Easter Island Statue Project Official Website

Lessons from the Field: Sustainable Archaeology on Easter Island

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D.

Illustrated paper delivered in Session 3c: Workshop “Pursuing Best Practices in Site Preservation.” Moderator:  Alexandra Cleworth.  111th Annual Meeting, Archaeological Institute of America, Anaheim, CA, 9 January 2010. Abstracts Volume 33. Boston University:  Archaeological Institute of America, 55.

The monumental stone statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile are world-famous icons of artistic imagination and engineering ingenuity.

Their fragility, coupled with the fact that Easter Island is a major tourist destination, creates an urgent conservation imperative. Our modern archaeological inventory preserves them and their individual histories, facilitates the articulation of cultural identity, and supports shared stewardship and sustainability in a tourist-based economy.

Traditional site maintenance practices are deeply ingrained in all Polynesian societies.  Rapa Nui society, following the examples of sister societies in the Pacific—including especially the Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand)—are today seeking greater autonomy from cooperating Chilean mainland authorities. Traditionally, these authorities have had legal and practical jurisdiction over decision making in terms of archaeological priorities and conservation.  One of our goals is to communicate research findings in a timely and accessible manner to benefit the local community and its articulated priorities. This is no small task. The challenge to “best practices” in archaeology is to support the exploration of traditional aspirations by providing good data in a timely manner and in the context of the evolving reality of modern conservation methods and political realities.

Easter Island Statue Conservation Initiative

Project Area and Significance

Rano Raraku quarry, in the eastern political division of Easter Island (Rapa Nui), is a unique World Heritage site and the most culturally significant natural resource on this storied Polynesian island. While Rapanui artisans carved figurines and some small figures in wood or other stone, they carved 95% of the 1,045 monolithic statues (moai) known to date in quarries within Rano Raraku.[1]

Rano Raraku volcanic crater is awkwardly shaped with steeply rising cliffs on its southeast side and much lower, eroded slopes on the north-western side. It is divided into 5 archaeological zones (Cristino et al. 1981).  There are 331 moai remaining in Rano Raraku.[2] The tallest is a massive carving 20.56 m long and weighing at least 200 tons; it is still unfinished and attached to bedrock. Another 104 moai are embedded upright in the soil of the exterior slopes. These statues, and forty-six others on the interior slopes, are the ultimate focus of this Conservation Initiative.

Easter Island Statue Conservation Initiative

Project Goals and Target Statues

The Easter Island Statue Preservation Initiative is a multidisciplinary project aimed at the preservation and management of the Rano Raraku statues and quarry site based on a holistic and integrated approach. With a team composed of archaeologists, conservators, scientists and other specialists, the project is scheduled to take place in three phases over 5 seasons.  Phases I and II will focus on two target statues previously excavated or disturbed by others  and will include excavation, stabilization, documentation, analysis and recording of current status, environmental monitoring and database management, as well as the cleaning of the statues and the evaluation and application of consolidation and protective treatments.

For the necessary technical and scientific investigations, priority will be given to non-invasive technologies such as laser scanning, digital photography, infrared thermography and portable XRF and UV-Vis-NIR spectroscopy. After a critical assessment of phase I and II actions and results a conservation plan, to be integrated in the site management plan, will be established and the methodology extended to other statues in the Rano Raraku site during phase III.  Ultimately, in the long term, the methods used may be extended and adapted to the individual contexts of the entire corpus of statues on the island.

The whole project will strongly benefit from integration of archaeological and conservation data currently held within the Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) database. In terms of conservation interventions, methodologies will be built upon the evaluated results obtained from previous scientific studies and conservation treatments, M. Bahamondez P. and Christian Fischer, UCLA, are responsible for these activities.

A major component of our EISP project is the educational involvement of mature, focused Rapa Nui students currently enrolled in the conservation course program at the Universidad Internaciónal SEK, Santiago de Chile. These students, under the direction of Bahamondez P., will participate in both the archaeological and conservation experiential opportunities available in our project.  The project is organized in the following manner:

Threats to the Survival of Easter Island Statues

Rano Raraku archaeological zone is 1.2 x 1.1 km in size and composed of tephra ash (tuff) that is a superb but porous and fragile sculptural material.  On the interior of the crater it is exposed in irregularly shaped flows (papa) visually sub-divided into spatially discrete areas varying in stone quality, accessibility, and workability (Van Tilburg, Arévalo Pakarati, and Hom 2009). The tuff evidences well-defined textures from coarse, medium, to fine and was laid down in rough, dipping layers or “beds.” Bedding of the tuff appears to be a factor in the angle at which statues were cut in the quarries. Geologists have defined fragments of dense basalt (lapilli) scattered throughout the tuff.  Lapilli impeded the carving progress on some statues or disfigured the surface appearance of others.

