Friday, January 9, 2015

Electra-fying Discoveries on Mili Atoll?

I'm grateful to my old friend Ward Upson, of Vancouver, Washington, for sending me a clipping from the Columbian newspaper, dated January 2 of this year; it's titled “Washington Men Unearth Potential Earhart Clues[1].”  The article reports that Dick Spink of Bow, Washington has brought home a piece of aluminum from Mili Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) that he and his friend Jim Hayton are sure is a dust cover from one of the air wheels on Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.  He also has a piece of aluminum that he and Mr. Hayton think was an inspection plate from the leading edge of one of the Electra’s wings.

Why am I not impressed?

Proponents of the hypothesis that Earhart landed in the Marshalls and was captured by the Japanese will tell you it’s because I’m a part of the great U.S. government conspiracy to cover up the truth about Earhart[2].  For the life of me, however, I can’t recall being enlisted in this conspiracy, and I do have other reasons for my skepticism.

Inferring things (like “Earhart landed in the Marshalls”) from artifacts (like pieces of aluminum) is what archaeologists like me are trained to do.  Over the last 150 years or so we’ve developed a pretty standard set of methods for documenting what we find in such a way as to make our inferences reasonably reliable.  Not 100% reliable, but as reliable as we can make them given the circumstances under which we work.  The key concept underlying our methods involves the importance of context.  Where was each thing found, what was nearby, what sort of soil or sand was it lying in, how deeply was it buried, and so on.  We go to quite a bit of trouble to record all this sort of data, and we do it for the same reason a crime scene investigator prepares detailed records on a crime scene – because these data tell the artifact’s story.  They can inform us about how the artifact came to be where it was found, maybe with what other things it was used, sometimes even who used it – all of which can give us clues as to what the artifact is and what it means.  So we make careful maps of the sites we investigate; we plot what we find on and in them, and we take lots of notes and photographs as we go along, constructing as complete a record as we can of everything we did, everything we observed, everything we inferred.  Many times all these data turn out to be useless, but if we didn’t collect them, we wouldn't collect those bits of data that turn out actually to be important.  It can be tedious and boring, but those are the methods we use, and the reason for using them.  Without them, we're just picking stuff up and speculating about it.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Spink didn’t use such methods.  According to the Columbian, his team of searchers “used metal detectors, shovels and picks to sweep the beach.”  Then – and the Columbian quotes Mr. Spink on this – “(e)verybody brought back what they found and put it in a pile.”  Exactly what happened to the piles is not clear; Mr. Spink simply says that he “did more research, did more interviews, people told me stories.”  Which he pursued, apparently using the same methods as before, eventually bringing home his selected pieces of aluminum.

OK, what’s wrong with this?  Well, the “sweeping the beach” part is OK – you’ve obviously got to look for stuff if you’re going to find it.  But what’s missing in Mr. Spink’s account of his methods is any evidence of sensitivity to context, any effort to record where things were found, and under what circumstances.  You sweep, you find, you pick up and you put everything in a pile.

Piffle, you say, why should Mr. Spink have adhered to your archaeological methods?  He’s not an archaeologist.

True, he’s not; he’s identified by the Columbian as the founder of Dynatrax, an aluminum boat kit manufacturer.  His colleague Mr. Hayton is an aircraft restorer licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to inspect airplanes and approve them for flight.  Honorable professions, which certainly don’t demand archaeological training or experience.

But on Mili Mr. Spink was not practicing his profession; he was looking for artifacts from which to make inferences about Earhart’s fate – that is, he was doing archaeology.  He just seems to have been doing a very poor job of it.  Incidentally, the RMI government has pretty extensive laws and regulations governing the conduct of archaeological investigations, and I’m reliably informed that Mr. Spink ignored and violated them. 

Let’s not dwell on legalities, though.  The main thing is that Mr. Spink’s methods -- as described -- give us no basis for believing in what he says he found.  He sent his team out to sweep the beach; they brought back what they found and put it in a pile, and – well, that’s it.  If someone actually did find a piece of an Electra and dump it in the pile, we have no way of knowing where it came from, what it was associated with, or anything else about its context.  In truth, we have only Mr. Spink’s word for the notion that it even was found on Mili.

There are other problems with Mr. Spink’s research, most of which have been identified by members of TIGHAR’s Earhart Search Forum and summarized for me by Ric Gillespie.  For one thing, before World War II the Japanese built dozens of Model 14 “Super-Electras” under contract, and used them throughout the war for things like VIP transport.  So finding a piece of an Electra on Mili doesn’t mean you’ve found Earhart’s plane.  For another, Earhart’s airwheels apparently didn’t have dust covers; there are plenty of pictures of Earhart’s plane during the World Flight, and dust covers appear in none of them.  As for the presumed inspection plate, Mr. Hayton infers that it’s from Earhart’s plane because of its “period-and-usage-correct yellow zinc-chromate primer applied to either side of the piece.”  According to Gillespie and other experts, zinc chromate primer is actually associated with World War II military aircraft, not with pre-War civilian aircraft.  In our work on Nikumaroro, when we find a piece that’s thus primed, we take the primer to disqualify the object as an Earhart association.  Mr. Hayton also notes that the “inspection plate” is painted red, like the trim on Earhart’s plane.  Well, OK – though Earhart’s trim was actually orange – but it’s just possible that another airplane or two in the Marshalls had red trim.  And according to Gillespie, who’s examined just about every Electra 10 in captivity, there are and were no inspection plates on the wings' leading edges[3].

The main thing for me, though, is that by sending folks out to pick stuff up and put it in a pile, it seems to me that Mr. Spink rather systematically discredited his own research.  We have nothing but his unsubstantiated word to rely on – no maps, no photos, no measurements.  For all we know, his Electra-parts (if that’s what they are) could have come from Omaha.

Archaeological field methods were developed in order to give us something beyond the mere unsubstantiated word of an investigator as a basis for interpreting what’s found.  Substantiation of observations is the reason for such methods, and the reason they’re specified in standards like the regulations of the RMI (which also specify, for the same reason, that trained archaeologists oversee fieldwork).  When an investigator declines to use such methods, and doesn’t even explain why he declined, there is simply no reason to give his conclusions any credence.

Of course, maybe I’m ill-informed.  Maybe Mr. Spink did use archaeological methods, and did keep appropriate records; maybe this fact just didn’t make it into the Columbian piece or any other report I've seen on his work.  If so, I hope someone will let me know.  I’d love to see Mr. Spink’s full report.

[1] The Columbian, 1/2/15, page C4, Clark County, Washington; see
[2] C.f. Mike Campbell: Amelia Earhart – the Truth at Last; -- but you might also want to review .