It’s Not Your Headstone: Ethics, Archaeology and Kwajalein’s Cultural of Casual Looting

By Jessica DambruchJune 28, 2022

Kwajalein Archaeology Monitors Site
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Kwajalein Senior Archaeologist Caitlin Gilbertson, right, monitors the groundbreaking for the George Seitz Elementary School flagpoles in February 2022 on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll. (U.S. Army photo by Jessica Dambruch) (Photo Credit: Jessica Dambruch) VIEW ORIGINAL
Kwajalein Archaeology
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Archaeologist Susan Underbrink studies an array of Japanese artifacts found on Kwajalein Atoll in March 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Jessica Dambruch) (Photo Credit: Jessica Dambruch) VIEW ORIGINAL

“[Archaeology is] very systematic and controlled,” said Kwajalein Senior Archaeologist Caitlin Gilbertson. “You never know what you’re going to find, which is what makes it interesting. You may spend a lot of time finding nothing. Then, you do find that one cool thing, and that makes it worth it.”

A day on the job with the Kwajalein Archaeology team is not the “entertainment archaeology” you know from the movies. Before the shovel hits the dirt, sand or ground water, there is a plan to protect the atoll’s historical sites and cultural artifacts.

“We don’t get to choose where we dig, and often, we don’t do the digging,” said archaeologist Susan Underbrink. “If someone is going to put in a new water line, we determine whether the dig must be monitored.”

Gilbertson called this unique process “salvage archaeology.”

Fieldworkers and construction personnel log dig permits to ensure their work does not encroach on known historical sites. When artifacts are uncovered during work, Gilbertson and Underbrink perform meticulous onsite assessments to produce accurate records of the objects found in their immediate environments. Analysis and recovery procedures may require a temporary work stop.

“At that point, we’re just waiting for things to come up out of the ground,” Gilbertson said. “[The workers] are actively doing construction. We just have to save what we can, document what we can and protect whatever is there.”

Over the past six years, the Kwajalein Archaeology team has recovered Japanese and American WWII-era objects and Marshallese cultural artifacts. Among their finds are bottles, coins, buttons, small arms and unexploded ordnance.

In the Republic of the Marshall Islands, despite disruptions from the WWII bombardment and postwar excavation, one might even encounter 1890s-era German water catchments and beer bottles, said Underbrink.

Most items have been found “surprisingly intact,” Gilbertson said. If any island residents identify UXO, they should call 5-1550 to report the find to an EOD technician.

The team has also recovered Marshallese historical sites, including an earth oven, or “um.”

“We had some of the charcoal carbon dated and learned that it was about 200 years old,” Gilbertson said. “Within the last year, we also found the burial of an infant, which is extremely rare and unique. We’re still waiting on analysis for that.”

“Even after six years, I still learn new things about Marshallese culture and a little about history every single day. …My previous experience was all medieval work. There’s a distance there, and everything from the medieval period is from so long ago, but a lot of what we find here is recent.”

Gilbertson said representations of her profession in popular media are misleading. Though the waiting, research, analysis and digging are not prominently featured in “Indiana Jones,” in real archaeology, the payoff is far more satisfying.

“Indiana Jones’” is more graverobbing and vandalism than anything else,” Gilbertson said.

Unfortunately, those are two things Kwajalein and “Indiana Jones” have in common. Despite best efforts, items from Kwajalein’s past still fall prey to casual looters.

The Coca-Cola Bottles

Atoll archaeologists are less likely to find WWII-era Coca-Cola bottles in recent years.

On countless walks and dives, many casual looters have spotted these bottles half-buried in the sand and glinting in the sun before they disappear into private collections.

“You are not allowed to remove artifacts from Kwaj or the RMI in general,” Gilbertson said.

Per RMI law, it is illegal to remove historical artifacts from any islands.

Underbrink described an experience at a Kwajalein worksite confronting employees who had looted unique artifacts she recovered during an excavation.

Of the bottles recovered, 125 were Coke bottles, and a few were “unique” and different, Underbrink said. The find also contained a single, vintage Pepsi bottle believed to be one of only two ever reported found on Kwajalein.

The objects began to disappear.

Underbrink had to ask colleagues for the bottles to be returned to complete her work.

Focused on their own enjoyment, a casual looter does not understand the true value of an object as part of a place, she said.

“You can’t sell it,” Underbrink said. “How could you prove it’s from Kwajalein? It doesn’t say ‘Kwajalein’ on it. …It’s like a memento for you, but nobody else. … It needs to stay here. It has its value here.”

