Archived letters from Jo Anne Van Tilburg, EISP Project Director
As director of the UCLA Rock Art Archive, I have had the privilege of studying the seminal research of renowned California archaeologist Robert F. Heizer. He spent much of his professional life researching prehistoric art, known as rock art. His son, the famous artist Michael Heizer, grew up exploring his father’s excavations throughout California. Michael Heizer’s masterwork, entitled “Levitated Mass,” is a massive granite boulder weighing 340 tons. Installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Levitated Mass” is a profoundly literal interpretation of “rock art.” Transported from a distant desert quarry, the boulder was moved along a 105 mile route with minimal environmental impact and accompanied by a cacophony of Internet tweets. The space shuttle Endeavor, in contrast, recently traversed the city in a challenging 12 mile journey that Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne likened to an ancient ceremonial procession. Both events involved advanced industrial technology, enormous resources, careful and farsighted planning, large numbers of participants and crowds of observers, and were motivated by the goals of history, private passion, and public education.
Robert Heizer and I share another interest: the pre-industrial transport of large and heavy objects in megalithic cultures around the world. He speculated about ancient methods of moving Olmec heads as well as Mayan stone blocks and Egyptian monoliths. My interest, of course, is Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and the ancient engineering skills and tools needed to transport the stone statues (moai) from the quarry where they were carved to the ceremonial sites upon which they were raised. Eight different experiments to move moai in horizontal (prone or supine) or vertical (upright) positions have been reported over the years, and others have been tried. Beginning in about 1990, I researched probable transport methods based upon known Polynesian techniques and skills, and in 1998 we conducted a successful experiment using a full-scale concrete replica on Rapa Nui. Filmed by PBS Nova, it was an exciting learning experience that drew upon our extensive knowledge and participation in the island-wide archaeological survey. Our experiment demonstrated the viability of our method.
A recent attempt to, once again, “walk” a scaled down statue model was depicted by PBS Nova. Did it work? Apparently it did, as others have, at least to a certain extent. Are any of the upright methods actually viable on the Rapa Nui terrain? Not very likely. In the meantime, recent photos of our excavations caused a world-wide stir when more than 40 MILLION VISITORS to this web site discovered that “Easter island heads have bodies!!”
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.
Dear Friends of EISP,
Our Excavation Season V, which began on October 29, 2011, opened with our presentation to Governor Carman Cardinali of our two-volume report on Excavation Season IV. She noted that the Rapa Nui community, especially high school teachers and students, is very enthusiastic and interested in our work. This field season will continue as we carry out further excavation of statue (moai) RR-001-156 in Quarry Two, Rano Raraku. Reports of all work to date are available to the interested reader in the EISP Archives as Excavation Season I, Season II, and Season III or as Conservation Season I and Conservation Season II.
Before we began our excavation we visited the basalt quarries and outcrops sampled by our colleague Dr. Christian Fischer as part of our XRF analysis project. We have collected XRF data on over 40 sites. That information will be used byRapa Nui student Rafael Rapu in his comparative study of tools (toki) retrieved in our excavations.
Also in May of 2011, Chris Fischer and Mónica Bahamondez, director of the Centro Nacional de Conservación y Restauración (CNCR), treated the excavated portions of both statues with water repellant. On drizzly days or days with intermittent rain we were amazed to see how well the repellant did its job! Droplets quickly beaded up and didn’t penetrate the surfaces of either statue. We noted that the stone surfaces usually dried within a maximum of ten minutes. We are also now engaged in a plan to share our extensive on-site environmental data with colleagues modeling the island’s ecology.
Our continued excavation of RR-001-156 revealed more about the ritual concerns of those who frequented Rano Raraku interior quarry over about 500 years. We collected further evidence of red pigment (kie’a), an indispensable part of Rapa Nui ritual life and today a valuable part of personal display during performance art.
