Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What’s Left on Nikumaroro?

Somebody asked me the other day: “Why do you want to go back to Nikumaroro? What’s left there besides (maybe) the airplane at the base of the reef?"  The question kind of surprised me, but it made me wonder if the perception is widespread that we’ve squeezed the island dry of information pertinent to the Earhart mystery. So let me take this opportunity to explain what I think is “left.”

1. The Airplane. Setting aside the question of plane wreckage at the base of the Nutiran reef – on which others are fixated, which will cost a lot of money to seek, and which I think is unlikely to be found (See http://ameliaearhartarchaeology.blogspot.com/2010/12/why-i-dont-think-well-find-airplane-and.html), there are other ways in which definitive piece of pieces of the airplane might be found. The colonial villagers were obviously collecting airplane parts to make into things. Some of these are clearly from a B-24/PB4Y, probably the one known to have crashed on Kanton Island, where some Nikumaroro residents worked during the War. Others are not, and are consistent with a Lockheed Electra. Somewhere in the village there could well be a piece or pieces with part numbers or other distinctive characteristics that could be tied directly to Earhart’s plane. We’ve done a good deal of searching in the Village, but Walt Holm has proposed a more detailed, focused search, perhaps using the ethnohistorical data we’ve compiled to focus in on most-likely locations, like the homesites of early (1939-42) residents, and such congregation areas as the sites of the two maneabas (meeting houses).

2. The Seven Site. Though we made a very good run at the Seven Site in 2010, there’s one portion of it that needs more examination, and could yield a real payoff. This is the area extending from the WR feature (where the two standing bottles, the snap (which, by the way, is a size match for snaps on a First Aid Kid acquired on EBay by Art Carty, of a type identified in the Luke Field inventory) and some of the probable rouge were found) to the southeast through the vicinity of the SL feature (where bottles, possible rouge, suspicious pieces of ferrous metal, buttons, pencil leads, the “gidgies” and other artifacts were recovered. We’ve never probed the area between the two features, and we should; plus, as Meg Lickliter-Mundon has argued, we need to explore the SL area itself more thoroughly, with probes to the north, southeast, and southwest, while Bill Carter has argued eloquently for Scaevola-slashing in all directions, notably toward the sea, in case the area on which we've focused is, in effect, a product of our focusing on it. Any of these initiatives might or might not produce smoking guns, but we’d almost certainly get data to help build on the evidence we’ve already acquired, and nail down just what happened at the site.

3. The LORAN Station. We suspect that some of the artifacts at the Seven Site that tend to confuse us may have come from the 1944-46 LORAN station, but we don’t really know what sorts of bottles and other such objects were there. I think we’ve figured out where the station dump was (It’s buried). An excavation there could give us useful comparative data.

4. The Aukaraime Shoe/Bivouac Site. We worked in 1997 at the site where the Shoe parts were found in 1991, which corresponds with Bevington’s 1937 “Bivouac” site. I’m not convinced that we’ve looked there carefully enough. This was a point that Kent Spading insisted upon and I rejected for a long time, but the more I think about it, the more I think he was right; this could have been an intermediate castaway camp en route to the Seven Site, and it merits a closer look.

5. Other possible campsites. The prime target here is “Camp Zero,” the location on northern Nutiran where – assuming we’re right about the landing place, and about the “Nessie” image – Earhart and Noonan would most likely have camped after getting off the plane. I’ve not been enthusiastic about this site, thinking it had been worked over pretty thoroughly both by the colonists and by storms, but studies by Art Carty have indicated that the vegetation depicted there in 1937 may essentially still be there today, suggesting that the site may not be too badly disturbed. I still think it’s a long shot, but it could reveal something. There might be other campsites “intermediate” between the landing site and the Seven Site – though Tom Roberts and Mark Smith demonstrated in 2010 that one can walk from one to another at a leisurely pace in only about four hours. If there are such sites, we don’t know where they are, but serendipity has struck before, and might again.

So I think there’s lots remaining to be done on Nikumaroro – plane search or no plane search. And while I understand that our sometime media underwriters don’t think they need any more footage of people hacking through Scaevola and scratching in the coral with Marshalltown trowels, I’m sorry, folks; that’s what we do. Archaeology is a painstaking process (my dear colleague Indy to the contrary notwithstanding), and the payoff comes in piecing together little bits of evidence – seldom in the form of obvious smoke-puffing pistolas.

Upcoming Presentations on the Project

Tomorrow evening (11 January 2012: 6 pm Eastern, 3 pm Western), I’ll be interviewed on my old friend Joe Schuldenrein’s on-line radio talk show: “Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality, and 21st Century Archaeology (http://www.voiceamerica.com/show/1975/indiana-jones-myth-reality-and-21st-century-archaeology). Gary Quigg may join me if he can get to a land-line – he’s in the field doing archaeology. Joe is an accomplished geoarchaeologist who’s worked a good deal in historical archaeology as well as in forensic burial studies of Saddam Hussein’s victims in Iraq; he’s followed our project for a long time, and should be able to ask some good questions.  Maybe I'll have good answers.