The island’s Coke bottle problem is not unlike issues at historic Native American sites throughout North America, like Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, Underbrink said. Signs of casual looting are obvious from the absence of pottery sherds. Today, law enforcement officials search visitors before they depart from the sites.

“Now, there may be hundreds of Coke bottles [on Kwajalein], but if everybody takes one, there won’t be any Coke bottles here for anybody to find,” she said.

It's Not Your Headstone

Not everyone tries to take Coke bottles from Kwajalein. Some PCS’ing residents have attempted to smuggle out munitions or even human remains, Gilbertson said.

Then there’s the headstone.

“I have an artifact in my lab that we believe to be a Japanese headstone that was in somebody’s front lawn for a number of years [on Kwajalein],” Gilbertson said. “Someone had just moved into the house. They saw this on their lawn, said ‘This looks really important.’ Bravo to that person! They brought it to my office. Eventually, I got a story: Somebody found the headstone on Carlson in the 1980s, and they thought it was cool. They brought it back. It’s a Japanese headstone that probably marked a Japanese burial. Now, we don’t know where [the burial] could be.”

Those who remove or relocate objects create an incalculable loss for future archaeological work on the atoll. In the case of the headstone, surviving family members would also lose a physical location for remembrance.

Gilbertson sums it up: “You are ultimately destroying the history of that object.”

About The Kwajalein Archaeology Team

In her archaeological studies, Gilbertson specialized in osteology and human remains. She has worked throughout Scotland and Europe on medieval-era excavations. Before beginning work on USAG-KA, fellow archaeologist Susan Underbrink served the state archaeologist for the RMI government.

After completing focused studies in ground stone, Underbrink traveled extensively throughout the Marshall Islands documenting remains and archaeological artifacts recovered at both battle burial sites.

On USAG-KA, the Kwajalein Archaeology team coordinates with the Defense Personnel Accounting Agency regarding efforts to identify and repatriate war dead to their respective countries with dignity and respect.

Thoughts on work

Both archaeologists agree that their work has helped them foster a deeper appreciation for humanity and human history. They are happiest when their work helps them connect families with long-lost loved ones or reveals new insights into Marshallese culture.

“With a lot of the human remains, especially if they’re WWII casualties, it’s very likely they’re going to have someone still living that’s related to them, whether it be children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews,” Gilbertson said. “That makes it a little more rewarding—when we can find those kinds of people, and then, ultimately, send them home.”

“To have come here and to have had the ability to visit so many of the different atolls, and to see that even though it’s one nation, [the Marshallese] live so differently on every different atoll and were such amazing navigators,” said Underbrink.

“They lived by the sea and were able to thrive and explore. It’s mind-boggling to go on a small ride in a canoe. It’s exhilarating and terrifying. Try to imagine what it must have been like 200 to 500 years ago when you didn’t know where you were going, and you had no idea how long it was going to take. Yet, they took those challenges and they succeeded.”

On human remains

That article does not include photos of human remains found on Kwajalein. Gilbertson explains why:

“We want to be respectful of the fact that these are human remains. Even if they’re not intact and it’s just partial bones, they are from a person. …A lot of these people probably have living relatives and family is waiting for them to come home. It’s a huge invasion of privacy, especially if you don’t have consent, to be taking photos and publicizing them without their permission.

… If you go to museums and you think about what you see there, a lot of that is ancient history. It’s a lot of mummies and human ancestors.

It’s not necessarily anybody that’s going to have a living relative that says, ‘Please don’t take a picture of my grandfather, or my great grandfather and put that on display.’ Any time those [museum] remains are displayed, it is for an educational purpose. Museums can provide a form of entertainment, but their purpose is to educate and provide information about these past cultures.”

Underbrink added: “There are certain cultures in which it is taboo for them to have remains on display. They don’t want them back. They just want them to be reburied. No photographs, no analysis, just rebury them. That’s their culture. You must also be respectful of that.”

To prevent contamination of specimens found in the field, Underbrink stresses that you should not touch human remains. Archaeologists enter the field to work wearing personal protective equipment and are trained in proper recovery procedures to minimize damage to any artifacts and remains.

Ask Underbrink about her other stories—like the day on the job she got a call from someone whose dog came home with a human leg.

“If you find anything that [still] has flesh on it, call the Kwajalein Police Department,” Underbrink said.