June 5, 2008
Science Foundation compares UMD prof to
By Jana Hollingsworth
Although he’s been compared to Indiana Jones,
George “Rip” Rapp has never seen any of the movies.
During his long career, Rapp, professor emeritus
of geoarchaeology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has discovered
two lost cities in China and the shoreline of legendary Troy in
His work was included recently in a publication
by the National Science Foundation, which compares the work of archaeologists
— which Rapp says he’s not; he’s a geochemist
— to the kind of archaeology shown in the four Indiana Jones
Rapp has dealt with site robbers in Greece and
Israel, an experience he shares with Indiana Jones. He said artifacts
are not to be kept but turned over to the country in which they
are found, unlike in the movies.
“A dealer once called me and asked me to
authenticate Chinese artifacts,” Rapp said. “I yelled
at him: No. 1, I am not an archaeologist and No. 2, I hope he goes
to jail,” he said.
The purpose of archaeology is not to find artifacts,
but to focus more on history.
“Even Indiana will tell you this: It’s
not a search for the truth, it’s a search for facts,”
said Howard Mooers, a UMD professor and head of its geological sciences
department. “You study a site, study artifacts, the geometry
of the houses, whatever the layout was. From that you interpret
culture and how it interacted with … the environment.”
In an Indiana Jones movie, you’re just interested
in the artifact, he said, “whether it be Coronado’s
Cross, the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.”
Rapp, 77, is in the process of writing four books
on his work, adding to his published collection of 16 or 17 —
he doesn’t remember exactly how many. He’s traveled
abroad nearly 90 times, and for years spent summer and fall quarters
in the Mediterranean and China working on projects and teaching
during the winter and spring. His use of satellite imagery, geophysics
and core drilling were unique to archaeology and helped him make
his famous discoveries. The geological techniques have since been
adopted by many archaeologists.
The discoveries of the Chinese City of Song in
1994 and that of the ancient Shang Dynasty capital of Huanbei in
1997 didn’t excite Rapp.
“I didn’t know much about the city
except that we found it. I just move on to the next one,”
he said. “It’s an awful lot of fun, though, and it’s
The Chinese government was excited, having searched
40 years for the City of Song, about 3,000 years old. The second
discovery was made on the first day of searching, using the geological
Rapp’s and University of Delaware professor
John Craft’s work in the Mediterranean found that a harbor
area once sat outside the city of Troy, as opposed to what was believed
to be the Trojan War battlefield, and corresponded with what was
written in Homer’s Iliad, Rapp said.
By drilling there, they determined there was a
yard or two of water during that time.
“If there were chariot battles there, the
chariots must have been on pontoons,” he said.
As for the importance of his work, Rapp says it’s
just what he does.
“How important the work is in terms of scholarship
or the world, that’s for other people to determine,”