Easter Island Statue Project Official Website

Easter Island heads have great bodies!

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D.

Rano Raraku quarry (Figure 1), within which 95% of the over 1,000 Easter Island stone statues was carved, is a massive crater of consolidated volcanic ash surrounding an interior, reed-filled lake (Figure 2).  About half of the total number of statues recorded to date is still within the quarry zone.

Some 150 statues stand upright on the interior and exterior slopes of Rano Raraku.  They are buried to varying depths and appear often as heads only.  While weathered and worn by centuries of exposure to the elements, many of them are still very beautiful (Figure 3).

Rano Raraku was first reported to the outside world in 1868 by officers of HMS Topaze. The world was fascinated, and many sketches, essays, newspaper articles, and books were published describing the statues embedded in the slopes as “heads.”  Over 90 excavations in Rano Raraku since that time exposed the torsos of many statues. Katherine and William Scoresby Routledge of the Mana Expedition to Easter Island, 1914-15 published photos of their own digs illustrating the bodies of many statues.  In 1954-55 Thor Heyerdahl and his Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island excavated others, further documenting the existence of complete, but partially buried, statues.

Our EISP excavations recently exposed the torsos of two 7 m tall statues (Figure 4).  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of visitors to the island have been astonished to see that, indeed, Easter Island statues have bodies! More important, however, we discovered a great deal about the Rapa Nui techniques of ancient engineering:


We also discovered that ceremonies were certainly associated with the statues. We found large quantities of red pigment, some of which may have been used to paint the statues. Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, we found in the pavement under one statue a single stone carved with a crescent symbol said to represent a canoe, or vaka (Figure 5). The backs of both statues are covered with petroglyphs, many of which are also vaka. A direct connection between the vaka symbol and the identity of the artist or group owning the statue is strongly suggested.

Want to know more?  Read our excavation reports for Seasons I, II, III, IV and V.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D. — Archaeologist; Director, UCLA Rock Art Archive, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology; Project Director, Easter Island Statue Project Conservation Initiative

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Posted on May 22nd, 2012 by Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D. | Category: Letters from the Director |