Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to travel to a distant land and dig for treasure, sort of like Indiana Jones? Read an interview with a real-life archaeologist to find out his favorite discovery and how he became an archaeologist.
Q: What were you like as a kid?
Hiebert: I wasn’t actually interested in archaeology. I think most people think that you’re almost born to be an archaeologist. And I like to think that anybody who’s played in a sandbox is a future archaeologist. My own interests were different. I went to school. I thought I was going to be an artist. And I was trained to draw. I love drawing. I drew anything. I drew nature, I drew objects… and because of this, I was able to get my first job working on an archaeological excavation drawing artifacts, and I guess that’s where the [archaeology] bug bit me. And I became really interested in the story behind the artifacts. So slowly I became more interested in the artifacts than I was in doing the drawings, but I have to admit, I still do all the drawings on my own digs.
Q: Do you have a hero?
Hiebert: I think it’s important for everybody to have a hero, and I certainly do. Being a central Asian archaeologist, a specialist on ancient trade, my hero is actually a guy who lived more than 100 years ago. He was a geologist. His name was Raphael Pumpelly, and as a geologist, he was interested in sort of the big picture of the world, and world history, and world…how people used the world.
The first time that I went to [central Asia], I went to the country of Turkmenistan. It’s a desert country right in the heart of Asia. There’s almost nothing but sand, sand, sand. And everybody there speaks Russian or Turkmen. So I had to learn Russian to go there. And I went there and this was a very, very interesting time. It was just at the end of the Soviet Union and I thought, “Wow. Here I am, one of the first Americans to be there.” And I got to the capital city, Ashkabad, and I met an old man who said, “Oh, you’re from America? You’re not the first American to be in Turkmenistan. There was this guy 100 years ago who was here.” And that was Raphael Pumpelly.
Q: What do you daydream about doing?
Hiebert: Actually, archaeology is a passion, so what we really like, what archaeologists really like to do is keep thinking about new digs, and what else we might find, and how we might answer those questions that seem almost impossible to answer.
Q: What’s a normal day like for you?
Hiebert: I hate to say that archaeologists don’t really have a normal day. We have a really interesting perspective in that we’re really interested in ancient times and how we can bring ancient times back to life. I like to think that many of the people who I actually have the most interesting conversations with are other archaeologists who might live in different continents or even have lived at a different time period. I’ll read a book by an archaeologist who isn’t even alive today and I will have kind of a conversation with that person. It’s a different way of thinking about the world. And when I write, which I try and do every day, I try and write so that people 10 years, 15 years, 50 years from now will still be interested in what I’m writing about today. Anything we can do to help bring the past alive is what archaeologists are really interested in doing.
Q: What do you do for fun or to be silly? With your kids?
Hiebert: I’m really lucky as an archaeologist that I have two boys that like to play a lot of games. They’re both soccer kids so I consider myself a soccer dad. And both of my boys have been on archaeological digs with me, and with me and my wife who’s also an archaeologist. And they’re not really that interested in the archaeology—I guess if you’ve grown up with it, it doesn’t seem all that exotic or different. But they really do love what we do, and they love seeing us at work with the excavations, and they know a lot more about looking at the ground sometimes than I do, so I have to ask them questions sometimes.
Q: Where have you brought them?
Hiebert: We’ve taken the kids to South America, to Lake Titicaca, which is actually on the other side of the equator. We took them during summer break to South America, to the high, high areas of the Andes. Unfortunately for them, it turns out that on the other side of the equator, it’s winter. So they got to spend their summer vacation brushing off snow and breaking the film of ice that was on all the water. So they got winter both in our winter and in their summer.
Q: Can you tell us about the mat?
Hiebert: People often ask me what’s my favorite story? What’s my favorite find that I’ve made in archaeology? And this goes back some 20 years ago when I was a student and I was excavating a trade site on the coast of Egypt. This is the Red Sea coast, it’s one of the most barren coasts in the whole world. Nothing grows there, there’s no water, there’s no trees… it’s kind of amazing that people had ever even built a town there. The reason people had built a town at this particular site was that it’s a great trading place. It’s a place where ships would come in. But it’s so dry that everything’s preserved.
So when we excavated there, we found the house of a merchant who had been on the coast waiting for ships to come in. He had warehouses, and there were remains of many of the things that came in and left through the warehouses of his house.
Well, we were excavating this house, and we finished the excavation, and there was a reed mat in front of the house that was still preserved. This was about a 700-year-old reed mat. And we were done with our excavations, and I had taken drawings. I had done drawings of the house, and we had photographed it, and I thought “Gee, it’s a shame to leave this reed mat here on the ground.” So I pulled it up, and then we made a really interesting discovery. Underneath the mat was the house key the merchant had left 700 years ago and he had hid his key underneath the door mat, thinking he would return one day. And here we found it. And it even had his name written on it.