Monday, December 21, 2015

2001 Report on the Seven Site

A bit of history -- I'm organizing my files to start serious work on a comprehensive report on Nikumaroro archaeology. For purposes of historical reference, I thought it might be useful to post this paper, written after the 2001 expedition to Nikumaroro. Of course, we've learned a lot about the Seven Site since this was written. And incidentally, we turned out to be wrong about the "Kanawa" at the Triangle Site; it's not Kanawa at all, but Island Walnut.



Thomas F. King
September 22, 2001


Gerald Gallagher, in his 1940-41 reports to the Western Pacific High Commission (WPHC), describes the discovery of a human skeleton and associated artifacts which he associated with Amelia Earhart on the “southeast corner” and “southeastern shore” of Nikumaroro (See King et al 2001:207-21 for details).  He says that the skeleton was lying under a Ren tree (Tournefortia)[1] and that it was associated with the remains of a fire and the bones of birds and turtle.  He says that the site was about “100 feet from high water ordinary springs.”  He reports that upon discovery (prior to his arrival on Nikumaroro), the cranium was buried; it was later exhumed at his direction.

The cranium, mandible, and eleven other bones found by Gallagher and his colleagues were sent to Fiji for analysis, where it was concluded (perhaps incorrectly, according to modern reanalysis) that they were the bones of a European or mixed-race male.  Gallagher thereupon posited that they represented the remains of an “unfortunate castaway,” who had died within two miles of a coconut grove that could have kept him alive.

Since several lines of evidence suggest that Gallagher may have been right in his first assessment of the skeleton, as that of Earhart, the site where it was found is of great interest to The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).  Accordingly, two sites were investigated by TIGHAR’s 2001 Nikumaroro IIII Expedition as possible candidates for being the “bones discovery site” or “castaway campsite.”  Field research was completed on September 18, 2001.  The following is a very preliminary report on the two sites -–the "Triangle Site” and the “Seven Site.

The Triangle Site

The Triangle Site is a roughly triangular patch of apparent pristine native vegetation on the southeastern shore of the island, surrounded by the dense masses of te Mao (Scaevola frutescens) typical of land that has been cleared but not successfully planted in coconut.  It was investigated because it meets the general geographic description given by Gallagher (Southeast shore), and because its character suggested an answer to an otherwise rather mysterious question.  Former U.S. Coast Guardsman Floyd Kilts reported in 1960 that he had been told about a discovery of bones on Nikumaroro, which the island’s “Irish magistrate” had associated with Earhart (c.f., King et al 2001:54-6).  Since we now know that Gallagher was instructed to keep the discovery confidential – direction that it seems likely he would have passed on to his I Kiribati colleagues, why did a colonist tell Kilts about it?  We speculated that if Kilts had been involved in land clearing operations (Veterans of the Coast Guard Loran Station on the island have told us that they did engage in such operations), he might have been warned not to disturb the site, and told about the discovery in order to explain the warning.

The Triangle Site was accessed from the lagoon shore by cutting a trail into what proved to be a grove of (apparently) rather young te Kanawa (Chordia subchordata), and then through dense te Mao to the ocean shore just west of the site.  The site itself was found to be wooded in rather small Buka trees (Pisonia grandis), together with te Kanawa, te Ren, and te Uri.   Elsewhere on the island te Buka have trunk diameters of up to a meter; at the Triangle Site twenty to forty centimeter diameters were typical.  This is comparable with the diameter of te Buka observed growing through World War II-era corrugated metal at the Ameriki Loran Site.

The Triangle Site was first given a general surface inspection by John Clauss, William Carter, and the author.  Subsequently Carter and James Morrissey swept the site with metal detectors and raked the surface clear of surface litter, permitting close visual inspection.  The only human association found, besides contemporary flotsam in the shorefront vegetation, was a single 30 caliber rifle or carbine cartridge.  Without anything of evident interest to investigate, and in view of the pressing need to devote resources to the Seven Site (See below), the Triangle Site was not investigated further.

The Seven Site


The Seven Site –so named because it abuts a natural clearing in the te Mao that has the shape of a crude numeral “7” – also lies at the southeast end of the island.  Strictly speaking it is on the north shore of the southeast end, not on the southeastern shore, but there is no reason to assume that Gallagher felt compelled to report such fine distinctions.  Airphotos show that the Seven Site vicinity was cleared in 1941, about the time Gallagher would have been conducting the “intensive search” of the bones site that the High Commissioner’s office told him to carry out.  Paul Laxton (1951) says that in 1949 there was a “house built for Gallagher” on land cleared from the lagoon to the ocean shore in this vicinity.  A land parcel at approximately the location of the Seven Site was reserved for government, or for Gallagher himself, on maps of land divisions as late as the 1950s, over a decade after Gallagher’s death[2].

