The Island of Her Dreams
Alumna became a worldwide expert on the mysterious Easter Island statues
When Jo Anne Van Tilburg was a child, her teacher asked her students to choose an intriguing place from a classroom library of books and journals as part of a class project.
Van Tilburg (B.A. ’65), chose Easter Island, a little-known land mass off the coast of Chile. The site captured her imagination because of the hundreds of unusual human figural stone statues that stand guard on its coast. It was a spot she felt she’d likely never see, even though she was an avid rock collector, spending hours cataloging and sorting her own collection.
Many decades later, Van Tilburg now has a much closer connection to the island that piqued her curiosity as a child. Today she is an archaeologist and the director and principal investigator of the Easter Island Statues Project, which studies the stone guardians called moai by the island’s inhabitants.
Her first exploration
Van Tilburg began her career as an enthusiastic public school and laboratory teacher after graduating from the U of M in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in humanities and social sciences.
But she felt something was missing.
“I made a difference as a teacher, but I slowly saw I had this other aspiration [in archaeology],” she says. “It began with studies and volunteering, but I saw I had this ability and it slowly morphed into something more.”
She initially climbed off a plane in 1981 to visit Easter Island as part of a volunteer excavation team that was recording rock art, and she has returned to it again and again.
“It’s an astonishing place,” she says. “When you see it, it appears to be relatively accessible. In other words, you see a very large collection of stone sculptures scattered across a rather small island. It draws you in. But it also felt to me like a place where I could make a difference—where what I saw on the ground calls to you and you recognize it has qualities to admire, sort, and delve into. You acknowledge their complexity.”
Tilburg, who is today considered one of the world’s leading experts on the Easter Island statues, had earned a master’s degree from UCLA in educational psychology in 1976, but returned to the school for her Ph.D. in archaeology in 1986. Today she works for The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and also serves as director of the UCLA Rock Art Archive.
And the Easter Island Statues Project database she heads up now catalogs more than 1,000 of the monolithic statues.
Van Tilburg still marvels at the abstract stone artifacts constructed by the Rapa Nui people, Polynesian inhabitants of the area.
“By being an abstraction, [the site] allows you to project on it what you think and feel,” she says. “It wasn’t just accessible physically but intellectually. You can pour into it your interpretation and desire to understand it.”
“My favorites were the first two [stone heads] excavated,” she says. “They are partially buried but they had a history because [Edwardian-era archaeologist and anthropologist] Katherine Routledge had drawn them and sketched them. They stand, in my view, probably at the beginning of statue carving.
“The two statues stand quite close together, one slightly ahead of the other, in front of a quarry chamber out of which they were carved. They are quite similar but have real differences in their shapes and faces. And they have very decorated backs, covered with carvings—and only three have these petroglyphs on the back out of all the statues on the island.”
Digging them, she says, yielded enormous information relative to the stone.
“It revealed human activity in the quarry, the way in which the statues were placed, and we probably know where they were carved,” she says. “Then we found a small statue head sort of snuggled up against one of the statues at the bottom of the excavation. I thought the statues would probably offer a lot of information and they did.”
In addition to her work with Easter Island, Van Tilburg is also an author. One of her most famous books is Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island. She has also served as a member of the National Landmarks Committee, U.S. National Park Service Advisory Board; and as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, as well receiving the 2001 California Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.
Today she also believes more can be done to encourage women in her profession.
“Women can do anything they want to do,” she says. “We still have people standing in our way, but we need to keep pushing forward ... I’m glad I did.”
Eric Butterman is a freelance writer based in McKinney, Texas.