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IN 1987, a Japanese television crew visited Easter Island to make a documentary. Before they left, they asked Segio Rapu, governor of this tiny mass of barren Pacific rock, if he had any particular wishes for the island. Rapu didn't hesitate. What he yearned for was "a powerful crane to put back into place all of the Moai that deserve to be standing."

The Moai, huge, monolithic stone heads carved from the rock of extinct volcanoes, are among the world's greatest mysteries. No one really knows how - or why - they came to be made. Their blank expressions, lashed by the wind and the rain over hundreds of years, give nothing away. Are they, as some suggest, gravestones for dead islanders? Or are they symbolic look-outs, searching the expanse of the Pacific for other souls?

There are more than 600 of them, each one weighing between 50 and 80 tons, and standing up to 12m tall. It is thought that they were built in the thousand or so years after Easter Island's first settlers arrived from Polynesia around AD 400; and that they were originally mounted in lines on long stone platforms called ahu. But during the following centuries, these archaeological treasures fell into neglect, and at some point many of them were broken, knocked over, or both.

What forces could have toppled these huge stones? One theory is that around 1680 a war broke out between two groups of islanders, and that during the next 150 years, the victors and their descendants damaged the Moai. As recently as 1960, however, a tidal wave swept the island, disfiguring the stones further and sweeping many fragments into the sea.

What forces could restore them? Until recently, the question seemed too far-fetched to be worth contemplating. But in 1988, Yasuo Tadano, the chairman of the world's largest builders of mobile cranes, saw the Easter Island documentary and decided to offer Rapu his assistance. The offer was gladly accepted, and it was decided that the restoration team's efforts be concentrated on Tongariki, one of the largest and worst-damaged of the ahu. Aerial photographs of the two-hectare site were used to analyse the position of the scattered fragments. Up to 3m of debris was cleared, relevant deposits were labelled, and the data were then fed into a computer programme designed to create a 3-D replica of the original site.

Back in Japan, Tadano's engineers asked a sculptor to create a full- size replica of a Moai to help in developing equipment capable of lifting the fragile objects. Eventually they hit upon a novel combination of using nylon slings and salashi, a traditional Japanese cotton fabric. One morning in September 1992, a computer-operated crane arrived at Tongariki to begin the restoration of the stones.

Three years later, the process is still not complete, and the Japanese seem unlikely to be able to stay long enough to finish it. Tadano, who has spent 180 million yen (£1.3m) on the project, has taken 20 of the islanders to Japan for training so that the work can continue once his team leaves; but there have been arguments between American and Chilean contractors about who will actually run the project. There have also been criticisms from archaeological purists who complain that the restoration oversteps the limits of permissible reconstruction. Following the discovery of one of the statues' original coral eyes, for example, dozens of new eyes have been made for some of the remaining stones. Is this right? Or should the Moai be left as they are, relics of the island's troubled history? Whatever the answer, seeing these proud, implacable monoliths bound helplessly to the hard steel of a modern crane raises uneasy feelings. If the Moai can be humbled so easily by technology, maybe their secrets aren't quite as mysterious as we would like to think. !