The Seven Site first came to TIGHAR’s attention through reports by former members of the U.S. Coast Guard Loran unit on the island during World War II.  Dr. Richard Evans and Mr. Herb Moffitt reported seeing a tank used as part of a water collection device, unknown to the I Kiribati colonists, in the general area (c.f., King et al 2001:117-8).  Thinking the tank might be from Earhart’s Electra, and represent an Earhart/Noonan campsite, TIGHAR searched for it unsuccessfully during the 1991 expedition (c.f., King et al 2001:121-2).  In 1996, after finding the image of something that might be the tank on a 1941 air photo, TIGHAR revisited the area and this time found the tank (c.f., King et al., 2001:151-6).  The tank, about a meter square, was (and is) made of steel, and bore the name of the Tarawa Police.  Nearby were bird bones, a roll of green asphalt siding, and a hole in the ground measuring about 1.5 meter in diameter, together with a piece of copper hardware cloth, a 30 caliber cartridge, a white stoneware plate sherd, and other artifacts clearly of either colonial or Coast Guard origin. Concluding that the site had nothing to do with Earhart, TIGHAR gave it no further consideration until the bones discovery papers came to light in 1998.  Faced now with a documented discovery of bones in an apparent campsite on the southeast corner of the island, and the coincidence of Gallagher’s intensive search with the photo-documented clearance of land at the Seven Site, TIGHAR had to reconsider its dismissal of the site from investigation.  Perhaps, we thought, the tank and other colonial-era objects were the remains of the intensive search, in support of which a “house” might even have been “built for Gallagher” – especially since Gallagher’s quarterly report for the end of 1940 indicates severe inclement weather.

This line of reasoning drew attention to the hole in the Seven Site.  Gallagher says that when the bones were discovered, several months before his own relocation to the island from Manra, the cranium was buried, apparently at the direction of Native Magistrate Koata.  Although Koata had left the island by the time Gallagher learned of the discovery, and Gallagher did not immediately excavate the cranium, he says in one of his initial telegrams that “many teeth are present.”   After excavating the cranium, and the intensive search, he reports only five teeth, all in the mandible.  Perhaps, we reasoned, the hole in the Seven Site was where the cranium had been buried and subsequently exhumed.  Perhaps “many teeth” had been present in the cranium when it went into the ground, but not when it came out.  If this were true, these teeth – excellent reservoirs of mitochondrial DNA – might still be in the hole or its backdirt pile.  The Seven Site, and its hole, thus became a major focus of the 2001expedition.

Study Approach

 Using satellite imagery and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation, we cut through the te Mao from the lagoon shore to the “7” – a long-persisting natural clearing – and then backtracked to find the hole and tank.  These features were separated from the “7” by about thirty meters of very dense te Mao.  We began clearing along a ten-meter front, beginning at the outward (southern) tip of the “7’s” top member, proceeding southerly.  Clearing was accomplished using chainsaw, bush knives, loppers, and much tedious hauling and piling of green and dead te Mao.  Cut material, which developed into quite major piles, was heaped in the “7” itself.  Reaching the tank, we widened the cut to about twenty meters to clear its vicinity and that of the hole.  Later another cut was made to the west to open up whatwe called the Morrissey Locus after its discoverer, expedition medic Jim Morrissey.

As clearing progressed, the topography of the site, hitherto obscured by the vegetation, became clear.  Just south of the “7,”and more or less parallel with its long limb, is a low ridge with a maximum elevation of about 3.5 meters above sea level.  The ground drops off to the south-southwest, about a meter, to the level of the tank and hole.  It then continues to drop gently to the lagoon shore, a total distance of about 200 meters from the ocean-side high tide line.  The microclimatic difference between the ridge and the tank/hole vicinity is marked.  Temperatures at the site routinely ran in the high 90s (f), and temperatures of 110 degrees (f) were not uncommon, even in the shade, but the prevailing trade winds kept the ridge relatively pleasant while the tank/hole area was always baking hot.

The ridge also benefited from the presence of several good-sized te Ren and te Uri. About fifty meters northwest of the "7” a stand of large, apparently old-growth te Buka begins, which runs for perhaps half a kilometer up the spine of the island.  Air photos suggest that this forest may have extended across the Seven Site (though not across the “7”) in 1938.

Because the ridge was so (relatively) pleasant, it naturally became the place to which team members gravitated to cool off during rest breaks.  This led to the discovery of fish, bird, and turtle bones just under the forest-floor duff, together with an elongate cluster of giant clam (Tridacna gigas) valves.  Since Gallagher had described the bones discovery site as including the remains of bird, fish, and turtle, the ridge naturally became an important focus of our attention.

Eventually, we excavated and/or carried out intensive surface examinations in five loci – the Hole Locus, the Tank Locus, the Ridge Locus, the Slope Locus, and the Morrissey Locus.  At each locus, work was carried out under tarpaulin sunscreens constructed by expedition medic James Morrissey, which proved remarkably capable not only of making work bearable in the blazing sun but of standing up through frequent gusty rain squalls.  In addition to controlled work in specific loci, all cleared areas were mapped and swept with metal detectors, and a good deal of informal reconnaissance was done in the te Mao to the southeast and the te Buka forest to the northwest.  Reconnaissance was also carried out for comparative purposes at the Ameriki Loran Station Site, at Karaka Village on Ritiati, and among the house sites on the Nutiran shore.  Reconnaissance was also carried out along the lagoon shore, and along the route of an apparent trail that appears in a 1938 air photo between the Seven Site and the lagoon.

Descriptions and preliminary observations are provided below, organized largely by locus.

Hole Locus

After surface mapping and photography, -- during which a white stoneware plate sherd decorated with the U.S. Coast Guard emblem was found and recovered -- the backdirt pile from the hole, which was quite evident to the south and southeast of the hole itself, was excavated and passed first through ¼” and then through 1/8” screen.   It should be said, however, that much of the material both in the Hole Locus and elsewhere did not pass through the screen at all, since it comprised finger-sized to fist-sized pieces of coral rubble.  The hole and its backdirt were particularly rubbly, with a very light humic content.  Once the backdirt pile had been removed, the same system of excavation was applied to 2 x 2.5-meter rectangle enclosing the hole itself, subdivided into quarters.  All material caught in screens was carefully inspected by daylight, and everything that passed the ¼” screen but was caught in the 1/8” was inspected under ultraviolet (UV) light during two overnight sojourns at the site.  Bones and teeth fluoresce in UV light.  All work at the Hole Locus was supervised by forensic anthropologist Dr. Karen Burns, with Mr. Gary Quigg and various associates doing the digging.

