OBITUARY: Michael Jansen (1947-2022) 

ARWA – International Association for Archaeological Research in Western and Central Asia

Remembering Michael Jansen by Massimo Vidale (University of Padova)

I distinctly remember my first meeting with Michael Jansen. It was, I think, in a Roman autumn, in 1980. Framed by a door of the then “Centro Scavi” of ISMEO, on the fifth floor of Palazzo Brancaccio, I met the figure of an energetic, friendly young man, full of confidence in himself and in others, with an open smile. At that time, South Asian archaeology was much stronger and institutionally supported than it is today; the labs of Jean-Francois and Catherine Jarrige at the Musée Guimet and our own ISMEO facilities hosted a small but very active international commuting community which, with Michael Jansen, was going to acquire a third important pole.

Maurizio Tosi, on that same occasion, suggested I be a member of Michael’s mission in Mohenjo-Daro, Sindh, Pakistan. With all my gratitude to Maurizio Tosi for sending me to Pakistan for the first time, at the age of 25, allowing me to realise a dream I had nurtured for a long time, and otherwise impossible, the collaboration with him was destined to a certain degree of annoyance.

With Michael, instead, everything worked immediately. For five years (1981-1985) I would share with Michael and the other members of the Forschungsprojekt (Research project) “Mohenjo-Daro” long, unforgettable campaigns working on the surface (and sometimes underneath it) of this amazing and still little understood archaeological site.

Before 1981, Michael had already come a long way. The internet informs us that after studying physics and mathematics at the University of Bonn (1967), he moved to the RWTH University in Aachen, where he studied architecture and building history until 1973. In 1974, he came to the University of Rome, delving into building history and urban archaeology. In 1976, he focused his scientific attention on South Asia and the Indus Civilisation (studies at the University of Delhi and at the Archaeological Survey of India). In 1979, he received his doctorate in Aachen with a thesis on the architecture of the Indus Civilisation.

From 1978 to 1987, in collaboration with Günter Urban, then Rector of the RWTH, and supported by his wife Alexandra Ardaleanu, he was the project leader of an innovative ‘Mohenjo-Daro’ Research Project. Michael’s vision was simple but imaginative: to start a long season of ground-breaking archaeological research without excavating.

The second time I met Michael, in fact, was directly in Mohenjo-Daro. I arrived there in the old-fashioned way, from Karachi, getting off the train at the beautiful Dokri station. To understand how ‘prehistoric’ those times were, I remember that in the then bungalow of the PTDC where we worked there was a wooden, hand-cranked telephone answering the address ‘via Dokri exchange, 8’. Incredibly, it worked perfectly, and this is how I called Michael and asked him and German colleagues to come and pick me up.

The field campaigns at Mohenjo-Daro were long and demanding, not only from the point of view of the commitment required for months on end, of the forced cohabitation and living in tents, and the complexity of the research topics, but also because of an extremely delicate political and institutional framework. Mohenjo-Daro had been since long a tightly controlled site and well known to the local and international media. While we were being asked to limit exploration to the first five centimetres of the archaeological deposits, a vast UNESCO signed project, before our eyes, was excavating with mechanical means a continuous, ring-shaped channel around the emerging mounds, which fatally penetrated dozens of Bronze Age constructions, destroying them. The circumstance, of course, was not to be mentioned.

Michael managed his field project with great political shrewdness and an enormous expenditure of energy, mediating between all kinds of instances and problems (including, as far as I was concerned, the difficulty of positively integrating a young Italian archaeologist, with no experience of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, and completely unaware of the German academy, in an all-German team).

He was so constantly overloaded with work that only in the rare breaks of relaxation that he allowed to himself, we could talk. I frequently used these moments of his to get his invaluable help and psychological support to face a wide range of problems. In our relationship, he was supportive, sincere and sometimes rightly stern. I could then see the man behind his professional engagement, and perceive how exhausted, and sometimes openly bittered, he really was. At any rate, Michael remained a generous field director. He freely invited scholars to visit us, and whenever possible hosted visitors to the site. Open-minded, he willingly accepted exchanging ideas and new collaboration proposals. This is how I met J.M. Kenoyer and started collaborating with him, which patterned my views of the Indus civilization and affected future research for the next four decades. Thanks to Michael’s nature and hard efforts, the project repaid us completely: many of us became good colleagues and friends. We continued to learn, and to discover new important evidence for years. The results were as crucial as seminal for the following research on the Indus.

Sometimes there is limited understanding between architects and archaeologists. For architects, stratigraphy, formative processes of archaeological deposits and the logic of contexts often remain difficult to understand. Archaeologists, on their side (unless trained in construction topics) often fail appreciating the strict laws and physical constraints that make possible the erection, structural stability, maintenance and renovation processes of a mud-brick and/or fired-brick construction.

