Katherine Routledge (née Pease) (1866-1935) can be counted amongst that Victorian set of women who strived to go beyond the societal norms of the time. This was especially true for Katherine, who descended from a long line of entrepreneurial Quaker families in Darlington, northern England. But it wasn’t until her entry into Somerville College at Oxford University that she was able to experience the freedom she craved. Katherine graduated with a degree in Modern History in 1895 and not long after began traveling abroad, first joining a trip to South Africa to investigate the resettlement of single working women there. Katherine’s interests in anthropology and archaeology had been piqued whilst she was in Oxford, but it wasn’t until the 1914 Mana Expedition to Easter Island that her interest came to fruition.
Katherine had married, and with her husband, William Scoresby Routledge, approached the British Museum and the Royal Geographical Society with a notion of traveling to the Pacific. The decision to organise an expedition to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) arose from anthropological questions of that era related to the moai (the giant stone statues) and the people who created them. A wooden schooner was custom built for the trip, named Mana, and set sail from Southampton, England in 1913 with a small team onboard. It took over a year to arrive at the distant island in the Southeast Pacific. Like many women of that period, Katherine had no formal training in the skills and techniques of archaeological excavation, but she had been given notes and instructions to follow from Dr. Marett, an Oxford scholar. Excavation was a planned part of the expedition, alongside ethnographic research. Once ensconced on the island, and after many weeks of surveying the moai of an area called Rano Raraku, it was finally decided that excavations should begin: “In the hope of throwing some light on these problems we started to dig them out.” (Routledge, 1919).
And then, in what may sound like a naïve tone to the experienced archaeologist, Katherine continues: “It had originally been thought that the excavation of one or two would give all the information which it was possible to obtain, but each case was found to have unique and instructive features, and we finally unearthed in this way, wholly or in part, some twenty or thirty statues.” (Routledge, 1919). The results that Katherine and the Mana Expedition produced from the excavations allowed a number of conclusions to be drawn about the production of the statues and their carvers. And, despite the fact that the work of the Mana Expedition has stood the test of time more for its ethnographic material rather than archaeological findings, it was able to determine numerous facts that have provided the platform for later investigations. Katherine published a summary of the expedition’s findings in the book, as quoted above, “The Mystery of Easter Island” on return from the Pacific in 1919 – an excellent read for anyone interested in Pacific anthropology. The book includes pictures of excavated statues but no excavation in process, and only a single photo of Katherine doing any work in the field exists.
Katherine Routledge wanted to publish a second book that would have covered many of the expedition’s findings in greater detail. It seems that she was highly aware of the fact that actual numbers and measurements were missing from her book published in 1919, but she was unable to complete this task due to her deteriorating mental health.
Further reading on the subject must include “Amongst Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island” by Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg – a prominent Rapa Nui archaeologist. Katherine’s life is detailed thoroughly and the book provides a great insight to what it must have been like for Katherine to travel so far and work so remotely in the field.
Written by Susie Stephen, who upon the 100th anniversary of the Mana expedition in 2014 completed “Retracing Routledge“, where she ran from Darlington, her shared hometown with Katherine Routledge, to Southampton, UK; cycled across Argentina and the Andes into Chile; and then embarked on a 9-hour, 40-mile circumnavigation of Rapa Nui. Along the way, she recorded her experience and contrasted it with that of Katherine Routledge. This led to an exhibition and a forthcoming book on her journey.