Interestingly, Rapa Nui oral traditions say that statue carvers were paid for their talent and effort in desirable food, including especially tuna and lobster. At the deepest level of our excavation this season we found tuna vertebrae! Also, we found strong evidence of how the ancient carvers manipulated the statue to raise it upright, pivot it and drop it in a hole 1 m deep cut in bedrock. The process left scars and indents on the statue surface. When seen on statues lying on roads, these same sorts of scars have been interpreted by others as evidence of upright transport methods. Our excavation, however, clearly shows that such damage could have been caused in the quarry. The unpublished notes of the Mana Expedition to Easter Island (1914-15) suggested and support these findings in Quarry 2 and elsewhere in Rano Raraku.
Both of our excavated statues, as you know from our previous letters, are intriguing because they are nearly unique on Easter Island. While many statues have individual petroglyphs, these and only one other statue—of over 1,000 we have documented—have multiple petroglyphs carved as a composition on their backs. Underlying these carvings is a complex symbol found on less than 100 statues. It is referred to by previous researchers as the “ring and girdle” design, and sometimes said to represent the “sun and rainbow.” However, statue RR-001-156 and some others have two “rings” above the crescent “girdle.” We have long interpreted this form as the Rapa Nui version of the Polynesian maro or loincloth (maro is also a unit of measurement). As we noted long ago on a statue torso (007) at Ahu Oroi (12-460), the upright “Y” or “M” element below the maro on both of our excavated statues represents two hafted adzes. This depiction, which may be interpreted as evidence of craft specialization in the form of an emblem, is not consistent, however, and in some cases outside of the quarry it appears to depict other objects. Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, co-director of EISP, has spent hundreds of hours on site over the past months painstakingly measuring and drawing these designs as he supervises the site during our seasonal hiatus from on-going excavations.
We hope you continue to follow our progress over the next few years on this web site. Although we are partially funded by a generous grant from the Archaeological Institute of America, we need your help. Please join Friends of EISP. Through that association you will meet and learn from a growing group of informed and caring people. Click on support to become a member of our team as we work to conserve the stone giants of Rapa Nui.
We have just returned from Excavation Season IV and statue (moai) RR-001-156 in Quarry Two, Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui (Easter Island)! The reports of previous field seasons are filed in the EISP Archives as Excavation Season I, Season II, and Season III or Conservation Season I and Conservation Season II.
Our three main goals for statue (moai) RR-001-157 were to audit our drawings of very complex stratigraphic profiles, augment our existing photo-documentation as follow-up to Conservation Season II, and then to backfill the statue. We accomplished all of these goals.
In May, 2011, our colleagues Chris Fischer and Monica Bahamondez treated both statues with water repellant. On drizzly days or days with intermittent rain we were amazed to see how well the repellant did its job! Droplets quickly beaded up and didn’t penetrate the surfaces of either statue. We noted that the stone surfaces usually dried within a maximum of ten minutes. These are subjective observations, of course. We await the detailed analysis by Chris and Monica of the extensive on-site environmental and stone condition data being downloaded bi-weekly by Tahira Edmunds.
Our continued excavation of RR-001-156 revealed more about the artisans, image-carvers, and ritual concerns of those who frequented Rano Raraku interior quarry over a long period of time. We uncovered an egg-shaped mass of concentrated, intensely pure red pigment (kie’a) tucked away under an overhang of bedrock (papa) carved with petroglyphs. Red pigment was an indispensable part of Rapa Nui ritual life, and remains today a valuable part of personal display during performance art. Along with the “signature stone” we uncovered earlier during excavation of RR-001-157, this find gives us a tantalizing glimpse into the past.
Both statues, as you know from our previous letters, are intriguing because they are nearly unique on Easter Island. They and only one other statue—of over 1,000 we have documented—have complex petroglyphs carved on their backs, faces, and arms. The carvings are often variants of a narrow range of elements and are arrayed in very interesting compositions. Most are well within the norm of Rapa Nui iconography, but some are very unusual. Many are crescent designs referred to as vaka (canoe), but they may be rei miro (gorget). Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, co-director of EISP, has spent hundreds of hours on site over the past months painstakingly measuring and drawing the elements. In January of 2012 the UCLA Rock Art Archive will host a Rapa Nui student who will use Cristián’s drawings and our EISP rock art database to initiate a comparative study.
