Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Saving the Moai: Scientists Are Working to Reconstruct and Restore the Massive Monoliths of Easter Island in Effort to Preserve These World Monuments

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Saving the Moai: Scientists Are Working to Reconstruct and Restore the Massive Monoliths of Easter Island in Effort to Preserve These World Monuments

Article excerpt

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The giant stone heads on the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile, have captured the imagination of countless explorers, dreamers, and scientists. Hundreds of monoliths of solid volcanic rock provide indestructible evidence of man's mastery over his environment. They hint at great feats of engineering and the ingenuity of men. Up close, the statues show their vulnerability. Their sharp features have eroded, growths invade their surface, and many lie in piles of rubble.

A combination of natural and human forces threatens the statues, which are called moai in the native Rapa Nui language. To combat these forces and save the moai, teams of native and international scientists are working on reconstruction and restoration projects.

At 400 to 1,000 years-old the moai are young compared to other archaeological monuments in the Americas, but the very properties of the stone that make them ideal for carving also make them susceptible to rapid deterioration. Nearly all of the statues were carved in the Rano Raraku quarry located on the northeast comer of the island. Many of the statues never made it out of the quarry and remain there today in varying stages of completion. The red scoria stone used for headpieces found on some of the moai came from solidified froth of volcano lava.

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These soft, volcanic rocks are particularly vulnerable to erosion from Easter Island's relentless wind and rain. "When the stone is wet, the clays present in it absorb moisture and expand; as the stone dries, they contract. The internal stress of these repeated expansions and contractions results in microfissures within the stone which serve as channels for water migration and its corrosive effects," wrote A. Elena Charola in a 1994 publication of the World Monuments Fund. Another natural process that weakens the stone is the growth of algae and lichens. Not only do they trap water--which plays a part in the wet-dry cycle of the stone--but they also eat away at the stone surface.

Starting with the carvers themselves--who not only knocked over their beloved statues but also beheaded some of them--people have had a sort of fatal attraction to the heads. Archaeologists estimate that between 1100-1500 AD islanders meticulously carved approximately 900 statues and their accompanying stone platforms from the island's soft volcanic rock. Most likely the carvers belonged to family groups who were competing with each other to produce larger and larger moai. The biggest statue, named El gigante, weighs between 145 and 165 tons and would be nearly 72 feet high if it were standing. But for reasons unknown, El gigante was never raised and remains in the Rano Raraku quarry.

The islanders' obsession with larger and more impressive moai wreaked havoc on the environment. More and more trees had to be cut down to provide scaffolding for the statues and to build wooden sleds to move the statues overland. By the time Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on the island on Easter Day in 1722, he found a desolate landscape void of trees or bushes over ten feet high with no birds, bats, or lizards. The people were hungry and fighting amongst themselves. Sometime after contact with the outside world, the islanders knocked over and destroyed most of the moai, probably as a result of clan warfare. Contact with the outside world brought new diseases, a new form of religion, and kidnappings for the slave trade. By 1877 the native population of 15,000 had declined to a mere 111.

The relationship between man and moai is complex, and similar to the admirers of the past, modern-day man's fascination with the statues has produced both positive and negative results. As the island's only industry, tourism provides a way to make a living for the most remote civilization on Earth. Unfortunately the occasional unscrupulous visitor has encouraged islanders to sell broken parts of the statues for souvenirs. …

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