2001: Niku IIII

Daily Expedition Reports

Reports are in reverse date order so that those who check every day don't have to scroll down endlessly as the expedition progresses. September 23 If you are new to this page, just click on the earliest date to the left (down at the bottom of the list) and then scroll up to read each posting in order.
September 20
September 19
September 18
September 17
September 16
September 15
September 14

After three and a half days at sea, Nai’a turned the corner into the harbor at Pago Pago about 1 p.m. local time on Friday and was finally still for the first time since leaving Nikumaroro. While the passage did not rival that of 1997, when forty foot seas were the order of the day, it was very rough indeed, and everyone was heartily glad to go ashore. Watching water tower above one’s head is not really so much fun.

The last day on the island was spent in the village, by both necessity and plan. Both boats were out of the lagoon, which meant no intra-island transportation; and the team needed to look at the village carefully to try to match artifacts and materials found at the Seven site.

Remember that the Seven site is multi-layered. There is possibly some prehistoric activity; certainly castaway activity; certainly Gilbertese/Gallagher activity; certainly Coast Guard activity... and so on. In order to understand the layers and units correctly, it’s important to know, if possible, what came from where and even how.

Things found in the village that appear to match artifacts or items found at the Seven site are:

Fine mesh copper screening.

The screening found in the village is very similar to that found at the Seven site. It is not, however, in context – it is simply lying about, not part of anything. Possible uses for screening in the village would be to cover windows; to cover water barrels; in cooking; and so on. However, because none of these uses were seen in the village, we can’t know for sure that it is actually part of the village life. It may be that there is some cache of screening somewhere on the island that both the castaway and the villagers found and made use of. There is some copper screening at the Loran station, but it is much heavier gauge.

Green roofing material.

This stuff is an old fashioned kind of roofing material that incorporates tarpaper and shingling into one unit, and comes in rolls. It’s the sort of thing that might be used to roof a shed. Two pieces of it were found in the village, nailed to the side of the radio shack... which was built in the early 1950s. There is no evidence that more of it was nailed to the shed and is now gone. Quite a lot was found at the Seven site. Definitely one of those Nikumaroro mysteries.

Corrugated metal sheeting.

There is quite a bit of this around the village; it was a popular roofing material. It is found both in the lighter and the heavier gauge.

Asbestos sheeting.

This is incorporated into a number of buildings in the village, including the cistern which was one of the earliest structures on the island. It also was used to make shutters for the cookhouse. We think we can say that it is likely that the search party brought some of this to the Seven site for whatever reason.

After working in and around the village for several hours, the team sat down to eat some lunch near Gallagher’s grave, where there were still some palm fronds scattered about from the memorial service. One by one they laid down, “just for a moment,” and about an hour later decided that the expedition was over. Everyone packed up, called the ship’s boat, and went aboard, the adrenalin rush thoroughly spent.

On Saturday, the FedEx folks came over with a truck and loaded up everything to go to their warehouse. Today the team was going to spend the day packing everything – EVERYTHING – for shipment home, leaving everyone, if possibly, with only one or two smallish carry-ons with which to tackle the airlines. The flight out is at 2340 local time tonight, heading for Honolulu. If all goes well, everyone will be home either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on their individual travel arrangements.

I just heard from Ric. He was standing on the foredeck in the driving rain with his arm wrapped around a post to keep from being flung overboard when the ship lurched in the seas which were high.

I will post a report on the web tomorrow morning, and then there probably won’t be one until Saturday because the phone was getting wet and we were losing the connection and anyway it would be majorly not cool to lose the expedition director overboard.

....for those in peril on the sea, indeed.

No real report on the last day at the island, because as soon as they left they ran into heavy seas and driving rain squalls. Ric called from the foredeck, drenched, hanging onto equipment to keep from being tossed around, and we kept losing the connection because the phone was getting wet.

So we decided that discretion was the better part, and he’ll call again tonight and see if we can get the last bit of news.

Yesterday the team wrapped up work at the Seven site, almost literally – tarps were put out and weighted down over the excavated units to discourage scaevola growth and protect the site, as much as is practical, from the worst effects of weather. That site is now shut down.

John took a small team down to the Loran station and found the site of the “headquarters” quonset hut, where they looked for green roofing material and didn’t find any. We still don’t know where that stuff came from.

Andrew, Kar and Ric tried to trace the trail from the Seven site to the clam beds. It was an interesting experience; going out was rough, lots of scaevola chopping and they came out 40 meters off goal. But going back, they struck a finger of higher ground where the buka forest was still intact, and found it led directly into the Seven site. A trail there made all kinds of sense.

