Ancient attractions

Dr. Douglas Comer, Baltimore's own Indiana Jones, sees every vacation as a learning opportunity

  • Dr. Douglas Comer and his family on Huaynu Picchu, a mountain peak near Machu Picchu.
Dr. Douglas Comer and his family on Huaynu Picchu, a mountain… (Dr. Douglas Comer, Baltimore…)
November 15, 2012|By Stephanie Citron, For The Baltimore Sun

An authentic Indiana Jones is alive and well, right here in town. Baltimore, meet Douglas Comer.

Operating rather inconspicuously from his Charles Village-based firm Cultural Site Research and Management, Comer has overseen some of the region's most important archaeological and historical preservation projects. That's when he's not spur-of-the-moment globetrotting to a newly discovered archaeology site or to play watchdog over the preservation of some of the Earth's most-treasured archaeological finds.

Born in Michigan, Comer came to Maryland in 1972. "I was hired to assemble a team of archaeologists to perform archaeology excavation for restoring the C&O Canal after it had been destroyed by Hurricane Agnes," he says. Comer stayed on, guiding the project's evolution into an archaeology and historical research center for the U.S. National Park Service. Then he was named chairman of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Commission on Archaeology, redesigning the state's program.

Baltimore became home when he married a Maryland native, also an archaeologist (Elizabeth Comer's firm recently performed excavation research for Baltimore's newest subway line). This year, Douglas Comer completed the first visitor experience plan for the Preservation Society of Fells Point, and performed excavations on the neighborhood's oldest structures.

As an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Comer is leading a team of students in the applied mathematics and statistics department on a project with NASA and the Department of Defense: developing statistical protocols and models from aerial and satellite remote-sensing data to detect archaeological sites in the Mojave Desert.

But if his students just blink, their professor's jetting off to Hokkaido, Japan, to inspect findings from the ancient Jomon era, including some of the first pottery ever made. Another week he's gone again to Petra, Jordan, developing an operating plan with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Then he's in Dakar, Senegal, to suggest which of Africa's ancient archaeological sites might be placed on the World Heritage List, in his position as co-president of International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management for International Council on Monuments and Sites, an adviser on global cultural heritage sites to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.

Then, he's back in a flash, digging knee-deep at a site in Mason Neck, Va., seeking Revolutionary War campsites of Rochambeau, the general in charge of French forces aiding the Americans.

We caught up with him to chat about Peru, the travel destination he digs the most these days.

Constantly trekking the globe, you must have so many favorites spots. What do you look for in a vacation destination?

Every vacation is also a learning opportunity. If a place doesn't have much archaeologically or historically, we generally aren't interested. There's too many places in the world to see.

So what is your current favorite vacation spot?

These days, it's Peru.

What makes it a standout?

Peru [has] perhaps the largest number of archaeological sites in that hemisphere. Machu Picchu is a place everybody should see — it's magnificent, you can hardly believe it's real. Cuzco is magical, filled with colonial Spanish architecture, but all built on the foundation of Incan structures. The contrast is fascinating. There are many historic neighborhoods to explore.

Along the west coast is a totally different environment: a desert next to the ocean — like Southern California but drier.

Peruvians are really some of the nicest people. There are many very poor areas, so they enjoy having people come and stimulate their economy.

Can you suggest an itinerary?

It's easiest to fly into Lima, the capital. It's a very modern city; there's not a lot to see, historically.

[About two hours north], there's a site called Caral, with monumental architecture in a very sophisticated urban plan that is as old as the early cities in the Middle East, about 2600–2000 B.C. People didn't have any idea that that kind of elaborate urban architecture existed 4,500 years ago in the New World; it was very controversial.

Was the lifestyle as sophisticated as the architecture … perhaps like Pompeii?

Yes, it was a different culture, but in many ways it was similar. They had pyramids and temples and buildings. But [archaeological] work in Caral began only about 30 years ago. People have been digging in Pompeii for over 250 years. A lot more is known about Pompeii because there are texts. You don't have that with the South American civilizations. People have not been excavating in South America for as long as they have in the classic world.

Where to then?

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