Rano Raraku tuff is highly susceptible to deterioration. It is a distinctive yellow-orange when freshly quarried but weathers to black.  These and other inherent weaknesses of the stone material, coupled with the fact that Rano Raraku is a major tourist destination, create an urgent conservation imperative.

Rano Raraku zone is a highly vulnerable site composed of interfacing ecological and cultural zones.  It is one of two sites visited by ALL of the estimated 54,000 tourists per year.  The stone surface of every statue (of more that 400) in Rano Raraku is in poor or very poor condition.  Sustainable visitor management to insure site protection and visitor satisfaction is highly marginal.  In short, threats to statue integrity, in addition to the fragility of the tuff, include:

Barriers to effective statue conservation and effective visitor monitoring are the universal problems of funding and staffing. The Rapa Nui unit of the CONAF does not have adequate staffing to meet the needs of its many properties. There are also four other major issues:

New Political Realities

Rapa Nui is on the political cusp of change in which the management of sites, as well as of the data describing those sites, is increasingly being administered on-island by Rapa Nui authorities.  Nonetheless, marginalized sub-groups within Rapa Nui society are currently increasingly resentful of Chilean political hegemony in terms of land use and, as well, increasingly vocal of that resentment.  The most visible site protection actions are taken by the Chilean National Parks (CONAF) corps of on-site rangers. Some Rapa Nui groups see the rangers—as well as tourism and scientific field work in general—not in terms of shared economic or social benefit but, rather, as direct evidence of oppression. Any potential economic benefits are regarded as earmarked nearly exclusively for traditionally dominant families within their own community who are criticized for “commercializing” the island’s heritage.[3] Internal competition is built on long-standing animosities fueled by disparities in economic and educational status and life experience. Furthermore, the lines of this disparity run roughly along those status designations and political associations established at least a century ago. Failure by community leaders to address these issues can only result in continued disagreement, disharmony, stalemate and increased conflict.

The long-term future of Rano Raraku as a World Heritage site remains as of this writing within the jurisdiction of the Consejo Monumentos Nacionales (CMN) and the Chilean National Parks (CONAF). Research permits are given to all scientific projects by CMN in consultation with CMN Rapa Nui. However, it should be noted here that more than a few archaeological and other projects have been carried out without the proper permits.  It remains to be seen whether or not such a situation will continue in the future.

Benefits of the EISP Statue Conservation Initiative

Conservation practices incorporated into our project will be taught to the Rapa Nui students involved with the Universidad Internaciónal SEK. These students, it is hoped, will form the nexus of a group that, in future, will play a central role in conservation practice. Once the conservation of the two target statues is completed, we propose yearly evaluations and long-term monitoring. This will help to define maintenance actions and to integrate them in the site management plan. These data will form the core of an enlarged and interactive community and tourism educational program. The opening of the EISP generated database through our DATASHARAE project, and the dissemination of it to the Rapa Nui community through its designated agencies, will generate further preservation awareness and efforts.  It will also consolidate archeological information and allow for controlled monitoring and the setting of more comprehensive conservation and research priorities.


The Easter Island Statue Conservation Initiative is the logical culmination, on the one hand, of our decades of field survey and inventory.  On the other, it is the initial step in transmitting scientific data, and the control and use of that data, to the indigenous Rapa Nui community. As such, it encourages and reinforces the rediscovery and implementation of ancient cultural values of site maintenance that are an embedded part of traditional lifeways.  The political realities that are currently in emergence, however, are delicate and complex issues creating a new climate within which the work of EISP and all other scientific programs on the island will, in future, play out.

See related article:
Easter Island –Conservation Efforts, Challenges by E.E. Mazier

[1] This number is the most recent count and reflects the number of statues reconstructed from nearly 1,500 inventoried components including torsos, heads, and fragments.

[2] This number is corrected from previously published estimates of c. 394 based on mapping to 1981 (Cristino et al. 1981; Van Tilburg 1986).

[3] It is worth noting here that Rapa Nui is not alone among the world’s communities in such a conflicted approach to site stewardship (see ICOMOS “Major Paradigm Shifts in Site Management”).

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

Posted on May 7th, 2010 by Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D. | Category: Conservation, Uncategorized |