Fredrik Hiebert

It's the stuff that made Indiana Jones and that lost ark an international sensation: adventures over land, across seas and in the middle of deserts. Archaeologist Fredrik T. Hiebert, Ph.D., would probably be the last to find the glamour in his adventures, but his energetic tales and disarming enthusiasm leave listeners captivated.

The Robert H. Dyson Jr. Assistant Professor of Anthropology and assistant curator of the University Museum, Hiebert set out to be an artist, took a turn in Paris and wound up an archaeologist.


From the Silk Road to the Black Sea, Fred Hiebert searches for the common language of trade.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

His pursuits in the latter profession have made him someone to watch, with cameras from National Geographic about to track his work with research partner Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic.

In November, Hiebert received a $15,000 Chairman's Award from the National Geographic Society's Committee on Research and Exploration. Throughout his career, Hiebert's chosen obsession has been the Silk Road trade routes, and since 1994, he has focused on the Black Sea connections between ancient civilizations.

His work with Ballard combines land and sea exploration in a single program, "from mountain top to ocean bottom" - a first in the research world. Hiebert's goal is nothing short of changing the way people think of the Black Sea.

Q. How did you segue from artist to archaeologist?
Most people, when asked how they started in archaeology, always say they were interested in it since they were a kid playing in the sandbox. I wasn't. I didn't have any interest in going to college. I was trained at Interlochen Arts Academy, a professional-arts-oriented high school. After I graduated, my teacher sent me to Paris, to an art studio in a basement at the bottom of Montmartre. When I got to Paris, they said, "We don't take apprentices." So, I had to pay to work in the studio. And the way I did that was to work for an archaeologist drawing artifacts. They kept inviting me back, so I went into the field with them, and that's how I got interested in archaeology. Then they said you can't go into archaeology unless you go to college. So I came back from a wonderful year in Paris and went to the University of Michigan.

Q. Where did you start?
I worked in Egypt. My first interest was in maritime trade - long-distance trade through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. I went to Harvard after that. My first semester, my professor said, "What are you doing? You should go work overland, and compare overland with overseas trade," which sounded great, except of course I had to learn Russian to do that. So I did an intense crash course in Russian, and received an IREX year-long grant to go to the Soviet Union. It was a university-to-university exchange, and I was the first American ever to be placed in Turkmenistan.

Q. What did you do there?
I went out in the desert oases to look at the origins of the Silk Road. I [expected to] work with the medieval and classical Silk Road, the Silk Road that we know from historians that talked about the great trade that went across it. But we kept finding much earlier stuff. We found that the desert oases, these ports in the sand, existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years earlier than that. So, in the spring of that year, I joined a Russian excavation out there. My wife and I went out and we lived in a tent way out in the middle of the desert in what was a dried up Bronze Age oasis. There we found the remnants of what turned out to be a separate civilization. It was not only the origins of the Silk Road, but it was a civilization that had previously been unknown, to the West that is, which was comparable in age to ancient Mesopotamia, ancient India and ancient China. We were finding the link in Asia between the great civilizations. We were finding trade items from China, from Anatolia, from the Steppe region where the nomads were, and we were even finding traces all the way to the Black Sea.

Q. When did your interest in the Black Sea escalate?
In 1994, when Bob Ballard, the discoverer of the Titanic, called me up almost out of the blue and said he was interested in the Black Sea for completely different reasons. His reason was that it was the world's most special deep-water environment. In the Black Sea, there are no microbes, no oxygen, no wood bores. If there were a shipwreck in that area, in deep water, it would be perfectly preserved. I thought well, this is a way to get back into this long-term interest I had in the Black Sea, and to work with someone whose technology just couldn't be beat. This was a dream situation.

Q. And what did you find?
The same 4,000-year-old Bronze Age culture we had found in the desert oasis, we also found in the Black Sea. But, surprisingly, we were also finding materials almost 6,000 years old. This was very interesting because it showed a strong interaction around the Black Sea. This was particularly interesting in light of what linguists have been proposing for some time about the origins of our language, Indo-European languages. Indo-European language may not be affiliated with one single culture, but it may well be an intercultural language, a trading language.

Q. What have you dug up since you started?
What we've done the last three years is a walking survey along one of the key port areas of the Black Sea coast. We've taken the area from being almost terra incognita, and we found over 170 sites. Trying to figure out where the key port sites are, we've been able to create a very systematic program of research that allows us to focus where we search for shipwrecks with Robert Ballard. In July 1998, we did a six-day sonar survey and must have found a dozen real targets. And that was just a test of what we're going to do. We're going to go in and do a systematic survey to see if we can find shipwrecks [or] any evidence of settlements that may have been affected by sea-level change.

Q. That method is what got you the award?
Yes, it is a unique structure which we call mountain top to ocean bottom. And our future work is being funded by National Geographic and the Oliver S. Donaldson Trust and the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust in New York. It was a risk to try and do a land-and-sea operation, but I think we've been successful.

Q. And you're basically hoping to change the way people think about the Black Sea.
Absolutely. The coastal cultures are more closely related to each other than they are to the inland areas. This is the natural economic unit and we find it very interesting. We are having a common dialogue with our contemporary economic situation where now the borders of the Soviet Union have fallen and there's an attempt to re-establish the Black Sea as one of the major trading zones in Eurasia. As someone who has studied land and sea trade, I can tell you sea trade is a much better and a much less risky way of trading than overland. Ships represent a much more efficient way of moving stuff around. Rather than being a barrier to communication and exchange, the sea is a natural conduit for trade. We're seeing this coming back despite old [nationalistic] walls that exist which had been restricting trade through the Black Sea.

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Originally published on January 14, 1999