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Research looking below surface of the Easter Island statues

ABC RADIO AUSTRALIA Updated 21 May 2012, 10:36 AEST

A project aimed at preserving the Easter Island statues has begun looking below the ground.

While the heads have become iconic images around the world, not many people realise that the statues actually are in fact a full torso, with time and erosion hiding most of the carvings from sight.

The work is being led by the Easter Island Statue Project based in the USA, and its director is Dr Jo Ann Van Tilburg, who has a long association with the island.


Presenter:Campbell Cooney

Speaker:Dr Jo Ann Van Tilburg, director, Easter Island Project, UCLA

VAN TILBURG: It's a project that began in 1982 the purpose of which is to collect a complete inventory of the locations and descriptions of all of the statues on Easter Island. At the moment in our inventory we have one-thousand-and-42, that's on the island and it also includes museum collections.
COONEY: You first went to Easter Island in 1981, so I'm taking that this statue project is very much your passion?
VAN TILBURG: Indeed it is, I think I've spent practically my entire archaeological career on this project.
VAN TILBURG: I love it, the challenge of it, the fact that the statues themselves are quite accessible or at least appear accessible because most of them are on the surface.
COONEY: The latest research you've done is starting to look under, of course we've seen the heads, those are fairly iconic pictures, but your research is looking at what's below the surface. I don't think many people would have actually realised that there's more than just a head there?
VAN TILBURG: I think you're right, I think people have seen photographs of the statues that were buried up to mid-torso or to the heads or part of the heads and faces. So most people probably didn't realise that the statues were full heads and torsos. We've just excavated two statues and in the first case the statue was approximately one half buried, in the second case it was nearly completely buried, just a portion of the face was visible.
COONEY: Were they buried like that or is this just the tracks of time?
VAN TILBURG: It's just basically the result of erosion from the soil and debris washing down from the slope above the statues.
COONEY: There's still a lot of mystery about the Easter Island statues, but when you start digging and finding those torsos can you find out a little bit more about the way that they were created? I take it, it would be hard to sort of go why they were created but a little bit more about how they were created?
VAN TILBURG: Yes actually indeed we have, I mean the first statue that we excavated revealed several things; one there was a human burial there, secondly, the statues were carved in probably partially painted, although we weren't sure about that, but certainly carved, and with petroglyphs that were added to the back of the statue. And then the second statue was much more revealing, in that we found at the base of the statue evidence of how the statues were raised, in other words there's a very large post hole there and then rope guides that were actually cut into the stone. So that was part of the early technology, the engineering that was involved in the statue. And then we also found under our first statue we excavated, a stone that had a carved symbol on it of a Polynesian canoe. More or less a kind of signature either of the artist or of the family group that owned the statue.
COONEY: I'm right in believing that there is very little as in documented or traditional carvings or stones like you might see in somewhere like Egypt and that there that tells a story of how these were built and their creation?
VAN TILBURG: That's true, there isn't that sort of pictorial evidence. But the reason we chose to excavate these statues is because they had petroglyphs on their backs that were very important, and those had been previously photographed. So we knew when we started the excavation that we would find more petroglyphs.
COONEY: Ok I understand you're heading back down there again soon to do more work?
VAN TILBURG: Yes in October.
COONEY: What are you going to be doing?
VAN TILBURG: We're actually continuing the excavations of both of these statues at the front and we're doing some other work at other statues, it's the most important thing I think that we're doing is to try to develop a methodology to preserve the stone statues themselves. So we work with a group of conservators from the national government in Chile, and as well with a group of Rapa Nui people who are learning to apply a chemical stabiliser and water repellent to the statues in order to protect them from erosion.
COONEY: These are the ones that are exposed, the heads that are there, I say that because I would imagine that the bits that are underground if a lot of it are underground, they would be preserved in a natural sort of way?
VAN TILBURG: You're exactly right.
COONEY: Any plans to do further excavations on other statues?
VAN TILBURG: Yes absolutely, probably certainly in the interior of the quarry. The states that are the best preserved are those that are in the quarry, and those are the ones we're working with.

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