Last summer, Penn archaeologist Frederik Hiebert stumbled across artifacts that restored the reputation of a forgotten archaeologist and improved our understanding of the ancient cultures of Central Asia.
The artifacts were found in New Hampshire, of all places.
That was where turn-of-the-century geologist Raphael Pumpelly spent his summers. And the artifacts in question were his papers, diaries, drawings and photos the stuff that he would eventually organize into books documenting his research.
Pumpelly headed one of the first scientific excavations ever mounted in the Near East, in Anau in what is now the republic of Turkmenistan. His excavations found evidence of farming and civilization dating back much earlier than scholars believed possible at the time.
Everybody denounced him at the time, said Hiebert, the Robert H. Dyson Assistant Professor of Anthropology and assistant curator of the Museums Near East section. The Americans said, There couldnt have been civilization in Central Asia at that time. And the Russians were saying, Americans cant do decent archaeology. So [his research was] totally discredited.
Excavations led by Hiebert have since proved Pumpelly right. Which is why Hiebert was interested in finding some of the artifacts Pumpelly dug up.
I went to Asia and New England and couldnt find anything, he said. Then I was giving a talk in California, and up came this 85-year-old guy, and he said, Do you know who I am? I am Raphael Pumpelly III.
Pumpellys grandson told Hiebert about the familys summer home, which burned down in 1975. Hieberts dig for artifacts at the site was a bona fide event, with townspeople and Pumpelly descendants pitching in. But they found nothing, and Hiebert was about to depart in failure when a neighbor suggested he look at an old chest she had.
The neighbor was another Pumpelly descendant, and the chest contained the original documents, which in turn led him to a St. Petersburg museum that housed many of the original artifacts.
Research based on these artifacts and Pumpellys original work will in turn form the basis for a major new exhibition on the civilization of the Silk Road, organized by Hiebert, that will open in November in the Arthur Ross Gallery.
Originally published on September 16, 1999