelia Earhart may have used.  Here’s the evidence.

1.       In 2001, we found a fragment of clear, thin, flat glass with one straight, finished, beveled finished edge (2-6-S-18), on the surface near the crest of the surge ridge.

2.       In 2007, we found another fragment (2-8-S-1) that fit the first, forming a finished corner; the glass had evidently been rectangular.

The two glass fragments

3.       We began speculating that the glass might have been the mirror from a compact that had lost its silvery backing.  Several TIGHAR researchers got to work and uncovered the fact that Earhart did regularly carry and use a compact; there was in fact one in Purdue University’s Earhart collection.

4.       Also in 2007, we found three tabular fragments of what we called (technical term) “red stuff;” two were in the WR feature, one in the SL feature.  We speculated that these might represent dried-up rouge.  Ric Gillespie measured the rouge compartment in a 1930s compact, and found that the three fragments fit easily in it.

The Red Stuff Superimposed on
Dimensions of a Rouge Compartment

5.       Ric also submitted a sample of the red stuff to the Winterthur Museum Analytical Laboratories, together with a rouge sample from a 1930s compact scored on Ebay by ace researcher Karen Hoy.  The results of comparative chemical analysis were not identical, but very similar.
Winterthur Analytical Results

6.       We wracked our brains trying to think of other things the red stuff might represent, and continue to do so, but so far, rouge seems to be the best bet.

7.       Starting in June, 2008, I began an experiment to see whether and how fast exposure to the elements would strip the silvery backing from a mirror.  Placing a small mirror under the most Niku-like conditions I could create in Silver Spring, Maryland, I’ve recorded its status monthly ever since. 

The Test Mirror After Six Months (1/1/2009)

The Test Mirror on 9/1/2012
(Brown material is remaining backing; glass otherwise is clear)

8.       So, five years in the rather more-benign-than-Niku environment of my backyard (and office during the winters; there’s no snow on Niku) have been sufficient to strip most of the backing off my mirror; seventy years at the Seven Site should have done it for our fragments.

9.       Meanwhile, the indefatigable Karen Hoy came up with two quite different antique compacts on Ebay, the first with a mirror that matched the Seven Site fragments in thickness and bevel but was a little larger; the second with a mirror whose size and bevel matched exactly.  It is apparent that some compacts in the 1930s did have mirrors the size, shape, and thickness of the Seven Site specimens, with the same kind of beveled edges.

Karen’s First Compact, with Seven Site Shards

Karen’s Second Compact; Mirror Removed for Comparison

Seven Site Shards on Mirror from Karen’s Second Compact

10.   In 2010, we found more fragments – tiny slivers – of red stuff, mostly around the SL Feature.  These collectively fit easily with the 2007 fragments in a compact’s rouge compartment.

Distribution of Red Stuff

11.   The SL Feature produced a great many tiny rusted fragments of thin ferrous metal.  Much of it appears to represent containers of various kinds, and possibly cooking implements.  A few very small, very thin fragments have traces of a non-metallic substance (another technical term: “black stuff”) on them.  In 2011 we submitted two of these – 2-8-S-52 and 2-9-S-94C – to the Evans Analytical Group (EAG) for analysis.  X-Ray Flourescence characterized the metal in 2-8-S-52 as a low-alloy steel, possibly tin-coated, but I had painted this particular fragile piece of rust with B-72 preservative when it came in from the site, and this frustrated characterization of the non-metallic substance. 

 12.   The second (untreated) sample, 2-9-S-94C, is a fragment of very thin ferrous metal bent into a right angle, as though it were from the edge of a small box.  Black stuff is concentrated in the bend.  Based on Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), EAG reported that the black residuum “contained organic material, possibly: saccharide such as cellulose or carbohydrate; polyamide such as protein or similar biological material; aromatic hydrocarbon such as lignin or other complex aromatic hydrocarbon; organic acid salt such as sodium alginate, and alphatic hydrocarbon…”  Among the aromatic hydrocarbons in the mix of products and byproducts was apparently carminic acid, the active ingredient in Carmine red dye, widely used in cosmetics.

EAG FTIR Plot of Black Residuum Against Carminic Acid

13.   Examining the EAG report, chemist Greg George points out that some of the identified compounds have sunscreening properties, and that the lignins might also match the FTIR spectrum for tannic acid, which was used in skin powders as an "irritant" to produce a "healthy pink."  This clearly needs more research by people who, like Greg, and unlike me, know their way around the periodic table.

