Niku V (2007)

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Itinerary for Niku V.
Click on the image for a complete caption.

The 70th Anniversary Expedition


TIGHAR returned to Nikumaroro in July 2007 to perform three major tasks.

1. Conduct intensive archaeological investigations at two sites in the colonial village: the "Carpenter's House" (or "Carpenter's Shop") and the Wireless or Radio Shack.

2. Continue and expand upon the archaeological work begun in 2001 (Niku IIII) at the Seven Site.

3. Obtain detailed topographic data on the Nutiran reef for use in calculating tidal effects on an airplane if parked there during the week following July 2, 1937.

In addition, our physical anthropologist, Kar Burns, with the assistance of Dr. Robin Aker and videographer Mark Smith, carried out a taphonomic experiment – putting out the remains of a pig and seeing how fast and in what directions the coconut crabs and strawberry hermit crabs took its parts away. And biologist/forester Josh Gillespie identified key tree species to allow construction of a general vegetation map.

We flew to Nadi in Fiji on July 14th, and from the nearby port of Lautoka embarked on our favorite motor-sailor the Nai’a for the five-day trip to Niku. We were 16 in all – the basic TIGHAR team, Mark Smith as videographer, and the representative of the government of Kiribati. The trip was uneventful but for various cases of seasickness; the weather was good but the swells were high. We landed as usual in the ship’s inflatables, going ashore every morning and returning to the ship in the evening. Gary Quigg took charge of work in the village, Tom King oversaw the Seven Site project. Ric and Josh Gillespie were primarily in command of the reef mapping, while Lonnie Schorer and John Craib documented both the reef and the Seven Site (along with much of the lagoon) using Kite Aerial Photography (KAP). Several members of the ship’s crew helped tremendously at both the village and the Seven Site.

In the Village

The village work involved clearing largish areas of coconut deadfall, metal detecting, mapping and excavating 1x1 meter test units. Suffice it to say that Gary Quigg’s crew were able to define and pretty definitively survey the carpenter’s shop and the vicinity of the wireless shack, together with the debris fields created downwind when the two structures blew away during storms in 1990 and thereafter. They collected a number of bronze bushing sleeves and other parts that might have been salvaged from an airplane, though analysis as of early 2009 indicates that the bushing sleeves at least were not. Analysis is continuing on this material.

At the Seven Site

At the Seven Site, it was first necessary to clear a great deal of scaevola in a way that would not unduly disturb the site surface. We accomplished this using long-handled pneumatic loppers powered by dive tanks; they worked remarkably well, and allowed a large area to be cleared. We then undertook a variety of excavations, metal detecting, and surface scanning for teeth and bones using a solar-powered daylight ultraviolet scanner designed by team member John Clauss. We used KAP to help document the site in its environment, and employed a robotic total station to update and correct the site map prepared in 2001. The UV scanner worked but revealed no human teeth or bones. The total station strained our technological competence but gave us what we needed, and the KAP worked very well, as did our state-of-the-art PVC sifting screens. We excavated several fire features that we hope will help us determine what sort of person was camping at the site; they produced a good deal of fish, bird, and turtle bone for dietary analysis. Artifact discoveries included a zipper, a snap perhaps from an article of clothing, part of a small pocket knife, a piece of beveled glass that may be from a small mirror, and pieces of what seems to be rouge – that aren’t easily associated with use of the site by Gilbertese colonists and U.S. Coast Guardsmen, the two groups known to have been there at various times. One of the fire features, too, contained the broken and mostly melted remains of two bottles, both standing upright and possibly used in an attempt at water purification by whoever was camping there.


The taphonomy experiment involved laying out the partial carcass of a pig with titanium screws driven into each of its major bones and long colored streamers attached to facilitate tracking, and rigging two cameras in nearby trees for time-lapse photography. The results are gruesome, but certainly demonstrate that the crabs of Nikumaroro on the one hand make pretty short work of a dead body, and on the other hand leave bones alone when they became relatively dry.

Reef Mapping and KAP

The reef mapping, supplemented by Kite Aerial Photography (KAP), went well and showed that the reef at Nutiran is somewhat higher than the tidal base station at the Ritiati landing channel. This has permitted adjustments to be made in calculations as to the feasibility of landing on the reef at the time when Earhart would likely have arrived, and as to the circumstances under which rising tide would likely have displaced the plane several days later.

Team Members