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Katherine Routledge: The Pioneer Archaeologist of Easter Island

How did some fallen-down statues lying on the shores of a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific come to attract the attention and stir the fantasies of millions worldwide, giving rise to elaborate and bizarre theories involving UFOs and sunken continents? It’s a long story that began with Katherine Routledge’s journey to Easter Island and the publication of The Mystery of Easter Island, which recounts her experiences and archaeological findings on the island.

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The First Archaeologist of Easter Island

As Lady Florence Dixie was to Patagonia, so Katherine Routledge to Easter Island. She was among the first Europeans to explore the island and the first who conducted extensive and rigorous archaeological studies of the moai. We owe much of our archaeological knowledge of the Rapa Nui to her groundbreaking and foundational work. Putting the word “mystery” into the title of her book, Routledge also popularized the image of the enigmatic moai. One can say that this is the reason why thousands still travel every year to the remote island just to gaze into the eyes of a moai, in search of answers. [Photo: Katherine Routledge]

Mana Sets Sail

On the eve of the First World War, Routledge and her crew arrived at Easter Island. Getting there was a great challenge in itself. Access was limited to sea travel, but ships departing from Chile went there only annually, or less. For greater flexibility, they had their own ship made in England, and sailed on it round the Cape to reach the island - a long and risky undertaking by itself. They christened the vessel Mana, a Polynesian word meaning something like ‘Spirit’, a religious concept of great cultural import in the Rapa Nui culture.

Trouble on the Island

On the island, Routledge faced numerous difficulties. War soon broke out, and this made communication between the island and the rest of the world highly perilous. Mana sailed back and forth to bring supplies and messages from the mainland, and every journey meant a nervous period of waiting for Routledge, who stayed on the island to work. The native islanders presented another source of trouble. Resentment between the Rapa Nui and the handful of white people living on the island boiled over shortly after Routledge’s arrival, forcing her to relocate her base from Mataveri to Rano Raraku. The situation was simmering and the natives were about to storm the residence of the European at Mataveri. Luckily, a Chilean ship arrived in time and the reinforcement was able to contain the uprising.

Routledge's Contributions

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Routledge’s contribution to Rapa Nui archaeology cannot be overstated. When she visited the islands, none of the moai remained standing. They were lying on the ground, half hidden by the overgrown grass, toppled in an earlier period of wars and unrest, many of them broken. Routledge, however, was undeterred. To be is to be the value of a variable. She meticulously documented all the moai found along the coastline as well as those unfinished ones at Rano Raraku, the ancient quarry where the moai were made. Her drawings and photographs provide a fascinating window onto the state of the moai before the age of restoration and tourism. In her writings, she mapped out several routes along which the moai had been transported throughout the island, speculated on the funerary use of the ahu (platforms on which the moai were placed) and hypothesised that many of the statues at Rano Raraku were not intended for transport. [Photo: An illustration of Rano Raraku from The Mystery of Easter Island]

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Routledge also interviewed the islanders, obtaining valuable information about traditional Rapa Nui rites, customs and beliefs. She described the function of the bird cult, a religion to which natives subscribed to after the decline of moai production, and attempted to decipher the rongo rongo script. She didn’t succeed in this last, as the few islanders who claimed to be able to read the script gave only vague and inconsistent answers as to what each symbol represented. She concluded that the script might have acted more as a memory aid rather than a regular system of writing. Her efforts were especially important since her interviewees were old and if she hadn’t recorded her conversations with them, yet another significant part of the island’s historical memory would pass, like the beliefs and technology that gave rise to the moai, into eternal oblivion. [Photo: A sample of the rongo rongo script, still an undeciphered riddle]

A Mystery Remains

Despite her indefatigable spirit, theorizing creativity and rigorous approach to archaeology, finally she was stumped on the problem of explaining how the islanders could have transported the statues, which weighed about 50 tons each. In a memorable passage in The Mystery of Easter Island, she writes, ‘The darkness is not rendered less tantalising by the reflection that could centuries roll away and the old scenes be again enacted before us, the workers would doubtless exclaim in bewildered surprise at our ignorance, “But how could you do it any other way?”’

Become a Rapa Nui Explorer with Cascada Expediciones and ponder the many unsolved archaeological puzzles on the island. Before you travel, get inspired by reading Routledge's classic The Mystery of Easter Island. Who knows if you'll crack the mystery?