Making startling discoveries in Micronesia

A human skull tells its story of cannibalism in the hands of Felicia Beardsley. The La Verne associate dean and associate professor of anthropology has a significant collection of artifacts from her two decades of anthropological discovery in Micronesia. / photo by Christopher Guzman

A human skull tells its story of cannibalism in the hands of Felicia Beardsley. The La Verne associate dean and associate professor of anthropology has a significant collection of artifacts from her two decades of anthropological discovery in Micronesia. / photo by Christopher Guzman

by Angie Marcos
photography by Christopher Guzman

Felicia Beardsley’s University of La Verne office would not confuse an archaeologist. Even though she is arts and sciences associate dean, her work space shows a different side to the administrative grind associated with academic bureaucracy. Artifacts, photographs of far-away lands and sculptures engulf the visitor, all visible reminders that for the past 30 years, Felicia has earned distinction as an acclaimed, accomplished archaeologist.

Felicia is one of a few official Pacific Island archaeologists – and for about 20 years has traveled to Micronesia to lead digs. Micronesia, one million square western Pacific Ocean miles in area, is made up of many small islands. While a formal country, since 1986 it has had a Compact of Free Association with the United States that allows Micronesians to live, work and study in the U.S. without a visa and gives the U.S. full authority and responsibility for the defense of Micronesia.

Felicia is an acclaimed archaeologist for the entire region. “You get lectures from everybody. You are under a microscope; everyone is watching you,” she says. “It’s nice when you’ve been there long enough that you’ve built a reputation for yourself. They call you instead of the other way around.” She typically spends two to three months in Micronesia every year, depending on the nature of the project and the funding available. “I used to go every year, but this summer is the first time I’ve gone in four years.”

In 1998, the Micronesian government officially named Felicia as its consulting archaeologist. “I was brought in to set up archaeology programs across the country. There are not many people who have Pacific Island experience, and I am one of those few people.” She began her archaeological research more than 30 years ago, specializing specifically in prehistoric stone architecture. “I find and put a physical face on the actual locations in oral histories,” she says. “Every project is different. That’s one of the things in the field that holds my interest.” While on archaeological digs, Felicia looks at existing models of settlement in the region and tries to find inconsistencies that may lead her to something fascinating and unknown.

Discovering hidden treasures

Being in the presence of a goddess might send the average being into a state of bewilderment or amazement. For Felicia, however, coming in contact with royalty was simply just another day in the field. This past summer, while on the island of Kosrae, she was charged by the government to find a sacred goddess’ temple. Felicia’s quest brought other incredible discoveries. In the midst of dangerously steep slopes and heavily jungled surroundings, on this island, called the emerald of the Pacific by European explorers, she found the goddess’ temple. Felicia says it was located in the Menke Valley near the junction of two rivers. “The whole structure was overgrown by the jungle, with vines, trees and other plants occupying and obstructing the structure from our view,” she says. “It wasn’t until we started clearing it with our machetes that we began to see the true form emerging.” Following, she was able to deduce where the accompanying sacred worship area most likely was and identified a likely area inside a cave. Inside, she found paintings that suggested it was used by a priest or priestess to communicate with the goddess.

While in pursuit of the temple, she sifted through local lore and was challenged to verify claims made by area hunters that the goddess had revealed herself to them. Her biggest concern, of course, was just how much truth there was in these sightings. Some legends mentioned a temple; others noted a worship center. Her findings suggest she might have discovered both. Then came a bonus: A pig hunter recounted a story of a time when the goddess revealed herself to him with a throne. Word of the hunter’s story spread throughout the surrounding villages in the area, and Felicia was asked to find this throne. The problem was the pig hunter’s inconsistent descriptions. “We ended up finding three possible thrones, and they all fit his descriptions at different times,” Felicia says. So, despite finding physical evidence that suggests it could have been the goddess’ temple and cave, Felicia, a precise scientist, is still not completely convinced that what she found did indeed belong to the goddess. Her future research and expeditions may present a more definitive answer.

Uncovering a massacre site

From 2004 to 2006, Felicia worked intently on finding a massive massacre burial pit. Oral history across Kosrae states that the village people became irate with the king’s absurd and demanding rules. They killed him and his men and buried them in this pit. “Everybody on the island knows this story, even the school children. It is a well-known story,” Felicia says. “This is a story that puts every leader on notice. It tells them, ‘If we don’t like what you’re doing, we’ll get you.’”