With Michael, the interaction was completely different and very fruitful, even starting when we first met. He had a very dynamic and highly creative understanding of ancient architecture, combining attention to stratigraphy and the buildings’ diachronic changes with that to the hydraulic networks and water cycles of the ancient city, in the broadest sense of the term — from the resource and threat represented at the same time by the nearby course of the Indus river, to the wells, drains, sewage and water disposal systems in the sophisticated urban environment of Mohenjo-Daro.

At the same time, he had no difficulty in understanding, supporting and critically developing the research, triggered by the collaboration with the Italian side, on the archive of archaeological information that the changing salinated surface of the Mohenjo-Daro mounds offered to us, mostly relevant for the identification of ancient craft occupations.

With the official involvement of ISMEO and increasing flow of Italian scholars and students to the field, from 1983 onwards, the burden of work on Michael grew exponentially. He had to mediate more and more between the exuberant but chaotic approaches, initiatives and ideas on the Italian side, sometimes accompanied by ‘wild’ behaviours, with the public image of his project, and the systematicity and rigour necessarily required by the ambitious effort to fully document the excavated ruins and topography of the city.

It happened that Italians, joining the project, found everything already set for an immediate start, and often did not realize, nor often recognized the previous enormous investments by Michael, Alexandra and the other German team members that had made our participation possible. While the surface survey gave immediate and easily communicable archaeological results, the work of the German team members was much more difficult, extenuating and (only apparently) less rewarding, at least on the short run. Michael patiently resisted frustration and always promoted the work of the others.

Drones and their impact on topography, at the time, had not been even imagined. Michael’s team brought on the field a complex but very efficient apparatus which for the first time recorded the site’s topography and excavated ruins by the means of a Hasselblad high precision camera lifted by a hot-air balloon, manually operated with ropes from the ground.

Michael was fully aware of the dramatic need of clearly distinguishing what had been restored in the past decades, often without detailed documentation, from what was left of the original architecture. Thousands of pictures were taken, precisely located in new maps of the city, and interpreted the evidence, house after house. In the course of documentation, he realized that an entire neighborhood of the southeastern area of Mohenjo-Daro’s ‘Lower Town’, the so-called Moneer site, had been fully excavated in the past, but never reported. We owe to him a detailed study of its architecture, soon integrated with our in-depth study of the surrounding original eroded mound surfaces. The Germans also engaged with the really titanic effort at critically recording – as far as possible – the lists of inventoried items from the old excavations, and replacing them in their original architectural contexts, which gave the simple but fundamental information we constantly quote.

All this, as usual in archaeological projects, came along with a never-ending sequence of serious and less serious problems and accidents. Just to give an idea of the problems that Michael daily had to face, I will always remember the day when a nice cat was welcomed in our compound by part of the team (and I was not completely innocent). At nighttime, the feline decided to piss on a costly, high precision photogrammetric lens of the Hasselblad camera of the hot-air balloon. When we had to inform Michael, he was flabbergasted. Not even in that unfortunate contingency I saw him losing his temper: in fact, he had been so wise to bring with us, with my personal surprise and relief, a spare one.

The Mohenjo-Daro project, after shaping for good the career and life perspectives of many of us, came to an end, for various reasons, in 1987. The team members scattered and took different ways. Most of us eventually entered the academic world. In 1994 Michael became a full professor at RWTH, Aachen, and until 1996 the Dean of the faculty of architecture. His research interests expanded from the Indus culture to the threatened and blasted heritage of Afghanistan, the colonial architecture in South Asia, the archaeology and architecture of South East Arabia and Central Asia, as well as to early modern cities, without forgetting the Carolingian architecture so relevant in Aachen itself. Michael was rightly acknowledged as a scholar and an excellent project manager of outstanding international value; and his engagements, in the course of years, multiplied. A member of the UNESCO International Advisory Committee on Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as a senior expert of the International Council for the Protection of Monuments and Places of Interest (ICOMOS), he moreover was founding Rector and managing Director for the German University of Technology in Oman, and Director of the Research Center Indian Ocean of the same University, where he began exploring the founding concepts of a “Silk Road” joining land and sea. This new project led him to Samarkand on that fatal day of July 2022, but the Indus Valley and Mohenjo-Daro remained, more than everything else, deeply rooted in his heart.

Two years ago, I received one of his calls: he was planning to apply for a new project in Mohenjo-Daro, focusing on the main south-north street in DKG-N. He was thinking to record the stratigraphy of the exposed section and asked me to take care eventually of part of the documentation. Destiny took its toll and other turns. I don’t know what happened to the idea, but it would have been marvelous to answer Michael’s proposal and to go back together to Mohenjo-Daro. Something that I am ideally doing while writing, in sadness and affection, these poor pages.

Massimo Vidale