Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What Next?

Next week, the expedition launches to search the deep reef slope off Nutiran on Nikumaroro.  Absent some utter disaster (piracy, sunk by a rogue wave, etc), it will produce one of four outcomes:

1. A definitive, no-doubt-about-it, smoking-gun Electra-part.
2. A probable/maybe Electra-part that requires more study and/or a return trip to recover.
3. One or more ambiguous items or other phenomena requiring more study, in situ or elsewhere; or
4. Nothing.

As I've argued on this site before, even a "4" result would in no way disprove the Nikumaroro Hypothesis; it would only indicate that with the technology now in hand, given the likely reduction of the wreck by the forces of nature, we haven't been able to find it.  But the inevitable reaction by TIGHAR's one or two naysayers will certainly be to trumpet the negative data and insist that it DOES show that AE and FN never made it to Niku.  That will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on fundraising for further research. 

It's hard -- even impossible -- to predict the effect of a "2" or "3" result; it depends on what's found.  But either would probably generate pressure for more underwater work, to verify or disverify whatever has been found.

A "1" result could have either of two quite different results.  It might unleash a great wave of support for more work to flesh out the story of the castaways and what happened to them.  It might generate pressure to turn Nikumaroro into a tourist destination, with all the tricky environmental, social, and political consequences such a transformation would entail.  And/or people might simply say "OK, that mystery's solved; let's go on to (Insert your favorite mystery)."

I think we ought to be discussing, in at least preliminary terms, what TIGHAR ought to do in the event of either a "1" or a "4" finding. 

If "1," I think our prime obligation will be to protect the island.  Work with the Kiribati government and anybody else who'll help to make sure the place isn't overrun by treasure hunters or just plain tourists.  One obvious thing to do might be to negotiate an arrangement with one or two responsible cruise ship operators to take tourists on carefully controlled visits to the island -- satisfy the demand (assuming there is a demand) in a way that doesn't injure the island, its plants and animals, its air and water, or its archaeology.  Such tourist visits might be coordinated with an ongoing program of research at the Seven Site, perhaps at the Aukaraime Shoe Site, the putative Camp Zero, the Village, and other locations, in which visitors could participate under supervision.

If "4," the problem will be to continue research at all; there will be a natural tendency to see the Niku Hypothesis as discredited, and funding is likely to dry up.  But there are relatively low-cost ways to get to Niku and spend a reasonable amount of time doing reasonable and useful research.  We still have the Seven Site to finish excavating.  There's still the Village to search, and the neighborhood of the Shoe Site, and the putative Camp Zero.  We could use some comparative studies at the Loran Site.  Last year I was able to estimate that we could put a dozen and a half or so people on the island for close to a month to do a range of archaeological projects for about $200,000.  The accommodations wouldn't be swanky, but they'd be livable, and there's serious work to be done.  This work might or might not yield smoking guns, but I continue to think that we do ourselves a disservice, and participate in the dumbing-down of the population, by focusing on smoking guns; we ought to be showing people how real research is done.  The real research we have done, and are doing, is building up a body of evidence that I think makes a convincing case for the Niku Hypothesis -- regardless of whether we ever find a definitive Electra-part or scrap of Earhart DNA.

Besides the fieldwork, there are a number of analytic avenues to be pursued.  Did the ointment pot really contain freckle creme?  What sizes of shoes did Earhart have on the plane anyway?  Who built the fire at the Shoe Site, when, and why?  What else can we glean from the various archives, from the recordings in the Solomons, from the faunal remains?  What about some of our head-scratcher artifacts?  And where the devil are the bones and artifacts that went to Fiji in 1940?  There's lots to do, and we ought to be thinking about how to do it, if this year's expedition is a success or if it comes back empty-handed.   

Friday, June 8, 2012

That Freckle Cream Jar

The media have been all over the story of “Amelia Earhart’s freckle cream jar” (eg. http://news.discovery.com/history/amelia-earhart-freckle-creme-jar-120530.html), 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, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake'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.

Amelia Earhart, Ridiculous Claims, and Contemporary Political "Thought"


I recently had the privilege of working with my friends and TIGHAR colleagues Tom Roberts and Joe Cerniglia on a paper for the Northern Mariana Islands Council for the Humanities Marianas History Conference. The paper analyzed the suite of hypotheses featuring Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan being captured and executed by the Japanese military in the Mariana Islands.