Last night, the crew threw a party for the team. It was, by all accounts, an incredible experience. To begin with, there was an impromptu sea mammals show – the resident dolphin pod (who seem to find our activities fascinating) decided to put on an aquabatic display that would rival that of any of the aquatic theme parks. The entire crew and team hung over the rails, cheering and applauding, and the dolphins showed off for fifteen minutes.

When the group retired to the salon, a ceremony was held honoring those who died in last week’s attacks. After a minute of silence, an American flag and a Fijian flag, folded into triangles, were held high as first the U.S. national anthem and then the Fijian national anthem were sung. Simple, but very moving, Ric describes the singing as “inspired.”

Fritz then addressed the group in highly complimentary terms, speaking of how easy they had been to work and live with for the trip, and hoping to work with the team again. A crew spokesman echoed these sentiments on behalf of the staff. Then the crew chaplain said a grace for a safe passage home and an end to terror.

A huge spread of traditional Fijian foods was laid on and everyone ate a lot and drank kava and sang and played their instruments and a wonderful time was had by all.

Today the team will be working in the village in an attempt to match any of the building materials found at the Seven site to things that were used during the colonial period. Points of particular interest will be the radio shack and rest house at WI15, the cistern at WH16, and the new village at WH20. They leave tonight with last light.

Slowly the expedition is winding down. Last minute tasks and housekeeping are jostling elbows with final excavation work.

Yesterday the gang spent a lot of time out on the reef flat at a very low tide, taking advantage of the opportunity to examine the sad remains of Norwich City. Lots of photographs were taken, and the plaque looks great. A brief on-shore ceremony was held in memory of those who died there, and a verse of the Navy Hymn was sung. A tape of an appropriate reading and prayer by a Muslim cleric was played in honor of the six Arab firemen who perished in the wreck.

The entire team turned to to fill the (as it turned out) non-grave site excavation. Backbreaking, and unbelievably hot, people just took turns with shovels and gritted their way through it. Picking up and putting away is the most difficult part of the expedition, but putting away a “dead” unit is the worst of all. Ric commented that the scene resembled some of the chain gang scenes in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” and immediately sparked a song-fest, which made the time go much faster.

The next order of business was a walking tour of the “European house site.” A lot of debate has been generated by this excursion, with widely varying opinions as to dating the structures. One thing is clear: this was a heavily used site and there are a lot of layers to understand before being sure of dating anything there. One nail was recovered from a board. Gary Quigg is a museum professional working with a living history museum, and he thought he recognized the nail as 19th century. This should be readily identifiable stateside. Samples of copper screening and corrugated metal were also collected to compare to artifacts found at the Seven site.

Last night Kar, John, Andrew, and Mark stayed ashore to do ultraviolet screening at the Seven site. Their activities will be reported on tomorrow, since no one has seen them yet.

Today, everyone but Van and Walt will be finishing up at the Seven site, digging one or two more units and making sure everything is picked up and put away. Van and Walt will be securing dive gear and packing aquatic things for shipment. Ric will be trying to trace the 1938 trail from the site to the clam beds with the help of the photographs. All supplies and equipment must be out of the site by the end of the day today, as the Naiad leaves the lagoon on the high tide.

Tonight is the traditional banquet and sing-sing thrown by the crew for the team aboard Nai’a. The buffet is wonderful and the music is great, and a good time is had by all at these events. Spirits are still good; the grave-filling-in songfest lasted into the evening last night, and the cook marched out when they quieted down and said, “No music, no supper!” so they had to start up again.

Tomorrow, everyone will be looking around the village for any items which might be matched to things at the Seven site in order to try and establish dates/times for artifacts.

The home stretch. Everyone is really tired, but holding up all right. The only real injury has been to one of the crew, who cut his hand fishing. Jim stitched it up and it’s healing fine.

It was another long hot day at the Seven site. They are finding more animal and bird bone deposits, and more small camp/cooking fires, but not very many human artifacts. In a way this is encouraging. The bits of fashioned glass and so on that were found earlier are not simply parts of bigger things that ended up there somehow, because the rest of the bigger things haven’t been found. The inference can therefore be drawn that these are utilitarian objects, beachcombed and perhaps made into tools by a castaway, rather than simply being the casual detritus of storms.

Another batch of the roofing material was found grown in among/rooted into a tree root system. More was found about three meters away. Because it had been in the sun it was almost dust, but the outline and the remnants were visible.

The Waders (formerly the Divers) covered the areas mentioned in yesterday’s report with no meaningful results – no airplane-esque stuff.

Today they will dedicate the Norwich City plaque around 10 a.m. – that’s in sector WB09. Then they will go to take a close look at the Arundel structures in WE11 to see if any of the construction type materials found at the Seven site can be matched to items there.

Additionally, they will be filling in the hole left by the excavation of Grave 3, which turned out not to be a grave.