At 50 cm.[3], the depth of the hole’s surface expression, the excavation unit floor was scraped and revealed what appeared to be evidence of two pits – one coincident with the original hole, the other slightly to the southwest of the first.  Both were filled with coral rubble and very little humus, while their surroundings were somewhat more humic and made up of smaller rubble fragments.  The second pit could also be seen in the south and west sidewalls of the excavation.  In subsequent levels the two pits seemed to coalesce, and at 80 cm. they disappeared altogether.

No human bones or teeth were found, but fish and bird bones were sporadically recovered from about 40 cm. downward, sometimes associated with small rust flakes.  Several bird and fish bones appeared in the very deepest level excavated (90-100 cm.).  At this point, we decided that however intriguing these bones might be, they were not likely to be relevant enough to our research to justify further work.  The excavation was clearly marked for future reference, partly backfilled, and closed down.

The Tank Locus

The Tank Locus, at the southern base of the ridge slope, of course contains the tank – a  99 x 99 cm. steel box with “Police X Tarawa” hand-lettered on two opposing sides.  Collapsed inside the tank is the heavy steel rim for a dogged hatch, the hatch itself (labeled “Baldwin Tank Co., London”) lying on the ground outside.  Coconut shell halves first noted in 1996 also were found in the tank.  Two holes in the tank, filled with bolts, nuts, and washers, recall a story told TIGHAR just before departure by an ex-Coast Guardsman, about a tank shot through by one of his companions, that had to be patched because the colonists were still using it.  The holes, with their surrounding metal and contents, were collected by Skeet Gifford for analysis.

Very similar tanks were recorded in the village at the Rest House, at the Carpenter’s shop, and at what may have been the dispensary.  In each case (except possibly at the Carpenter’s shop, where the tank may simply have been in storage), the tanks were used to collect rainwater from the buildings’ roofs.  In the case of the possible dispensary, Christopher Kennedy was able to demonstrate that the tank still contained water, which still ran out of a spigot at the bottom when the latter was turned on.

Adjacent to the tank at the Seven Site, to the west, were two wooden posts and a rust field that clearly represented corrugated iron.  Mapping suggested that this feature represents a collapsed iron-roofed structure, whose roof drained rainwater into the tank.

South of the tank was a rather extensive scatter of bird bones, first noted in 1996.  These were mapped and collected.

In 1996 the base of a light bulb was found near the tank.  In 2001 two more pieces of this bulb were found.  Other artifacts in the Tank Locus included screening scraps, pieces of wire, a plate sherd with a blue line near its rim (much like a line on the U.S. Coast Guard plate sherd found in the Hole Locus), and 30 caliber shells.

The Ridge Locus

Three 2 x 2 meter and one 1 x 2 meter units were intensively surface-collected and excavated on the crest and north face of the ridge.  Two surface features outside the excavation units were also investigated, together with a number of metal detector hits.   Each excavation unit was dug in 1 meter quadrants, with all “soil” passed through ¼” and then 1/8” screen.  The “soil” was uniformly dominated by coral rubble, but with a considerable admixture of humus.  Each unit was excavated to 10 cm., and then the most productive quadrant was taken to 20 cm.  Invariably, the 10-20 cm. levels were virtually devoid of bones or other cultural material.  All bones and plates were collected by level and quadrant, together with a sample of the very numerous scales.

The Ridge Locus produced a large amount of bird, fish, and turtle bones, together with turtle shell plates and fish scales, in several discrete concentrations. Some of the bone was clearly burned, and small flecks of charcoal were noted.  One of the concentrations also contained an odd folded piece of green asphalt siding, identical with the roll of such material found in 1996 about ten meters to the southeast along the ridge.  The siding is folded around what appears to be a felt-like fabric.  A similar but more deteriorated artifact was found about two meters from the first.

About five meters south of the four excavated units, a cluster of smallish Tridacna gigas (giant clam) valves was described and recovered.  The cluster was elongated, with its long axis running NE-SW.  It was made up of some 35 valves and fragments, most fitting together to represent fifteen to sixteen clams.  Average length of valve is about 20 cm.  A number of the valves were badly fragmented, as though bashed with a rock.  Several fist-sized chunks of coral were noted among the shells.  Particles of the green material that coats the asphalt siding formed a thin layer in the soil immediately east of the Tridacna feature, suggesting that a sheet of the material had deteriorated there.

In a 1938 air photo, what appears to be a trail can be seen extending from the Seven Site to a point on the lagoon shore somewhat northwest of the site.  The approximate route of this trail was traced, and was found to be relatively easy walking.  At its lagoon-side end was a bed of Tridacna similar in size to those in the Seven Site feature.  Other small beds of Tridacna were noted along adjacent stretches of lagoon shore.  The Tridacna were invariably dead; cause of death was not determined.

Immediately to the northeast of the Tridacna feature was a cluster of small bivalves, species not yet determined.  The feature was about a meter across and some ten cm. deep.  It is estimated to comprise one hundred or more individual valves, presumably representing fifty or more individuals.   Only a sample of valves was collected.

