CODA: Fred Hiebert

In CODA, we revisit previous Crescendo profiles to highlight how recent events impact their stories. In 2004, Caroline Straty Kraft (IAA 03-06, IAC 01-03) interviewed Dr. Hiebert as a student. In 2017, they reconnected as fellow alumni.

When we last spoke in 2004, Dr. Fredrik Hiebert (IAA 74-75, 77-78) was knee-deep in uncovering and opening hidden treasures of the Afghanistan National Museum. I was fortunate to catch up with him again this year, immediately after a stint in Jerusalem where he helped to expose the site of what is traditionally believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ, revealing the inside of the shrine for the first time since the 4th century AD.

Dr. Hiebert is the first to admit his trajectory from an Interlochen Arts Academy visual artist to archaeologist-in-residence of National Geographic was unexpected, and that it has been an extraordinary journey. Hiebert attended Interlochen in the shadow of two talented, musician brothers. He recalls the sheds in the woods where artists hung out and how the visual arts department became his home as he fell in love with etching and printmaking. Upon graduation, he informed his parents he was headed to Paris, where he planned to pick up work in art studios. Instead, he found himself drawing artifacts from archaeological digs for a university. As he became the resident expert for these illustrations, he was offered the chance to go out into the field and it was there that he developed a passion for archeological expeditions. He headed to college, went on to receive his PhD in archaeology from Harvard, and began teaching archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Then, on September 11, 2001, Hiebert had a life-altering realization. “I was a teaching a map quiz on Afghanistan when the attacks happened, and all fingers pointed toward Afghanistan as American troops were sent there overseas.” Hiebert read the headlines that conveyed misinformed perspectives about Afghan people and their culture, and he thought that Americans needed to understand that Afghanistan was influenced by Alexander the Great and the Romans as well as ancient Chinese civilizations. “I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go open the hidden treasures of a now vilified culture. I needed something bigger and a different audience to convey how extraordinary this culture actually was. It was their artifacts that could help reveal their civilization and tell the story of a people who don’t have their story written down elsewhere.”

Since that time, Dr. Hiebert has focused on illuminating archaeological elements of regions that don’t generally have their heritage held up or preserved. He believes that by studying and revealing the artifacts left behind, one can begin to understand a region’s culture, history and identity. “There is so much politically oriented destruction of the past. Archaeology has to be more important for policy makers and government to show that we respect the heritage of these countries,” he said. Dr. Hiebert has worked on a variety of projects ranging from deep-sea exploration in a lake in Kyrgyzstan to reconstructing artifacts from ancient trade routes like the Silk Road. For his recent work in Jerusalem on the tomb of Jesus, Hiebert was not only working on a significant religious and cultural site, but also experiencing the joys and complications of working in a living, spiritual monument, as Hiebert and the conservation team were not allowed to close out the pilgrims. “We were elbow to elbow with pilgrims in ecstasy; there was incense everywhere and chanting.”

In order to get access to the inside of the tomb, the team had to conserve the old, marble-clad structure surrounding it. Hiebert and his team used 3D scanning and thermography to beam light into the structure, and then injected liquid mortar to solidify the stones and preserve the inside of the tomb. “You can’t be an archaeologist today and not be adept at technology,” asserted Hiebert.

The incredible range of technology available today also means that archaeologists like Hiebert are able to uncover and access undiscovered areas, hidden structures and artifacts. For example, Hiebert described using Lidar, a remote-sensing technology that uses pulsed laser light to measure distances to the Earth, deep in the jungle of Honduras where he and his team discovered a series of lost cities. The ruins of the city had been hidden under a canopy of rainforest trees, and “without technology we never would have seen it due to the overgrowth from hundreds of years.” Of course, he said, once the technology has revealed an exciting new discovery, it’s still “boots on the ground and going out to check,” even when it means jumping out of a helicopter and risking poisonous snake attacks and parasites in the thick of the Honduran jungle.

In the 21st century, climate change is a part of archaeological discussion as well. “A lot of our work ties to climate change, often because archaeological finds reveal geographical change.” Climate change poses a threat to the archaeological record, and, according to Hiebert, can have a direct impact on archaeological sites over time.

To circle back with Dr. Hiebert after 13 years is to realize that there has never been a more exciting time than the present to be in the field of archaeology. The exploration possibilities are limitless due to incredible technological advances. And with increasing concerns about climate change, one could argue that archaeological work has never been more relevant. Although at first glance the work he is practicing today seems to be quite different than the type of art he studied at Interlochen, he still credits the technical rigor, attention to detail and perseverance he learned at the Academy as being instrumental to his growth as an archaeologist.

Dr. Hiebert is at the helm of uncovering significant mysteries through his work at National Geographic, and because his work is so global and has broad appeal, he is helping to interest and inspire a new generation of people to be excited to care for the world’s great treasures, both known and unknown. Interlochen is fortunate to have an alumnus like Dr. Hiebert who can show us the limitless potential of an arts education and how it can be harnessed to have an enduring impact on a global scale.

About the author:
A passionate Interlochen Arts Academy and Camp alum, Caroline Straty Kraft went on to graduate with honors from Brown University. She founded and ran a boutique tutoring company in New York City for the past 6 years and recently moved to San Francisco.

Original Article: Dr. Fred Hiebert

This article was originally published in the Summer 2004 edition of Crescendo.

Dr. Fred Hiebert by Caroline Michelle Straty

DR. FRED HIEBERT, A 1978 Academy graduate who majored in printmaking, is now National Geographic's first Archeology Fellow.

Hiebert says that by attending Interlochen, it gave him the chance to "establish artistic communication in a great community," as well
as provided him with a foundation for a life-long love of the arts. The Interlochen environment of multiple interests and talents merging in one place is one he yearns to repeat.

After graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy, he went on to study with a French archeological team in Paris, and he completed his first archeological dig on the Island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

After receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, he went to graduate school at Harvard University intending to study ancient maritime trade. Instead, he was urged to learn Russian and compare overland trade with maritime trade in Central Asia. Hiebert spent 15 months in Soviet Turkmenistan, working on a newly discovered Bronze Age civilization. He received his doctorate in 1992 and subsequently led Harvard's Central Asian Archaeology Program.

"I have morphed from being an illustrator in Paris to doing excavation work in Russia," Hiebert said.

His major research interest continues to be desert oasis cultures of central Asia and seafaring cultures of the Black Sea. He has collaborated with renowned ocean explorer and scientist Robert Ballard on developing deep-water archaeology, and this work has been featured on film and news reports around the world.

As part of his National Geographic assignment, he is studying the lost treasures of the Afghanistan National Museum.

Hiebert spoke to the 2003-04 Academy class during a campus visit in April. "I really like to urge people to follow opportunities," he said, "and Interlochen is one of the greatest opportunities anyone is ever likely to find."

Caroline Michelle Straty, from Dallas,TX, will be a senior Theatre major at the Academy in fall 2004.