14.   Other TIGHAR researchers are looking into direct evidence of Earhart’s compact use.  Joe Cerniglia has unearthed a 1934 photograph in the Purdue collection showing Earhart getting her hair cut by her rancher friend Carl Dunrud on his Double D Ranch in Wyoming.  She’s holding something rectangular in her hand that looks very much like the mirror from a compact, about the right size to be the one from the Seven Site.  It appears that it may have swiveled out from the body of the compact, represented by the rectangular-ish thing resting in her fingertips.

Haircut Photo: Source Purdue Special Collections and

Detail from Haircut Photo

15.   Another photo from Purdue, also found by Joe Cerniglia, shows Earhart standing in front of her Lockheed Vega holding a rectangular book-shaped thing, too small to be a book.  “Book-shaped” compacts were popular in the 1930s; based on the Vega, Ric Gillespie assigns this image a date of about 1935.

Earhart with “Book-Shaped” Compact?
Source:  Purdue Special Collections

16.   Finally, Ricker Jones found a June 29, 1937 news article from the Argus, a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, and a photo from the July 3, 1937 issue of the Melbourne Sun, both dealing with Earhart’s June 27th landing in Darwin.  The Argus describes her powdering her nose before deplaning, and in the Sun’s photo of her descending from the plane she’s carrying something rectangular and box-like, about the size of a large “carry-all” compact.

Earhart Deplaning in Darwin (From Melbourne Sun Courtesy Newspix)

Detail of Earhart’s Hand and Contents,
Darwin Photo

All the usual caveats, now: we do NOT have an unequivocal, unambiguous woman’s compact, and we don’t have a smoking gun connection between what we’ve found at the Seven Site and Earhart.  We have several artifacts that are consistent with pieces of a compact, of a size and shape resembling what appear to be compacts in Earhart’s hands in two or three relevant photographs.

If the mirror, red stuff, and thin metal don’t represent a compact, what do they represent? 

·         The thin metal with black stuff on it is, if you’ll excuse it, the thinnest piece of evidence; it could be from any number of thin metal artifacts, and the black residuum could have been produced in a variety of ways. 

·         The glass might not be from a mirror, though the fact that it’s identical with the mirrors found by Karen Hoy in two different compacts makes it seem pretty likely that it is. 

·         The red stuff contains no lead, so it isn’t red lead paint – a common paint in military and industrial uses in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, which we can be sure the Coast Guardsmen and probably the colonists had.  It might be some other kind of red paint, but we haven’t found examples of such paint anywhere else on the island (There are cans of what appears to be dried-up red lead in the colonial village).

If the artifacts we’ve found do represent a compact, could someone other than Earhart have brought it to the Seven Site?  Certainly, but the realistic options are pretty limited.  Those that have been suggested, or that we’ve thought of, are:

·         Women of the colony.  This is possible, but we have no evidence that I Kiribati or Tuvaluan women of the period living on isolated islands carried compacts, and there’s nothing of the kind in the inventories we’ve found from the colony’s cooperative store.

·         Passing female pearl divers.  We’ve seen no historical or archaeological evidence of pearl divers – male or female, with or without makeup – visiting Niku.

·         Gallagher.  Possible, but there’s no evidence that Gallagher engaged in cross-dressing.

·         A Coast Guardsman.  Possible; we have no evidence of a cross-dressing Coast Guardsman, but we wouldn’t expect to find much.

·         A visiting European, Australian, New Zealand, or American woman.  This is probably the most likely non-Earhart option.  We know that colonial administrator Paul Laxton’s wife was with him on the island for awhile in 1949-50, and he mentions that an unidentified American woman visited.  We have a photo of Mrs. Laxton on Nutiran at the north end of the island, and it’s certainly not impossible that she, or the mysterious American woman, or another visiting woman, also went south and spent time at the Seven Site.  It’s not impossible that she left a compact there for some reason.

So, alternative explanations can be imagined for a compact – or stuff that collectively looks like a compact – at the Seven Site.  When considered in the context of the other evidence at the Seven Site, however, we think there’s a good chance that the fragments we’ve found there represent the remains of Amelia Earhart’s compact.

Thanks to Joe Cerniglia, Karen Hoy, Greg George, and Ricker Jones for their help in producing this paper; errors and omissions are my own responsibility, however.

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