Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Spirited Explorer Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003
by Jo Anne Van Tilburg

Katherine Routledge's encounter with the mysteries of Easter Island

At daybreak on Sunday, March 29, 1914, Katherine Routledge sighted the distant profile of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) from her yacht, Mana. At 12:45 P.M. captain Henry James Gillam entered a single, terse phrase in his logbook: "Arrived Easter Is. Anchored Cook's Bay." Thus began history's first true archaeological survey of Rapa Nui. Privately organized and funded, the Mana Expedition to Easter Island was led by Katherine--the only woman on a ten-person crew--and William Scoresby Routledge.

Katherine handed down a white tin trunk with "Mrs. S. Routledge" stenciled on the lid, and climbed into a launch with two Mana crewmen. A few strokes of their oars brought her to a tiny beach fringed with black rocks pitted with burst bubbles of ancient lava. Katherine hitched up her skirts, and before the next wave hit, she was on the sand. Seventeen months later Katherine's trunk, now filled with hundreds of pages of fieldnotes, was loaded back on board.

In 1987, I opened the lid of that trunk at London's Royal Geographical Society hoping to learn what Katherine Routledge, who had never published a full report of the expedition's findings, had discovered about the statues. As I studied the journals and scattered notes from within the trunk I became as interested in her as I was in the statues, and in 1995 I began researching her biography, never dreaming that her life story would engross me for eight years.

Born in 1866 in Northern England, Katherine Maria Pease was the eldest daughter of devout and immensely wealthy Quakers. Quakerism gave Katherine a deep sense of family history and a fierce respect for individual and property rights. It also steeped her in mysticism that led to immersion in the occult.

"It was my misfortune," Katherine said, "to be born a woman with the feelings of a man." Katherine had the explorer's desire and the scientist's curiosity, and wanted nothing more--or less--than the same opportunities given to her brothers, uncles, and male cousins. Katherine's brilliant mind and honest self-interest encouraged her to seek her own destiny--first as an Oxford graduate, then as a teacher and traveler, and finally as the first archaeologist and ethnographer on Rapa Nui.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project ( and research associate of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA.

Further Reading

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America