I’ve also submitted a detailed paper on our evidence to Pacific Studies, an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal published at Brigham Young University. Titled “Amelia Earhart on Nikumaroro: a Summary of the Evidence,” it’s a build-out from the summary posted on this blog on December 18, 2010 (http://ameliaearhartarchaeology.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2010-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&updated-max=2011-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&max-results=17). Not accepted yet; I’ll keep you informed.  I'm grateful to EPAC members for helping me refine the paper and make it accurate.  IF YOU'D LIKE TO REVIEW THIS PAPER IN DRAFT, DROP ME A NOTE AT TFKING106@AOL.COM, AND I'LL SEND YOU A PDF.

Results of the Fiji and Solomons Projects

The last few months have seen the completion of fieldwork on two important TIGHAR projects: the search of the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Fiji and the Solomon Islands Oral History Project. Results are under study now, and reports will be forthcoming, but some preliminary observations may be in order.

Hospital Search

With fantastic support from the U.S. embassy and Fiji authorities, Gary Quigg and his team were able to go through the whole huge rambling hospital complex in Suva with sufficient thoroughness to come away reasonably sure that there are no nooks or crannies they missed. In a nutshell, they did find human bones in some of these nooks and crannies, that had been tucked away and more or less forgotten, but based on comparison with Dr. Hoodless’ metrical data and in one case based on DNA, none of these bones appear to be the ones found in 1940 on Nikumaroro. Whose are they? Well, all over the world, human bones are found from time to time that can’t be identified, and they don’t always wind up in places where they’re carefully logged in and recorded. Presumably the bones found by our team were brought to the Hospital by people who found them in the bush, and when they couldn’t be matched to any known person and disposed of in accordance with that person’s known wishes, or returned to his or her family, or processed as evidence in a crime investigation, they got tucked away and forgotten.

The team also collected a few stories about other collections of bones that they weren’t able to locate; we’ve not exhausted Fiji as a place where the 1940 bones are hiding, but it seems like we’ve exhausted the most likely specific location – the Hospital.

Solomon Islands

The team in the Solomons – Gary Quigg again in charge, with Nancy Farrell, Baoro Koraua, John Clauss and Karl Kern, visited Rawaki and Nikumaroro Villages in the Solomon Islands and interviewed people who lived on Nikumaroro Island in the 1940s and 50s. The team didn’t go in expecting to get information on the 1940s bones discovery; it was very unlikely that anyone living today would remember it. Instead they sought a better understanding of the Nikumaroro colony in general, recollections of how aluminum was used and where it might have come from, and how the vicinity of the Seven Site was used. They brought back a substantial collection of audio recordings, which I’m just starting to work through and transcribe, video that I haven’t seen yet, and field notes; we’ll be working over the coming months to get all this in order and make the data usable. In a nutshell, though, they got:

   --  Information about aircraft aluminum – no specifics on where it came from, but stories about its use and about, in one case, the discovery of an interesting piece (possibly an aircraft door) at a more or less specific location.

  --  Information about the Seven Site, which is going to be – already has been – tremendously helpful in interpreting that site’s archaeology. Notably:

            *  The place was known as “Gallagher’s camp,” though no one remembers why Gallagher had a camp there. There was a small house and a water tank.

            * Men and boys sometimes stayed there while hunting turtles, and the boys climbed trees to catch birds.

            * They chopped off the birds’ wings, skinned them, and chopped off the feet before, in most cases, taking the carcasses to the village. Turtles were taken to the village whole.

            * They sometimes made fires and cooked food on the site – presumably birds and fish.

What this tells us – and there’s doubtless much more detail in the recordings – is that some of the fire features and a lot of the bird bones on the Seven Site are not associated with the castaway-who-may-have-been-Earhart. But the big fire features like WR and SL, with their strange associated artifacts, are something else again.

The Solomons data, in other words, will help us sort out what is probably castaway-associated from what is not, and that’s going to be a big help in interpreting the site and planning further work.  More insights will doubtless be forthcoming as we get through analyzing the data.

Both teams did fine work and brought home useful data.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to all the team members, and especially Gary, who was responsible for overseeing both projects and bringing them to successful conclusions. 


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Karen Burns

We’re all mourning the unexpected passing of our good friend and colleague Karen Burns.  Her work as TIGHAR’s chief physical anthropologist on the Earhart Project was among the least of her contributions to humanity; what was really inspiring about Kar, to me at least, was her human rights work.  She made a career of forensic anthropology – sometimes with financial support, sometimes without – on cases of genocide in places like Iraq, Guatamala, Haiti and Colombia, and on terrorism and disaster cases like the 9/11/01 attack on the World Trade Center.  Not only did she do the excavations and analyses (often very unpleasant and not infrequently dangerous) to identify victims and determine how they died; she also delivered the testimony needed in court to seek justice for them and their families, and retribution for those responsible.  Perhaps most important, she taught the people of the countries in which she worked to carry out their own forensic studies, building a cadre of indigenous experts whose very existence should give pause to those contemplating genocide.  Her work on pure research cases – not only the Earhart case but also the identification of Revolutionary War hero Kazimierz Pulaski’s bones in Savannah, Georgia – was of the highest quality as well,  and as a colleague and shipmate on trips to Nikumaroro, she gained the respect and affection of us all – TIGHARs and ship’s crew alike.  We will all miss her greatly.