Meet Groton’s Own Indiana Jones, Michael D. Danti
Thu, 09/26/2019 - 3:34pm Heraldgroton
Michael Danti in full ‘professor mode’ speaks at academic conference.
by Michael LaTerz
Not unlike Indiana Jones, Groton resident Michael Danti travels to the Middle East to hunt for ancient artifacts, save them from a war-torn landscape, and champion their retrieval from an opportunistic black market. OK, he doesn’t carry a gun, or have Indy’s famous leather whip. But, he does wear the hat, as director of archaeological projects in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Oh, and he will tell you, wryly, “I am from Indiana. And, to that, there is no end of humor.”
“My grandparents were interested in antiques and fossils. My mother was a teacher. She bought me a lot of books on archeology. But, more than anything else, in the 1970s, there was a Tutankhamun exhibit. My English grandfather had been fascinated with Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. He had saved those newspapers when he was a boy in London, and, he gave them to me. So, that led to my interest in that exhibit. One thing led to another and here I am today.”
Michael holds his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D.) and Purdue University, and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. In 2017, Michael D. Danti co-founded Cultural Property Consultants, LLC. He is a Registered Professional Archaeologist.
He is currently Program Manager of the Mosul Heritage Stabilization Program funded by the US State Department. The program oversees several projects with an aim to assist Iraqis in preservation and protection of cultural heritage.
Michael gave a fascinating talk at Groton Public Library back on August 16, 2018 called, “Reading the Rocks!” where he discussed his adventures in the Middle East during the last 30 years; and, his current efforts to preserve and protect the “Cradle of Civilization.” John Ellenberger recorded the presentation. The link to the video is https://vimeo. com/288069790.
A trailer for the video would include the bespectacled archeologist being lowered into a newly discovered tomb which had flooded from rains the night before. Like a scene from a Spielberg movie, the entire floor appeared to be moving because the rains had washed all the critters from the surrounding field into the tomb. “Beetles, scorpions, and snakes were all over each other, fighting to get out of there.”
Scenes follow stories; stories follow adventures. Michael regales with stories of excavating near the Iranian border where you can hear the Turks and Iranians bombing the Kurds. Once, he and a colleague narrowly avoided an old, and inadequately marked, hilltop minefield by sliding down the hill in a plunging retreat. In another scene he describes the fickle fortune of finding a long- forgotten sewage system instead of the hoped-for tomb of an ancient king. Discovery comes in many guises. Archeology welcomes all.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, December 2010. Out of an abundance of caution, the Danti expedition was preparing to leave Syria when the Assad regime pleaded with all foreign expeditions to remain in country.
Better judgment prevailed. By March 2011, pro-democracy protests had reached Syria; the start of what became a most devastating civil war.
“To be sure, there was something in the air when we left Syria. For some months, we noticed politics seeping into daily discussion where before it was verboten. But, honestly, we had no idea what was about to happen; or that we were leaving the country for the last time.”
From Syria it was on to Kurdistan to search for the lost kingdom of Musasir. This was a fabulously wealthy power in the region during the first millennium BCE.
In advance of the inevitable hunt for more oil, newly bulldozed roads cut into the landscape without regard for history, archeology, or local sensibility. In comes the Danti expedition to perform what is known as ‘rescue archeology.’ Temples, homes, gravesites, and more spill from the opened hillsides. “I could spend my whole life excavating just one of countless locations.”
Michael’s interest in the preservation of historical artifacts is, by no means, limited to overseas. The problems of endangered cultural heritage are echoed here in Groton with the recent discoveries of pilferage and vandalism of local historical artifacts. As a member of the Groton Historical Commission (full disclosure – so am I), he contributes in kind in our town. Evidence of trespassers digging and sifting for historical assets that do not belong to them has been found in several locations. Persons engaged in such activity should beware. The authorities have taken notice.
“Of course, as an archeologist, Groton’s history, the local landmarks, and the conservation lands have a natural appeal. My wife, Mandy, works next door at the Groton Public Library. From our home, we see the Lawrence Academy campus and the beautifully rebuilt Groton Inn. Across the town common is the newly restored old Meetinghouse (First Parish Church). The clock is working, now; and the bell rings. Our kids Nathaniel, Kirsten, and Jacob consider this their hometown. And, we love it here.”
In addition to his archeological endeavors in the Middle East, Michael is an author, educator and museum professional. As a guest on CNN, PBS, NPR and other media venues, he has spoken to raise public awareness of the peril faced by our shared global cultural heritage. Appearing before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, Michael has testified on cultural property crimes in the war-ravaged region.
So, take that, Indiana Jones!
Michael Danti is due to travel back to Mosul, northern Iraq, at the end of September. He is scheduled to return home to Groton in November.
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