Archaeologist: Dr. Fredrik Hiebert

Archaeologist: Dr. Fredrik Hiebert

Profile of Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow.


6 - 12+


Arts and Music, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History

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Fred is an archaeologist. He mostly studies ancient trade routes, such as the Silk Road, a network that stretched from China to Europe and Africa. He also leads underwater archaeology projects, such as searching for evidence of prehistoric settlements on land that is now beneath the Black Sea.

Another part of Fred’s job is putting together exhibits of archaeological discoveries for museums and other venues.

"I am lucky enough to have two interesting jobs," Fred says. "I’m a field archaeologist as well as a museum curator."

Early Work
Fred has a strong background in both archaeology and education. After earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University, he spent 10 years as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (U-Penn) before joining the National Geographic Society as its archaeology fellow.

Although Fred’s early work mostly focused on trade routes, he has since studied civilizations and artifacts from places as diverse as Lake Titicaca, Peru; Athens, Greece; and Kabul, Afghanistan.

Most Exciting Part of Your Work
"Being an educator."

Most Demanding Part of Your Work
Fundraising and "making a sales pitch to a general public that has now decided that science isn’t interesting."

One of Fred’s projects for 2012 involves studying the ancient Maya. Many people immediately react to the "doomsday" Maya calendar date of 2012 instead of the rich, varied culture, he says.

"That’s a misreading of the calendar, by the way! The Mayan calendar doesn’t end, and there is no doomsday. But the reality is better!" Fred says.

How Do You Define Geography?
Fred defines geography as the ability to identify regions and put them in context—in terms of conflict, history, and culture.

"The need for geographic literacy is one of the reasons I left U-Penn. In October 2001, I gave a map quiz on Central Asia in my seminar on the Silk Road. I realized a lot of my students couldn’t find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. Here we [the U.S.] were in two major conflicts, and these smart college kids didn’t know where these places were.

"I felt like I was wasting what I know. I realized this needs to be an educational experience for the public."

Fred is enthusiastic about bringing educational experiences to the public, and doesn’t limit himself to traditional venues like schools or museums.

Fred explains one recent exhibit that brought rare treasures to Singapore and Oman.

"We just finished a small exhibit on the maritime Silk Road in Arabia and Asia. Well, a lot of people don’t go to museums in Southeast Asia. So we have this self-contained exhibit in malls and parking lots! Thousands of people go to malls in Singapore, and so thousands of people were able to see this marvelous exhibit.”

Fred also worked with Lucasfilm, the film studio of Star Wars and Indiana Jones producer George Lucas, to develop the exhibit “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology.” The exhibit links the fictional quests of Indiana Jones to real-life archaeological sites and discoveries. Lucasfilm provides video clips of the swashbuckling archaeologist hero, as well as movie memorabilia. National Geographic and the Penn Museum provide the archaeological treasures, including gold artifacts from the royal cemetery at Ur; intricately decorated bowls from Nazca, Peru; and one of the world’s oldest winemaking presses, unearthed in Armenia.

"An entire generation was inspired to take Archaeology 101 by Indiana Jones," Fred says.

Even though he has discovered valuable artifacts, Fred is quick to note, "We don’t actually search for treasure. We search for knowledge—that’s our real gold."

That search for knowledge is the other part of Fred’s job—field archaeology. It has taken him all over the world. His most well-known exhibit is probably "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul." Fred did most of his archaeological work in Afghanistan in 2003, during a lull in the conflict there. "I could actually walk to work," he remembers.

Fred has gone from walking across deserts to diving hundreds of meters beneath the Black Sea in search of ancient civilizations. Fred and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard worked together to compare topographic and bathymetric maps of the coast and seafloor. Doing underwater research, they were not surprised to find evidence of shipwrecks. "We found this shipwreck down there. We thought it was the wreck of a modern boat, but it ended up being Byzantine!" Fred says. "The structure was so similar, that really surprised us."

Fred has also worked on underwater projects in Lake Titicaca, Peru, and Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan. His newest proposal has taken him to Greece, where he’s developing an exhibit with the government.

So, You Want To Be An ... Archaeologist
“There is a lack of broad generalists in our field," Fred says. He strongly encourages students to have a liberal arts background.

Get Involved
Fred encourages families to visit museums, outdoor parks, and historic exhibits or demonstrations.

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National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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