In the course of this enterprise, I corresponded with the author of a fairly recent book that posits not only Earhart's and Noonan's demise at the hands of the Japanese, but a quite aggressive coverup by both the Japanese and United States government, extending to the present day. To minimize the potential for name-calling, I’ll disguise my correspondent as "Sam."

The correspondence spanned the time of TIGHAR's Earhart Search 75 Symposium, and the release of several items in the media about TIGHAR's fieldwork on Nikumaroro. The media particularly fastened on our discovery of a small jar that may have contained a cosmetic ointment purported to reduce freckles.

I publish excerpts from our correspondence here not to pick a fight with Sam or anyone else, but because I think Sam's writing provides an interesting window into how the minds of some of our critics work.

The Correspondence

Having read our paper, Sam said:

Thanks for sending. Although your conclusions are painfully contorted to deny the truth, this paper is far better than anything I would expect from someone so closely tied to Ric Gillespie. From your point of view, I'm sure you think it's almost fair. You realize, don't you, that if Gillespie had one-hundredth of this much "anecdotal" evidence to support his ideas, the Niku theory would have been universally accepted as gospel by now? Niku has never been anything more than smoke and paper thin speculation promoted all out of proportion by a gullible, ignorant, and corrupt media, and Fred Goerner, with Fred Hooven's expert guidance, warned Gillespie about it from the start. But there's far more involved with Niku than just Gillespie's personal interests, as Hillary and State have recently demonstrated, quite shamelessly. Of course nobody but us chickens have a clue about what's really going on, right? He certainly hasn't fooled those of us who pay close attention.

The anecdotal evidence to which Sam refers is the evidence for the Earhart-in-the-Marianas hypothesis -- which indeed is entirely anecdotal, and based on unsystematically collected anecdotes at that. But note how Sam presents himself, as an authority who knows the truth (based on anecdotes), instructing me on what I should "realize," and proceeding to inform me that the hypothesis I've helped propound and test over the last 23 years is nothing but "smoke and paper thin speculation." I must be pretty dumb not to have realized all that.

Sam goes on to say that the late Freds Goerner and Hooven "warned Gillespie about it from the start." It's safe to ascribe things to the deceased, of course, but one can't know how Goerner or Hooven would respond to the considerable body of data collected by TIGHAR in the years since their demise. Goerner at least showed a healthy ability to change his mind when confronted with contrary evidence. He did say -- before his death in 1994 -- that he thought the Nikumaroro Hypothesis was weak, but would he say that now? I don't know, but apparently Sam somehow does. As for Hooven, it’s worth noting that TIGHAR has praised Hooven’s study of the post-loss radio signals, which he said suggested that Earhart and Noonan had landed in the Phoenix Islands – where he posited that they had been collected by the Japanese. As the demon Gillespie noted in his description of Hooven’s work, Hooven died in 1985, and had he lived to learn of TIGHAR’s findings his opinion might have changed (See http://tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Archives/Documents/Hooven_Report/HoovenReport.html).

But Sam quickly broadens the scope of his critique, including the "gullible, ignorant, and corrupt media" and "Hillary (Clinton) and (the) State (Department)." It's good that he and his colleagues aren't fooled, but what is it that Secretary Clinton and her department up to? Sam doesn't quite say, but he promptly includes me in the conspiracy

Since I have always considered you to be pure "establishment," should we now consider your paper the latest concession by the establishment to the truth? If so, I'll admit it's much better than what we've had, and wonder how the rest of the establishment will receive it. ... I would advise you to abandon the bi-yearly Niku boondoggles and all the attention and false accolades they bring, and join me and a few others in supporting the unvarnished truth. I can't guarantee you or anyone else anything but rejection, but at least you'd be on the side of the angels, rather than the alternative, which I think will someday count for far more than it does now.

