By Kelsen Kitchen
Easter Island is located about 2,400 miles from land and host to the famous moai statues: huge heads with protruding brows and pouting lips that have become a symbol of the island’s ancient culture. The statues are huge; the heaviest weighs 86 tons, and the tallest stands nearly 33 feet high. What is impressive about these statues — and what has posed questions to European explorers and archaeologists since the 1700s — is that they are carved out of stone. However, their creators (the inhabitants of Easter Island between 1250 and 1500) did not have access to metal tools.
Utah State University’s Museum of Anthropology last month hosted a Saturdays at the Museum event that focused on the island, a topic that is only part of a larger scope of various studies that museum curator Elizabeth Sutton said are planned and run by students. “When the students plan Saturdays programs each semester, they look for anthropological topics that promote a better understanding of culture and diversity, and topics that are relevant and of interest to the Cache Valley community,” she said. The choice to highlight Easter Island in a special museum event stemmed from recent discoveries about the statues that stirred up the archaeological community.
Sutton said one of the main reasons the students chose to feature the archaeology of Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is because archaeologists have just discovered that the famous Easter Island head statues were not actually just heads. “The statues are of complete bodies, but erosion on the island over the past several hundred years has buried the statues up to the neck,” Sutton said.
The discovery was made in the midst of the Easter Island Statue Project, an organization that is dedicated to the study and preservation of the moai. That’s where the “Saturdays” program can step in: as an opportunity to “inform the public about these recent developments,” Sutton said, beyond the event being a forum for reviewing what is currently known about the first inhabitants of what she described as a “mysterious” and remote island.
With about 50 people attending this particular event, Sutton counted it a success. Museum staff screened a National Geographic video on Easter Island while undergraduate and graduate students had the opportunity to present information on different aspects of the island. A host of kid-friendly activities were on-hand, which included sculpting miniature versions of the Easter Island moai and participation in an “archaeological excavation” in the museum’s mobile dig boxes.
If you missed the Saturdays at the Museum Easter Island event, events and speakers remain. “Art Through the Cultural Lens” will be the topic on July 21, where museum patrons will have the opportunity to hear from Jeffrey Neilsen, founder of the Democracy House Project and a philosophy professor at Westminster College and Utah Valley University. He will present on the art of living with the aid or artists, poets, and philosophers.
On Aug. 18, the event topic will be Archaeology in the Intermountain West, where Sutton expects a crowd. “We’ll be having archaeology graduate students present their summer archaeological research and field experiences,” she said, before adding that a “very special” leader and storyteller will also be present to speak about Utah history from a Ute perspective. “It will be a unique opportunity for USU students to learn more about the archaeological history of the state.”
Many have found Saturdays at the Museum events at the Museum of Anthropology to be a cheap and fun way to learn more about interesting and current research, become acquainted with the history of Cache Valley and the state, and to spend a Saturday learning something new. If you are interested in expanding your horizons, a full schedule of the events can be found at anthromuseum.usu.edu and on Facebook.