To start, Felicia had to determine the village’s location. “I knew the village had to have access to a shoreline,” she says. Then, she had to visualize the village’s location. “The village had to be a place where the king might go – a formal, stately place. Also, it had to be large enough to hold a place for a feast,” she says. Next, she had to research possible locations for a burial ground. By the end of 2004, she had narrowed her search down to two villages. Felicia and her crew chose to excavate a site that depicted formal architecture fit for a king and that held artifacts of previous feasting activity. For two months in 2006, she and her crew carefully studied the site. “When excavating, we came across the edges of a pit. It had obviously been built hastily. You could still see the pit marks. It has anything and everything thrown in there,” she says. Included in the hastily dug burial pit were a beautiful ornamental axe and ceremonial artifacts. Found in the pit, too, was the presence of grave wax— bodily fluids mixed with soil. Also found were two exotic carved stones. According to Felicia, these stones suggested someone of importance and high status had been buried there. Through her research and analysis of the soil, Felicia was able to determine that the grave pit had been dug during a torrential downpour.

In this oral, story-based society, Felicia feels her field research suggests but does not confirm that this was the site of the king’s death and burial. Nevertheless, many of the native islanders do conclusively believe she found the massacre site. “It’s just one of those things where you’ll never know,” Felicia says.

This past summer, Felicia spent time in Kosrae sampling soil. Her most current research is based on what is left behind in a burial ground, a question she finds herself constantly asking during her research collection. “The soil is very acidic so anything organic disappears instantly. Tissue will be gone; bones will be gone. What can you detect?” The entire pit, as with most other archaeological finds, was not completely excavated to allow future archaeologists with better technology, techniques or research to excavate the site as well. “You always leave something behind, unexcavated, just in case,” she says.

In 2001, Felicia made a discovery unlike any other – the existence of coral fish hooks. These hooks were not thought to have existed and had never previously been seen by anybody in the world. While there had been findings of fish hooks constructed from shell or bone, none had ever been found made of coral. The V shaped coral hooks are thought to have been used to catch flying fish. According to Felicia, different types of coral hooks constructed and used between 1000 AD and 1600 AD were found – each shape thought to have been constructed to catch a specific species of fish. “I was elated. I looked twice. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I was absolutely thrilled,” Felicia says of her discovery. What made this discovery even more unique was the difficulty involved in recognizing the coral artifacts as fish hooks. Because coral is typically used as a floor covering throughout Micronesia, it was very tricky to make this discovery, she says.

“The goal of any archaeologist in her career is to discover a type site, [a first of a kind archaeology site or object not thought to exist],” says Kimberly Martin, ULV professor of anthropology. “Most archaeologists spend their entire lives looking for this. I believe it’s Felicia’s ability to see things differently that has made it possible.”

Felicia says she takes various steps to make these discoveries. First, she gathers oral histories and analyzes them. Next, she finds commonalities between all stories –including geography and activities. Finally, she concludes a general area to search. “You must try to pin point the particular site, and from there it’s just pure guess work.”

Jonathan Reed, ULV dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, works as an archaeologist in the Middle East and knows of the many obstacles archaeologists must cross. “The qualities Felicia Beardsley possesses are the strength of her character, her perseverance and the highest level of archaeological professionalism,” Reed says, adding, “When directing an archaeology program, you have to deal with leading skills, personality conflicts and negotiate through an indigenous theocracy in a different climate and in a different culture. What distinguishes archaeologists from most other scholars is they can’t just sit in an air-conditioned library and think. They have to obtain their data from the ground and interpret it. Felicia helps elevate La Verne’s academic reputation because she’s a nationally and internationally respected archaeologist. She’s one of the most well-known archaeologists of the Pacific Rim.”

During the four years she has not traveled to Micronesia, Felicia has engaged in the writing of books on her research, which focus mainly on settlement patterns and interpreting Micronesian archaeology, including bioarchaeology. Research for her trips is made possible through grants. “I keep pushing them out hoping that someone will respond,” she says. Although grants in the United States are usually doled out in the sum of millions of dollars, Felicia refers to her grants as “third world grants.” She typically receives $20,000 to $30,000, “which is actually a lot of money when you go out there,” she says.

Obstacles along the way

Felicia has had to encounter—and continues to encounter—many obstacles. “In addition to all of the existing hurdles in archaeology, she faces the added obstacle of being a woman,” Reed says. “As a woman archaeologist, I have many conditions placed on me depending on what island I’m working in,” Felicia says. “You have to work almost twice as hard to get that recognition. You have to be better than the best. To most of these people, women are supposed to be doing lab work or the quaint stuff.” The island of Kosrae is a male dominant island where reputable people receive titles as a form of respect, says Felicia. “I come in, and I’m a woman and a professional. They can’t treat me as a woman because I’m a boss, so they gave me the title of ‘fine gentleman,’” she laughs.