So I'm apparently more or less in bed with the Secretary ('scuse us, Bill), but Sam sees me as perhaps salvageable; maybe I can be persuaded to come over to the way of the truth. Guessing (based on his book) that what he thinks the government is up to is hiding what really happened to Earhart, I replied:

It would come as something of a surprise to some of my archaeological and other colleagues to see me referred to as "establishment," but if that characterization makes you happy, so be it. I HAVE worked in, around, under and against the U.S. government long enough to be very skeptical of its ability to keep a secret for 75 years. But I'm also old enough to be untrusting of my own judgment, so despite 25 years of rather close attention to the Nikumaroro project, I'm not as willing as you seem to be to proclaim the "unvarnished truth" or castigate others as -- let's see -- "gullible, ignorant, and corrupt." I do think we (and "we" are not just Ric, or Ric clones) have a pretty good hypothesis and some pretty good evidence ..., but I don't claim it as the Truth -- varnished, unvarnished, or painted bright pink.

Sam replied:

The truth about Saipan and the few files, hidden deep in top secret files reflecting what happened there, are not something that many "government" people were ever privy to, then or now. But if Hillary Clinton, for example, isn't a corrupt individual in your book, then there's little hope for your conversion.

To which I responded:

Let's be clear. I don't aspire to conversion, and I already am convinced that everybody in and around government is more or less corrupt. But as I said in "Shoes," in an investigation I do think it's important to shave with Ockham's Razor -- you don't jump to complicated conclusions until you've reasonably exhausted the simple ones. In the case of Earhart, the simplest conclusion is that she crashed and sank, but that doesn't account for the post-loss radio messages, nor does it account for the stuff we've found on Nikumaroro. So the Nikumaroro hypothesis becomes the next-simplest conclusion, and until and unless we disprove (or somebody disproves) that one, I think it's the best game in town.

This didn't go down well with Sam.

Give me a break, Tom. Nothing that's been found on Niku has been directly connected to AE/FN in any way. It's become a joke and a circus. Hundreds of people tramped around on that island before Gillespie ever got there. Hoovan and Goerner looked at it closely and threw it in the dumpster. It's a third-hand, hand-me-down-idea that's been explored to death without result. You guys kill me, really.

Odd, I thought we'd had some results. I replied:

I'm no more interested in converting you than I am in being converted, but let me just suggest that you read our stuff before you start calling names. Hooven and Goerner were never on the island; I've spent about three months working there. They weren't aware of the bones papers; I am. They didn't do archaeology on the island; I have. They didn't research the island's history in anything like the detail we have. I don't understand why you think invoking the names of extinct authorities and slapping labels on people's work is convincing to anyone but yourself and your friends.

Which led to:

Nonsense, all of it. The bones papers? More of absolutely nothing, dressed up with pretentious ten dollar words. You're supposed to be a scientist, but both of you choose your results and work backwards trying to fit your evidence to your desires. You fool nobody with half a brain, and without the immense help of the mainline media establishment, in on the charade, the whole NIKU scam would have been ignored decades ago. Please leave me alone now, I've had enough and my patience with you is wearing thin. Thanks for sending the paper, but enough is enough.

I was relieved enough to see the end of the correspondence, and decided not to get into whether we can fool people with whole brains, or explain what I meant by the “bones papers,” so I wound up our interchange with just one last dig:

Yup, it's like Harrry Truman said about kitchens.

An Epiphany
I don’t know anything about Sam’s politics, but it occurs to me that the way he frames his thinking about Earhart’s fate is a nice microcosm for the way many members of congress and conservative (among other) commentators approach such larger issues as the national economy, defense, the shredding social safety net, and the environment.

1. First we decide what the truth is.

2. Then we ridicule and impugn the motives of anyone who disagrees with us.

3. If anyone argues, we just increase the volume of our ridicule – even when we’re talking at people who manifestly know better.

4. If anybody offers evidence that contradicts our point of view, we don’t consider it; we simply label it “discredited” or “false” or “nonsense.”

5. We hint darkly or flatly assert that those who argue with us have devious, disreputable, maybe unpatriotic motives. Gillespie is a crook; King is an establishment shill; we’re all fronting for the immoral, un-American Clintons.

6. And when push comes to shove, we just say "shut up" and go back to talking only with those who agree with us.

It would be nice to think that people today are smart enough not to fall for this kind of thinking, but given what's become of our educational system, I don't suppose that's a very good bet -- in historical research or in politics, alas.