Three to four meters northeast of the small bivalve feature is the roll of green-coated asphalt siding, a sample of which was collected.  Vigorous searches were made for similar material at the Loran Station Site, in the village, and among the Nutiran housesites.  Two small patches of apparently identical siding were found on the outer side of the southeastern corner of the wireless station in the village.

Metal detecting and visual examination revealed a dense field of rust just east of the Tridacna feature, extending for several meters up and down the ridge slope and for an unknown distance into the uncleared te Mao to the east.  Careful examination indicated that the rust represented multiple rectangular sheets of iron, some if not all of it corrugated.  The sheets appeared to measure about 2 x 4 meters, but each deposit may in fact represent multiple sheets.  Corrugated iron siding, originally galvanized but now rusted to closely resemble the Seven Site material, was noted at the Loran Station.  Similar material, usually less badly oxidized, is also present in the village and at Nutiran.  The metal sheets at the Seven Site appear to have lain on top of the small bivalve feature and the roll of siding, though both features have emerged as the iron has disintegrated. 

Isolated artifacts at the Ridge Locus included a number of 30 caliber and 22 caliber bullet casings, a small piece of milled lumber, and two pieces of asbestos siding identical to that found in the village on the cistern, on the Rest House cookhouse, and in the ruins of another public building.  Both the cistern and cookhouse are roofed with corrugated asbestos, which has not yet turned up at the Seven Site.

Morrissey Locus

The Morrissey Locus is about twenty meters west of the Ridge Locus, along the same ridge.  After burned bird and fish bones were found here by its namesake, James Morrissey, one 2 x 2 and one 1 x 2 meter unit were excavated using the same techniques employed at the Ridge Locus.  These revealed a concentration of charcoal, burned fish and bird bones, and fish scales.  A small sample of charcoal was collected for radiocarbon age determination, together with all bone and a sample of scales.

Metal detecting in the vicinity yielded a number of 30 caliber shells, one unexpended 30 caliber round, and a 30 caliber bullet.  At the very end of the project, another fire feature was found, downslope to the southeast, which contained two 30 caliber cartridges and burned brown bottle glass.  Time did not permit excavation of this feature.

Slope Locus

This locus comprises the ridge slope southeast of the Ridge Locus and upslope from the tank.  Metal detector sweeps resulted in multiple hits here, whose excavation revealed not only the usual rest flakes and 30 caliber shells, but also pieces of glass and some enigmatic electric or electronic components.  A single  2 x 2 meter unit was excavated here, and a single external feature was mapped but not recovered.  The excavation was done in the usual way, except that only ¼” screen was employed.

The excavation unit was devoid of cultural material except in its southeast quadrant, where many fish and bird bones were found.  There is evidence of another burn feature just upslope, which can be seen in the profile of the unit’s east and south walls.

Upslope to the southeast, on the other side of the apparent burn feature (which supports a vigorous growth of te Mao), a second Tridacna feature was cleared and recorded but not removed.  As in the first such feature, some fifteen clams were represented by about thirty valves, in an elongate cluster.  Some of the clams were somewhat larger than those in the first feature (up to about 30 cm. long), and only one or two were broken as though bashed with a rock.  Associated with this feature were a ferrous cap for some kind of container, two odd screw-mounted clips, a strip of small-mesh copper screen (common all over the site), and a 40 x 40 cm. rectangle of rust, apparently either a sheet of iron or a collapsed metal box, with what look like rivets or studs along one edge.  All these associations were collected except for the last, from which only the pieces with stud- or rivet-like bumps were recovered.

Several other pieces of copper screening were found on the surface of the Slope Locus, as well as elsewhere on the site. Other artifacts recovered included 30 caliber cartridges, the cut-off end of a battery cable, a small apparatus that may be an electronic component, and three pieces of glass.  Each of the last is of a distinct kind of glass, and two show edge flaking that may represent use as tools.

Preliminary Interpretation

At least three distinct sets of human activities are evident at the Seven Site, which may or may not be related to one another.

The ubiquitous 30 caliber and (much less common) 22 caliber cartridges almost certainly represent recreational shooting by Coast Guardsmen during World War II.  The plate sherds may also reflect this activity; tossed into the air, they would make good skeet-like targets. Some of the bird bones, notably those in the Tank Unit, may represent a similar use of birds as targets.

The tank and its associations, probably the ferrous sheets and asphalt and asbestos siding, and the hole are probably the results of work done at the site by I Kiribati colonists.  The kinds of work involved remain mysterious. The tank and its associated structure, and the hole, are consistent with our hypothetical identification of the site as the location of Gallagher’s intensive search.  The structure by the tank may have been the “house built for Gallagher,” though there are questions to be resolved about this interpretation.  The extensive sheet metal features, asbestos siding fragments, and rolled asphalt siding have no obvious relevance to a search operation.  The sheet metal, at least, probably arrived at the site sometime after 1946, when large amounts of it became available with abandonment of the Loran Station.  The asphalt siding may have arrived earlier, since it underlay the sheet metal and has been found elsewhere only in thevillage, not at the Loran site.  The asbestos siding is identical to that found on the cistern and cookhouse, among the village’s oldest buildings.  The copper screening also seems most likely to be of colonial origin; identical screening was found in the village and on the Nutiran shore, while only screening of a smaller gauge was found at the Loran site.

Of most interest, of course, are the several (at least six) deposits of burned and unburned fish, bird, and turtle bones, together with the two Tridacna features and the small bivalve feature.  Clearly these represent someone’s use of local food resources, probably for subsistence, but who the user or users may have been remains to be determined.  At least the following possibilities exist:

Ø  Prehistoric or historic period voyagers from other islands (e.g., Manra or Orona, which supported populations in prehistoric times), visiting Nikumaroro to fish and hunt.