Tonight, John, Andrew and Kar will stay overnight at the Seven site to do U.V. screening. Jim has rigged some very nice hammocks, which should make things much more comfortable... or at least a little less creepy-crawly.

Tomorrow, everything will come off the Seven site and the process of withdrawal will commence. The last day will be spent in the village in an effort to match any artifacts from the Seven site that might provide clues as to layers.

As a former cavalry officer, Ric is given to using cavalry expressions for everyday activities. So when he reported to me this morning that yesterday the divers were dismounted and fighting on foot, I knew what he meant.

They were in the water, but not diving. Instead, with the aid of two of the Seven site gang, they were searching along the shore line with metal detectors, out to about 50 meters – as far as wading/snorkeling will take you. They were working Taraia point and the bay to the north and west, from WP15 to WM11.

The farther north and west they went, the less they found of any kind of debris. Apparently that bay just doesn’t collect stuff. So today they will skip the rest of the bay and begin work at WJ13, which is the north shore of Tatiman passage, and work along there.

Meanwhile, Walt and Andrew will go around to WQ15 and WR14 and begin metal detector work there.

At the Seven site, the team secured the hole. They were still getting fish and bird bones at 1.5 meters. Possibly that layer is prehistoric (prior to 1880, that is). They placed a tarp at the bottom of the hole, then a layer of aluminum cans (so as to find it easily another time with a metal detector); then filled the hole in with coral rubble to obscure its outline to the casual observer. Some small artifacts have been found that are not easy to describe, and may be identifiable; we will be posting photographs soon after the team returns to start the identification process.

Elsewhere in the Seven site they mapped and recorded two clam deposits. In each there were the remains of exactly 15 clams. In order to find out where the clams came from, the lagoon shore was walked and examined. No live clam beds are in evidence now, but a dead clam bed was discovered, about two meters in diameter, near the shore. In the 1938 photograph, there is a clear trail leading directly from the Seven site to the area of this clam bed.

During the excavation of the “food units” – places where fish and bird bones were found – Skeet found something rather odd. In 1996 we found some material that was like a combination of tarpaper and shingling, greenish with a rough surface. We assumed (oh, that word!) that it was a relic of the village and Gallagher’s search. Skeet found a piece of that material, folded in half like a sandwich, with a “filling“ of something softer, like padding. Hard to tell what the filling was, perhaps felt or some sort of moss type stuff. Most of the green scratchy layer was gone. This was found some distance from the other deposit of the “roofing” material. The item reminded people of a make-shift shoe. We may need to re-evaluate the assumption that the construction type materials (the roofing, the screen) necessarily post-dates the castaway. There is a chance that the construction materials, rather than being left over from the initial bone search, are actually salvaged from the Arundel coconut plantings 7ndash; ca. 1890.

Today they were planning to wrap up the Seven site. Tomorrow, the plan is to take a look at the “European house” found on Niku IIIIP, which is from the Arundel period, and the village as well, and see if any of the materials found at the Seven site can be matched.

Yesterday John and Van installed the plaque on the Norwich City engine. A dedication is planned for later this week.

Ric walked the reef flat from the channel to the Norwich City at the same time, taking photographs and measurements for the tide observations we've been doing. The normal high tide, measured on the chunks of reef block sitting on the reef, and on the Norwich City remains, is about 1 meter above the reef surface.

The Dive team is switching from the manta boards and visual search, which yielded no results, to metal detector searches along the lagoon shore, tracing the flow patterns and picking up a debris trail. It is evident that material comes through Tatiman Passage, sweeping into the lagoon and around the ends of the channel opening, and works down the lagoon shore. They found a piece of aluminum yesterday, the first found outside the village. While it is small, and too generic to be identified, it does indicate that they are now looking in the right places. It was actually in the channel, about three meters out from the shore, in WI14.

They'll be doing more searching tomorrow in WI15, WH15, WI13, WJ13, WJ12, and WP15. If they can pick up the main debris trail from the Norwich City, they will follow it on the assumption that where ship wreckage goes, there too will go Electra debris.

At the Seven site, they plan to finish the hole excavation today. So far nothing has been found, but the unit certainly fits the profile for a place for a skull to be buried, and no other explanation for it has been found. The other units confirm signs of discreet eating events, sometimes with small campfires, which predate the construction materials found at the site --- they are under the construction materials.

Skeet and Tom spent some time yesterday surveying out a swath at the Seven site from the lagoon to the ocean in order to get information for a good cross-section and accurate topography.

The Seven site will probably be wrapped up by Monday, and the team will shift to the village to attempt to match a few artifacts that are suspected of coming from the village to the Seven site.

At this time, they are planning to depart from Niku on Tuesday night.

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