Because the islands of Micronesia are male-dominant, Felicia’s crews typically consist of seven members – all men, of course. She has worked with many of the same crew members during the past 10 years and continues to request trusted individuals. This, however, sometimes proves to be difficult, as private land owners have regulations that demand their workers be included. Because of existing class systems on some islands, other types of adaptations exist. On the island of Yap, she once took on a crew member from the high class and a crew member from the middle class. The high class member decided he was not going to participate and insisted the middle class crew member take on his share of the work, Felicia says. “So it ended up being me and the middle class guy doing all the work while the high class guy napped,” she laughs. While for many the adaptation of new cultures and experiences would be difficult, Felicia instead shares, “In a way it’s kind of liberating. After all, it is their culture.”

Weather also plays a factor. “[In Micronesia] you have a rainy season and a dry season. The only difference between the two is it doesn’t rain as much in the dry season,” she smiles. “But you find ways to get around it. You put up tarps. We still go out on excavations in the rain. The weather is always going to be there – you can’t stop it. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could?” she ponders aloud.

“Kosrae is about five degrees north of the equator. It’s hot, and it’s humid, but because it’s an island you also get sea breezes. It’s also mountainous because this island was founded by volcanic eruptions. The costal lines are sandy. Some other areas are covered in thick and lush jungle,” she says. In fact, while walking in these rain forests, Felicia notes that at times their feet are unable to touch the jungle floor because of the thick vegetation and many vines. This makes it easier for Felicia and her crew to make their discoveries. “You can typically feel stone underneath the vines or the vegetation before you can see it,” she says. “However, you can’t see holes in the ground or cliff lines either. It gets kind of scary sometimes.”

Yet another obstacle Felicia must confront is communicating with the locals. The government language in Micronesia is English. And while most people speak some level of English throughout the country, they also use tribal languages. She has managed to converse in some of the local languages, which change from island to island. “In the field of archaeology, there are instances where you find yourself working in rural, high-risk areas. You’re stuck in the frontier area,” she says. Felicia recalls a time when she fell off a cliff and had to drive herself to the hospital, as well as times of having to deal with exposure to various illnesses that are present in certain areas. “It’s definitely a high-risk profession in that sense.”

Felicia received a bachelor’s degree in languages from the University of California, Riverside. “What I really wanted to do though was study history. I was absolutely fascinated with the topic,” she says. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D., both in archaeology, at the University of Oregon.

Felicia became a full-time faculty member at La Verne in 2003. She resides in Wrightwood and is married to Edward Beardsley, an adjunct professor at the ULV in the art and photography departments. Their daughter Teresa currently attends La Verne. “I enjoy teaching here because of what you can teach, what you can include and the ability to develop new classes. With small classes, you get to really know students in an intimate way. You get to know students’ interests and tailor classes around their interests.”

One is left to wonder whether any of the objects in use today, whether it be the latest cell phones, iPods, photographs or written works, will one day be placed on the shelf in an archaeologist’s office – objects ever so small in size, but offering a glimpse into an entire way of life.

The two worlds of archaeologist and professor become one in the persona of Felicia Beardsley. The University of La Verne educator has made recent significant archaeological discoveries on the Micronesian island of Kosrae, most recently in the Menke Valley. “Micronesia is a marvelous but sadly neglected laboratory that may hold the answers to many important questions about migration and settlement across the Pacific, “ Felicia says. / photo by Christopher Guzman

The two worlds of archaeologist and professor become one in the persona of Felicia Beardsley. The University of La Verne educator has made recent significant archaeological discoveries on the Micronesian island of Kosrae, most recently in the Menke Valley. “Micronesia is a marvelous but sadly neglected laboratory that may hold the answers to many important questions about migration and settlement across the Pacific, “ Felicia says. / photo by Christopher Guzman

Felicia’s field survival tips

1. As a woman, be prepared to be referred to as a man.

2. Don’t whistle at night, or you may attract wandering ghosts (advice given to Felicia by local islanders).

3. Learning to live with spiders and rats is a must.

4. Show an appreciation for local food, even if you find it just a tad bit repulsive.

5. Keep good and detailed field notes and don’t (seriously, don’t!) leave them on the plane.

6. Keep your first aid kit well stocked and be informed on the basics of local/traditional medicine in case of emergencies.

7. Citrus oil is a great repellant for mosquitos. Eat lots of citrus and rub the skin oil on you as repellant.

8. Have a gift and speech ready when meeting with village chiefs because you need their permission to work in their area.

9. Be able to recognize local poisonous plants.

10. Always be respectful of those around you; it really is the best way to avoid a nickname.