Ø  PISS colonists.

Ø  Coast Guardsmen.

Ø  The castaway or castaways.

There is some reason to think that the last possibility is the most likely.  The lack of evidence either of traditional earth oven (umum) cooking or of post-contact cooking pots tends to argue against traditional or colonial-period Polynesians or Micronesians as the ones responsible for the burn features.  It is difficult to imagine Coast Guardsmen doing much cooking of local fauna on the site, and one would expect such an activity to have produced more World War II-vintage food and beverage containers than we have thus far noted.  On the other hand, things like the possible flaked-glass tools suggest adaptation of available tools to serve subsistence needs – something that is very much to be expected of a castaway.   All this is speculative, however, and requires much more analysis. 

Analyses Needed

Ø  To sort out the history of the Seven Site, and assign its component parts to their correct periods and functions, will require at least the following further work:

Ø  Documentary and interview research.  We badly need to get a better understanding of what happened at the Seven Site during the late 1940s and 1950s.  Documentary data on colonial activities during this period should be available in the files of the WPHC at Hanslope Park and at the Kiribati National Archives in Tarawa.  There should also be people living who were residents of the Nikumaroro colonial settlement during this period, probably in Kiribati itself, perhaps in Tuvalu, and certainly in Nikumaroro Village in the Solomon Islands.  Research visits to all these locations, conducted by qualified people with sufficient time to do their work, would be very worthwhile.  Consultation with veterans of the U.S. Coast Guard Loran Station about their activities at the site should be relatively easy, particularly since a number of these veterans are TIGHAR members or participants in the Earhart Forum.

Ø  Faunal analysis.  The fish, bird, and turtle bones, plates, and scales, and the bivalves, must be analyzed to find out a number of things, such as:

Ø  How many individuals are represented?
Ø  What species are represented?
Ø  Where and how easily could they have been procured?
Ø  How were they prepared and cooked?
Ø  What parts were used and not used?
Ø  How many individual cooking/eating episodes are represented?
Ø  About how many people could have subsisted, for how long, from each episode?
Ø  Could one or two individuals have carried the numbers of Tridacna at the site, and the weight of turtle meat represented by the bones found there, to the site from their places of procurement?
Ø  Generally, are the species represented, and the ways in which they were prepared, more consistent with traditional Micronesian and Polynesian subsistence practices or with those of Europeans camping out?

Ø  Radiocarbon age determination.  Both the charcoal from the Morrissey Locus and the bones found in the Ridge, Slope, and Hole Loci should be subjected to radiocarbon age determination.  If they all are found to be essentially modern, then we can dismiss the possibility that prehistoric Micronesian or Polynesian voyagers were responsible for the site.  Dates greater than 100 years or so would of course support the likelihood of a prehistoric voyager origin.  If the bones from the Hole Locus are modern, it will suggest that we did not in fact reach the bottom of the hole, and that it should be re-opened and continued.

Ø  Flaking and edge-wear analysis.  The glass artifacts should be carefully examined by specialists in flaking and edge-wear on prehistoric glass (e.g., obsidian) tools, to ascertain whether they were in fact most probably used as tools.  If they were, experts may also be able to infer their functions.

Ø  Asphalt siding.  Careful analysis of the asphalt siding from the roll, from the village wireless station, and particularly from the two artifacts found in the Ridge Locus is in order, but the exact kinds of analysis needed remain to be determined.

Ø  Electronic(?) components, etc.  We need to determine the identities of the various bits and pieces of electronic and other gear found on the site.

Ø  Comparative studies.  We need to examine archaeological studies of castaway camps and/or the occupation sites of other individuals and very small groups, to see if there are recurrent patterns that might be relevant to the Seven Site.  Historical and sociological studies of castaway behavior may also be relevant.

Future Fieldwork

The need for further fieldwork will depend on the results of analysis, but the two currently known but unexcavated burn features in the Morrissey and Slope Loci are intriguing because each – unlike the Ridge Loci features – apparently contains modern manufactured material as well as animal bones.  Further study of the metal sheet features may also be useful, both to determine their function and to see if they overlie additional features.  Further excavation of the hole may be in order.  Another hole (known as “Skeet’s Hole” for its discoverer) was noted but not excavated, about 100 feet from the high tide mark on the lagoon side of the site; it too might merit further study. 

In point of fact, we do not actually know the full extent of the Seven Site, or the full number and range of features it may contain; what we were able to study in 2001 was a swath across the site, whose size relative to the whole site remains unknown.  The Seven Site could contain many surprises.
References Cited

King, Thomas F., Randall Jacobson, Karen R. Burns, and Kenton Spading
                2001       Amelia Earhart’s Shoes.  Altamira Press, Walnut Creek

Laxton, Paul
                1951       Nikumaroro.  Journal of the Polynesian Society 60(2/3):134-160

[1] In this report, I Kiribati plant names are employed, followed by Latin names where available.  I Kiribati plant names are routinely preceded by the word “te,” as in “te Buka” and “te Mao.”
[2] Source:  Kiribati National Archives: 2001 research by Richard Gillespie and Van Hunn
[3] 30 cm. from the surface at the SE corner, due to the slope of the ground.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Voyage to Nikumaroro in 2017