We hope you continue to follow our progress over the next few years on this web site. Although we are partially funded by a generous grant from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA; www.archaeological.org) , we need your help. Please join Friends of EISP. Click on support to become a member of our team as we work to conserve the stone giants of Rapa Nui.
Dear Friends of EISP,
We have just returned from our third season of excavation in Rano Raraku Quarry! Our attention was directed throughout this field season on RR-001-156, the companion statue in Quarry 2 to previously excavated RR-001-157. Both statues, as you know from our previous letters, were excavated by the Mana Expedition to Easter Island (and other groups), although none of these digs ever reached the bases of the statues and results were never published.
This season was especially interesting in that we were joined by five remarkable young students of archaeology and conservation at the Universidad Internacional SEK in Santiago.
Enthusiastic and skilled, with wide backgrounds in survey and excavation, the students are thrilled to participate in the first authorized excavations in Rano Raraku since Thor Heyerdahl and his Norwegian Archaeological Expedition of 1954-55. Each of the students experienced a varied range of activities, including fine-grained excavation and removal of fragile bone and carbon, archival-safe storage of materials, and log book and catalog entry. Informal lectures and other learning activities allowed us to share previous experiences and insight, and there were many opportunities to interact with tourists and other professional visitors. Several thesis project opportunities are embedded in our research, and one of the students has already embarked upon a follow-up study of the many dozens of stone tools we have collected.
Dr. Christian Fischer, in cooperation with Monica Bahamondez P., reinstalled our environmental monitoring equipment in order to transmit conservation data to DATASHARE. Micheline Pelletier took valuable photos of our excavation using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). We will return to our Season IV excavation of RR-001-156 in July.
Read our preliminary report of Season III and Dr. Fischer’s conservation report. You are invited to follow our progress over the next few years on this web site. Although we are partially funded by a generous grant from the Archaeological Institute of America, we need your help. Please join Friends of EISP. Click on support to become a member of our team as we work to conserve the stone giants of Rapa Nui.
Dear Friends of EISP,
We have just returned from a great adventure: our second season of excavation in Rano Raraku Quarry! Our team is the first to conduct authorized excavations in Rano Raraku since Thor Heyerdahl and his Norwegian Archaeological Expedition, 1954-55. Through the generous support of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA; www.archaeological.org), we will collect surface and sub-surface stone condition data and monitor environmental conditions vital to statue conservation.
In 1914-15 the Mana Expedition, co-led by Katherine Pease Routledge and her husband, William Scoresby Routledge, “dug” both of the statues we are now excavating. Unfortunately, they did not adequately document and publish their information. A Rapanui man named “Langitopa” worked with Katherine Routledge. Langitopa told Routledge that the shorter statue (RR-001-156) was named “Papa” and the other, taller statue (RR-001-157) was “Papa’s Wife.” These names, given in jest, reflect a wry opinion of the Routledges. Darío Icka, on our excavation team, is a direct descendant of Langitopa.
Katherine Routledge’s field notes led us to believe that she had reached the base of Moai RR-001-157 and that it was 5.70 m tall. She was wrong. We discovered that the statue was over 8 m tall and erected upright on a stone pavement about 1 m below the bedrock (papa)!
Our most important, poignant discovery, however, was under the statue: a basalt stone with a beautifully etched vaka on it! Did we discover, in fact, the “signature” of the proud master carver who created this magnificent moai? Or the identity of the group that commissioned it? Design similarity between the carved stone and the crescent-shaped petroglyphs on the statue’s back—both above and below ground—is provocative evidence of continuity in social identity over time.
Read our preliminary report for a more complete picture and view the interesting objects encountered. Our excavation will continue in March, and you are invited to follow our progress on this web site. We need your help. Click on support and join us in this important work.
