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Archaeologist Michael Danti was digging high in the jagged Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan in June when Kurdish workmen gave him the news: the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, had stormed the northern city of Mosul. Tens of thousands of people were fleeing for their lives.
“I started to immediately contact my friends in Mosul,” says Danti, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of archaeology, who in 2012 started a joint program with Iraqis to revitalize archaeological education in the country. “The rumors came in that ISIS had seized armories and were now armed to the teeth, and then that they had seized the major gas refinery in Baiji. There were lines of cars on the roads that stretched for miles….When you’re living and working in the mountains, you don’t have a lot of information.”
Months later, Danti says the Iraqi professors he worked with on the Mosul Archaeology Program (MAP) still feel threatened by ISIS. “MAP had been the number-one archaeology program in Iraq,” he says. “It was designed to set the standard of how archaeologists in the country would be trained.”
Danti, a codirector at the American Schools of Oriental Research, a Boston University–based consortium of institutions dedicated to Near Eastern archaeology, has devoted his career to archaeological pursuits in the Middle East—and that hasn’t been easy. Wars and political upheaval have rendered much of Iraq off limits to archaeologists for decades. In fact, archaeology in Iraq has taken some giant steps backward: the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq in 2003 resulted in the loss or destruction of more than 15,000 artifacts and manuscripts covering 10,000 years of a civilization that invented mathematics, writing, and the wheel. Despite the tumult, Danti and his colleagues have attempted to draw attention to archaeology in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which is often called the cradle of civilization.