Nikumaroro: one of the most remote islands on earth. 2015 image by Janis Carty
Plans are firming up for another Betchart Expeditions trip to Nikumaroro. It’s scheduled for June 21st-July 11th, 2017, aboard the MV Reef Endeavor sailing out of Fiji. It will include a TIGHAR “self-funded expedition” – meaning that it’s up to my colleagues and me to finance participation by experienced TIGHARs and selected experts who can’t pay their own fares.
Here’s the plan in a nutshell. Last year’s Niku VIII expedition (See, while it met all but its deep-water objectives, didn’t bring back the “smoking gun” evidence of Earhart’s plane on the reef that it was mostly designed to seek. However, the coordinated and cooperative Betchart Expeditions visit (4 days on island) uncovered some provocative possibilities and was thoroughly enjoyed by its participants. So we’re planning the 2017 visit with about twice as much time (8 days) on-island as we had this year. Right now the research agenda is as follows – always, of course, subject to revision as things develop.
1.    Deepwater search: Despite the disappointing results of the 2010, 2012, and 2015 deepwater probes, which resulted substantially from equipment glitches, we want to take another stab at robotic scans of the deep reef, both adjacent to the hypothesized landing site off Nutiran and elsewhere, including off the Seven Site (where many have urged us for years to search). Walt Holm and his colleagues at Open ROV ( have ROVs that we think will do the job, and as a bonus be controllable from the expedition ship, where everyone aboard can see what the ROVs see, in real time on screen. Personally, I continue to be dubious about whether the plane (which I do think is probably down there) can be found, at least via imaging in the visible spectrum, but given the snafus of the last three expeditions, we haven’t given the matter a fair test. I think that Walt, John Clauss, and Open ROV can give it that test.
2.    Diver-depth search: There’s been a lot of SCUBA searching on the reef, but there’s also a lot of reef to cover, and things change all the time. Plus, it’s a helluva nice reef to explore. We’re planning a substantial program of SCUBA and snorkel diving, and use of a large glass-bottomed boat to get a serious overview of what may be down there.
3.    The “cairn” on the northwest cape: In 2015, Bob Draper of Cotati, California – on the last day of the visit, naturally – found an odd concentration of rocks on the northwest cape, just outside the area that Gary Quigg and his team had searched intensively a few days before as part of Niku VIII. It’s probably just a concentration of rocks, but it’s about the right size and shape to mark an impromptu grave, and it’s close enough to where Art Carty has convincingly argued that Earhart and Noonan should have camped (“Camp Zero”) and where Noonan may have died, that it’s worth a close check. Assuming permission by the Kiribati government and with strict archaeological controls, we figure to section the cluster and excavate under about half of it to see if it covers a grave.
4.    The “Big Ren” vicinity: As most faithful readers of this blog know, in 1940 human bones were found by the Nikumaroro colonists under a “ren” (Tournefortia sp.) tree on the southeast end of the island. We think the discovery site was what we now call the Seven Site, where we’ve found substantial evidence of someone foreign and probably female having camped. There are several ren trees on the site, one of which – we call it the Big Ren – appears to have been there in 1940 (to judge from aerial photos). This year, Dawn Johnson took samples from its vicinity and – back in California – exposed them to the trained noses of forensic dogs from the Institute for Canine Forensics ( The dogs alerted on two of the samples, whose location coincide with the place where in 2010 we found a “finger” bone[1] that turned out to have too little DNA to sequence. So we plan to clear the Scaevola off this location and simply sit a lot of people down to scan the coral rubble that makes up the site, exposing any suspect object to ultraviolet light (in which bones and teeth fluoresce) and collecting (with strict controls) any likely bones or teeth.
5.    The village: The colonial village at Ritiati has consistently produced fragments of aircraft aluminum, probably collected by the residents for use in handicrafts. We plan to select one or more home sites in the village, clear the coconuts and fronds off it, and give it a good hard look. We’ll also be trying to sort out what some strange dry-laid coral structures are; we’ve referred to them (based on unsubstantiated guesswork) as “pigpens,” but Kiribati experts Aana Bureteiti, Nina Jacob, Frank Thomas, and Jaimie Bach, all on this year’s visit, are sure they’re not – but couldn’t say what they are.
On the beach at "Club Fred." 2015 image by Janis Carty
     The “Shoe” or “Bivouac” Site: The site where the late Eric Bevington reported seeing signs of someone’s “overnight bivouac” in late 1937, and where TIGHAR found the remains of a man’s and a woman’s shoes in 1991, was more thoroughly investigated in 1997 with few results, but Kenton Spading insisted that we hadn’t really given it a fair look, and his criticisms have haunted me ever since. So we’d like to give it a detailed inspection.
7.    Other places: We’ve learned to respect serendipity on Nikumaroro; things usually pop up where you don’t expect them, when you’re not looking for them. So we want to provide as many opportunities as possible (within limits of safety and respect for the island environment) for people simply to explore the island on foot and by kayak. You never know…
I’m responsible for organizing the necessary fundraising, and for overseeing the operation. Betchart Expeditions will make and oversee travel/ship charter arrangements. Our team will train and work with the rest of Betchart’s passengers in carrying out our research. We'll put on a "field school" for passengers aboard ship en route to the island, emphasizing ethical treatment of the island and its resources; those who want to take part in our work on the island will have to take the field school.
The overall cost to each passenger for the whole trip, including discounted round-trip airfare between Fiji and Los Angeles, is about $11,000[2]; I should add that Betchart has moved heaven and earth to get us a good deal, and travel to such a remote part of the world IS expensive.
If you are able and willing to pay the above amount, welcome aboard! Please contact Betchart Expeditions to make arrangements.
But a lot of us can’t afford that kind of investment, so I’m trying to raise about $200,000[3], to cover the costs of conveying fifteen (15) experienced TIGHARs and selected specialists to and from the island. Tax-deductible contributions can be made to TIGHAR, which will hold the funds separate from its other accounts. I’m soliciting any and all ideas about fundraising, and am available to deliver an illustrated talk on the Earhart mystery, the Niku Hypothesis, and the 2017 plans, to any group that would like to give me the opportunity and let me solicit some support.
Do you have ideas about fundraising or project planning? Questions? Objections? Please let me know, at For information on the cruise, and to make reservations, visit And of course for information on the overall research program, visit
Dolphins off the Seven Site. 2015 image by Janis Carty