Dear Friends of EISP,
In March and April of 2010, our EISP team began the first authorized excavations in Rano Raraku Quarry interior since Thor Heyerdahl’s Norwegian Archaeological Expedition in 1954-55. Two statues said by Katherine Routledge of the Mana Expedition to Easter Island, 1914-15 to be called “Papa” and “Papa’s Wife” were selected due to their archaeological and iconographic importance and their ethnographic history. Like the famous statue Hoa Hakananai’a now in the British Museum, “Papa” and “Papa’s Wife” have complex and enigmatic carvings on their backs. Our excavations will reveal these designs and promise new information vital to understanding ancient Rapa Nui religious belief and statue use.
At the 50 cm level, Christian Fischer of UCLA and Monica Bahamondez P. of Chile’s Centro de Conservación y Restauración installed non-contact, microclimatic radiometric sensors near the statues to collect data on soil moisture and stone temperature. Protection treatments will follow detailed analysis of the environmental data. Partially funded by the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Initiative and with support from the Mana Foundation, we need your help. Please visit our Support link to find out how you can join us in this major new step towards understanding and protecting the unique environmental, aesthetic and historic value of Rano Raraku.
Dear Friends of EISP,
As 2009 draws to a close it is a pleasure to post our second letter from the director. As most of our visitors know, the Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) is an original archaeological field survey established in 1982 to document the monolithic statues (moai). The objective of EISP is original scientific research and publication. Our academic bibliography is extensive but, as the scope of our work grew, so did our collected data. In 1999, we began intensive push to digitize our records. In 2001, our innovative, localized, and visualized topographic and archaeological map of Rano Raraku statue quarry became the organizing and presentation tool for our database. Our project has steadily expanded to include External Collections and an extensive file of ethnographica and original artwork by EISP co-Director Cristián Arévalo Pakarati and other Rapa Nui artists. Our sister project is the non-profit Mana Gallery, which celebrated a gala, island-style opening in November. The gallery hosts our EISP field office and exhibits and supports our associated artists. Please visit in person or at www.managallery.org
DATASHARE is our newest venture. It will provide access to associated researchers, conservators and others working to preserve the fragile and irreplaceable patrimony of Rapa Nui. DATASHARE is part of Phase 1 of the Easter Island Statue Conservation Initiative, generously funded by a grant from the Site Preservation Task Force of the Archaeological Institute of America. According to Larry Coben, co-chair of the Task Force, EISP exemplifies “the model of preservation the AIA seeks to promote.” Phase 1 is opening the EISP database to CONAF Oficina Isla de Pascua and our collaborators, including Mónica Bahamondez P. of the Departamento Nacional de Conservación y Restauración (DNCR) and Christian Fischer of UCLA. Phase 2 will incorporate the Consejo Monumentos Nacionales Isla de Pascua and the Municipalidad Isla de Pascua. DATASHARE will provide a permanent, accessible home for EISP data, advance the preservation of Rapa Nui patrimony, and permit informed conservation managment.
The coming year promises new and exciting adventures, and we are looking forward to the beginning in March of the first of three planned field seasons and the on-going preparation of our Rano Raraku Atlas.
We are pleased that you have taken the time to join us, and to share in our archaeological exploration on Easter Island (Rapa Nui).
Our survey is a systematic mapping and descriptive study of all of the monolithic stone statues (moai) on the island and in museums and collections world-wide. We have created the world’s largest and most complete archive of maps, photographs, drawings, measurements and other data on over 1000 statues.
We share our data with the supervising authorities in Chile and on Rapa Nui. Our research thoughts on the comparative analyses of our data are widely published. We participate in public programs and media presentations for the public. As you read this, our massive database is being transferred into a new, web-based data filing and sharing system that will allow access to all of our collaborators and colleagues world-wide, as well as to the Rapa Nui people and the interested public.
We have established our own Mana Gallery on the island. It houses our field office and art gallery in which Rapa Nui artists show their work. They also use our data to innovate on the ancient aesthetics of their gifted ancestors. In this way, we enrich and expand our research. If you are fortunate enough to visit the island, please stop by the gallery.
We are proud and grateful to announce the latest honor accorded our project. We have received a major field work and preservation grant from the Archaeological Institute of America. We hope you will join us often to follow our progress in the field.