TIGHARs on Tinian

TIGHAR’s mission is to “promote responsible aviation archaeology and historic preservation.” Sometimes that means providing needed expertise even when the hypothesis being tested is one with which we disagree. Over the next few days two TIGHAR scientists, Senior Archaeologist Dr. Thomas F. King and Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Karin Ramey Burns, will be assisting in the excavation of a site on the island of Tinian reputed to be the graves of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. Tinian is a small island near Saipan in the Marianas Group and is best known as the site of the U.S. air base from which the atomic bomb attacks on Japan were launched in the closing days of WWII.

TIGHAR believes that the available evidence strongly suggests that Earhart and Noonan died as castaways on Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) in the Phoenix Group. We know of no reason to think that they are buried on Tinian – but we also recognize that we could be wrong. We further believe that when a hypothesis can reasonably be tested it should be tested in full compliance with local laws and to high professional standards. Accordingly, in response to a request from the project's organizer, Tom King arranged his teaching schedule to permit him to be in the area at the time the dig was scheduled to take place. The generous response of TIGHAR members to an appeal for contributions allowed us to also send Kar Burns.

OceaniatnThe Earhart Tinian Expedition is not a TIGHAR project and the following informal notes by TIGHAR Senior Archaeologist Dr. Tom King are in no way an official report on the results of the expedition. Tom's observations and photos are presented as a courtesy to the TIGHAR membership whose contributions made possible the participation of TIGHAR Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Karin Ramey Burns. TIGHAR is solely responsible for any opinions or conclusions expressed here.

Click on the little map to open a big one of the Pacific in a new window.


November 7, 2004, 5 PM
Tamuning, Guam

Hafa Adai from Guam. I arrived here yesterday for a three-day teaching stint before meeting Kar Burns and flying up to Tinian to help with the excavation of the putative Earhart/Noonan burial site. The sky is as blue as ever in the western Pacific, the clouds as white, the sun as hot, the breezes as scented, though on Guam's lee side the scent is as much of carbon monoxide and particulates as it is of flowers and sea salt.

This morning’s Pacific Daily News, the major newspaper in the area, had a couple of related articles about the Tinian dig; should be on the web at Guam PDN. The coverage seems quite accurate and fair, and took up a bit of the front page and all of pages 2 and 3. “Pretty slow news day,” I thought, but then I was interviewed over lunch by the articles’ author, Katie Worth, who said that her article last year on the Earhart-Tinian connection had been THE most popular thing the paper had done in terms of website hits from around the world – over a million. The enduring appeal of Earhart.

For those who aren’t up on the story – St. John Naftel, now 82 and a resident of Montgomery, Alabama, was a Marine gunner on Tinian after it was taken from the Japanese in 1944. He says he was shown a set of graves where Earhart and Noonan had been buried after being executed. Last year he returned to the island accompanied by then-U.S. Navy archaeologist Jennings Bunn and pointed out the site. Bunn, now retired, has put together an excavation project, funded out of his own pocket and staffed by volunteers, obtained a permit from the Northern Marianas Historic Preservation Office, and the work will begin on Thursday the 11th. Naftel and Bunn will arrive Wednesday night, and join Saipan archaeologist Mike Fleming and various colleagues, including Kar and me. The first step, I believe, will be a certain amount of backhoe stripping, followed by shovel-scraping to look for grave shafts, and then controlled hand excavation until either bones are found or we give up.

Ms. Worth asked me for my own opinion of the likelihood of finding Earhart, and I explained why I feel that the Nikumaroro hypothesis is far more likely to be correct, giving her a copy of Amelia Earhart’s Shoes (2001 edition, the new one still being hung up at the printer). But I also explained that in our view it’s always worth testing alternative hypotheses, and praised Jennings Bunn for putting together an objective, scientifically sound project to test this one. Northern Marianas Historic Preservation Officer Epiphano Cabrera and his senior staff, who are attending my class and sat in on the interview, stressed that they'll have a representative on site to make sure the work is properly done.

I’m told I should be able to get internet access on Tinian; if so, I’ll report in when I can. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll at least try to file a report when I return to Guam the evening of the 16th.

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