[1] Phalange, either human or sea turtle.
[2] $8995.00 for twin share on the "C" deck and $1595 r/t air fare; upgrades to single cabins and upper decks available. 
[3] 15x11,000 = 165,000 + $35,000 overhead/contingency

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


It's just dawned on me that there seems to be no single place where a would-be reader can find the titles of all the major published literature relating to the Nikumaroro Hypothesis, so I'd better provide one. Here are the major sources with links to help you find them:

Amelia Earhart's Shoes. Thomas F. King, Randall Jacobson, Karen Burns, Kenton Spading. Rowman & Littlefield 2001, updated and improved edition 2004,'s-Shoes-Is-the-Mystery-Solved?

Finding Amelia. Ric Gillespie. Naval Institute Press 2009,

Amelia Earhart on Nikumaroro: a Summary of the Evidence. Thomas F. King in Pacific Studies 35:3, 2012:

And of course, the TIGHAR website for a plethora of original documents, research reports, and updates on the ongoing research.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Capacitor: Not of the Air: by Joe Cerniglia


Joe Cerniglia is our guest blogger here, with his paper on an artifact recovered from the Colonial Village site on Nikumaroro this year. His work exemplifies the kind of careful analysis that's necessary to distinguish artifacts that might have been associated with Earhart and Noonan from those that are not.  TFK

What is it?

In the feral coconut bush north of the Gallagher Highway (the pathway we cut on each visit from the landing to the lagoon beach at what we call Club Fred) and about three meters from the spot where the knee-high metal bin, later known as the Zimmerman Object, was found, lay another much smaller artifact. This artifact is also metallic, box-like, but dark in color, and easily fitting in the palm of one's hand. It has been identified as a bathtub-style capacitor made by the Aerovox Corporation.
The artifact in situ

Reading What it Says

The capacitor bears an inscription:

CP52  B1D F504MK
.5 MFD 600VDC

The top line appears to be a serial number. The second line denotes the manufacturer, Aerovox, and a model number. The last line is interesting. Research has indicated the .5MFD shows the capacity of the capacitor to store electrons, as measured in microfarads. The farad is an SI[1] derived unit of measure of capacitance, named after British scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867). The 600VDC indicates the capacitor can have input as high as 600 volts direct current.

Brief History of Aerovox

Aerovox Corporation was founded in 1922 as the Radiola Wireless Corporation. At first, Radiola Wireless made radios, but later the company specialized in condensers, also known as capacitors, and resistors, key electronic components in radios and many other electrical appliances. On March 2, 1932, the company changed its name to Aerovox. In October of 1938, Aerovox moved its headquarters from Brooklyn, New York to New Bedford, Massachusetts.[2] By 1972, the company name was subsumed by a subsidiary, AVX, and the company refocused on the new field of integrated circuits.[3]

Aerovox capacitors were the brand of choice for radio manufacturers from the 1920s to the 1960s. Bathtub capacitors, of which this artifact is an example, were typically found in radios for which high performance in varying conditions was important. The 1947 Aerovox catalog stated that this particular style of capacitor meets severe operating conditions encountered in aircraft, police, broadcast, p.a., and other types of communications equipment.

Dating the Artifact with Precision

The description in the catalogs seemed an ideal fit in describing radio components used in a tropical environment, such as Nikumaroro. It also seemed an ideal fit for use on board an aircraft. The next obvious question was whether this particular capacitor might be something connected with Amelia Earhart's radio equipment on board the Electra. To answer this question, we consulted a paper written by TIGHAR radio expert Bob Brandenburg. The paper includes specifications of the capacitors in the Electra's radios. The highest capacitance discussed in this paper is 4000 picofarads (.004 microfarads), far too low to match the artifact's capacitance.[4]

1938 Steward Warner Radio, Model 1865, with
two bathtub capacitors installed[5]
The possibility this was an Earhart artifact, while growing remote, had not entirely been ruled out. There were numerous other electrical instruments on board the Electra that undoubtedly used capacitors. More research was therefore necessary to see if specific data were available on when this capacitor was made.

The subject of this research would again be the inscription, which had, after all, provided more than simply a maker and some electrical specifications. It had also provided a part number: 630B

By fortunate coincidence, a combination of old radio part store catalogs available online, and some original Aerovox catalogs available on eBay allowed us to survey detailed product information from a representative sample of the years in which Aerovox was in business.[6]

The conclusion from this survey is that the capacitor most likely was made no earlier than circa 1947, too late for any connection to Earhart's Electra, which was lost in 1937.
1947 Aerovox Catalog

In the Aerovox catalog for 1947, there is listed a Type 630 - 600 v D.C. Capacitor. It is listed under the more general category of Type 30. Under this listing there is a .5 microfarad capacitor.

The dimensions of the 1947 Type 630 are:
Length: 1 3/4 inch
Width: 1 inch
Height: 7/8 inch

 The Nikumaroro capacitor is a .5 microfarad 600 volt D.C. capacitor, labeled "630B". Its dimensions are:
Length: 1 11/16 inch
Width: 15/16 inch
Height: 13/16 inch

All of these measurements meet the 1947 Aerovox catalog specifications to within 1/16 of an inch.

1947 Catalog page with 630 Capacitor
In examining 1930s Aerovox catalogs and numerous 1930s Aerovox advertisements, we were unable to locate any capacitor that matched the 1947 specifications.

A 1933 advertisement showed that Aerovox was then manufacturing this general type of capacitor, but in 1933 the length of the closest equivalent ran to 2 1/2 inches, much too large. In addition, at 400 volts maximum, the voltage was too low.

1933 Type 60 Capacitor

In 1935, a 600-volt bathtub Type 60 capacitor was advertised, but again the length is 2 1/2 inches and the capacitance is too low.
1935 Type 60 Capacitor

By 1945, Concord Radio Corporation advertised an Aerovox Type 630 capacitor with the correct capacitance and voltage, but at 2 1/16 inches, the length is still greater than that of the artifact.

1945 Type 630 Capacitor

There seems to have been a very brief window around 1947 when the Type 630 Aerovox capacitor was manufactured to the precise length, width, height, capacitance, voltage, and not least of all, part number, of the Nikumaroro capacitor. Only the 1947 Aerovox catalog listing matches all six of these specifications.

To a fair degree of certainty, then, we can assign the date of manufacture of the Nikumaroro capacitor to about the year 1947, perhaps a little earlier or a little later. Even if documentation were to surface, showing that a handful of 630B capacitors with the specifications of the artifact were made in the 1930s, that still would not help to distinguish this artifact from those we know were made in the 1940s.

Loose Ends

There are, however, still a few unanswered questions about this artifact. If the capacitor did not come from the 1930s, as it almost assuredly did not, then who brought it to the island, and why? Its most logical origin and function would seem to have been as a component in the radar equipment from the Coast Guard Loran station, active from 1944 to 1946.

Additional research indicates that this hypothesis, too, may be flawed. We noticed that Concord Radio Corporation's 1945 catalog listed, distinct from the Type 630 capacitor, several "Commercial Grade Capacitors... used by the Army, Navy and commercial communication companies."  None of these bears any resemblance to the artifact. The 1947 Aerovox catalog lists "High-Voltage Transmitter Type D.C. Capacitors" that were specifically made for transmitting, as opposed to just receiving. These are exactly the type of capacitors that would be ideal for a Loran station.
1947 High Voltage Aerovox Capacitor

The bathtub style of capacitor, by contrast, seems to have been manufactured for use in commercially available shortwave radios (see the Stewart Warner example, in the above photo). The Nikumaroro capacitor, therefore, seems most likely to have been something found in someone's personal radio set, not in a commercial-grade installation for the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard Loran station was dismantled and abandoned in 1946. While it could be that someone from the newly arrived Loran cleanup crew left a personal shortwave radio with brand new capacitors on the island, there are a few other possibilities.

In an email exchange, Tom King commented:

"There were American connections to the Phoenix Islands after the War, right up to the time of the colony's abandonment. There were American anthropologists who studied some of the colonies and their end-times.. I also don't know when the operation on Canton closed down; it may have been '48 or '49 or even later. So I suspect that there were plenty of post-Coastie opportunities for the Aerovox to have gotten there. Well, maybe not 'plenty,' but 'some,' anyhow."

One final mystery is: what does the "B" in 630B stand for? From information supplied by the 1966 Aerovox catalog, it would seem that the letter B signifies that the capacitor terminals were located on the hermetically sealed bottom side. This would make sense. Since the bottom side is mostly absent from the artifact, as are the terminals, and since all bathtub capacitors we have seen had terminals, the logical position for them to have been located was on the missing bottom side.[7]

What We Learned

There are numerous odd artifacts on Nikumaroro, many of them lying on the ground in plain sight. The Zimmerman Object, found close to the capacitor and discussed in Tom King's article below, is a perfect example. The capacitor is another. Most of these artifacts could be anything from anywhere, but unless we collect, catalog and investigate them we will never know. Even after analysis is complete, we may still never know. The effort to run these to ground, what Richard Feynman called "the joy of figuring things out," can still be rewarding, even when the end of all our searching is to say that this capacitor does not show anything one way or the other about the hypothesis of what happened to Amelia Earhart.

The process of "finding out" is a useful training ground in itself for the analysis of future artifacts. At least, it was for me as I look back with fond memories on my visit to Nikumaroro in 2015.

[1] International System of Units (SI), French Système Internationale d’Unités,  international decimal system of weights and measures derived from and extending the metric system of units. Adopted by the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1960, it is abbreviated SI in all languages.
[2] Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board, Volume 28, 1941.
[3] Wikipedia article on AVX.
[5] See
[6] The archive of Allied Radio and Electronics Corporation proved especially helpful in this regard. A nearly complete set of catalogs for this company may be found online at
[7] Since all Aerovox electrolytic capacitors were hermetically sealed, the bottom should have survived. It is possible this bottom portion was cut away by some curious colonist (or by someone else) at some point in the island's British colonial period. When the bottom portion was removed, it probably released into the Nikumaroro environment a small amount of toxic substances known as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
See  for the relationship between old capacitors and PCBs. See for efforts to demolish the Aerovox plant and decontaminate the site where it once stood.