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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Michael O. “Mo” Hartley built the archaeology program at Old Salem from the ground up by looking at it from the ground down.

In his 47 years as an archaeologist, Hartley unearthed not only numerous artifacts but also knowledge on the Moravian community and its role in shaping the county.

“All the history of this place until now rests on Moravian origins,” said Hartley, the director of archaeology at Old Salem who will retire Dec. 31. “When I came here, I wanted to know, ‘Who are the Moravians?'”

Archaeology is a field of work where every new answer provides a handful of new questions.

Hartley brought his inquisitive nature to Old Salem about 35 years ago to help solve some of the mysteries about the early days of the settlers who would lay the groundwork for the city.

As he approaches retirement, Hartley, 75, has much to show for his work.

In one display case at the archaeology center he created, he proudly points out the stories behind a handful of fragmented dishes and a small collection of toy soldiers recovered from a cellar hole, originating in 1825.

“It raises the question: Why would the passivist Moravians have toy soldiers?” he said. “If you can look at people’s material items, you can tell who they are, what they did, what they were up to.”

Each toy soldier and shard of pottery tells a story, he said, and allows for a comprehensive picture of the lives of the Moravians.

An archaeological investigation into the Builder’s House helped dispel the notion that the tradition of Moravian pottery in the Salem community ended with Rudolph Crist’s death in the 1820s, he said.

Hartley and his team recovered thousands of artifacts that proved Heinrich Schaffner, who arrived from Germany, continued the tradition of Moravian pottery long after.

“Mo has really been the single most influential individual in expanding the archaeology program at Old Salem,” said John Larson, former vice president for architectural restoration at Old Salem. “He took it to another level, making it research-driven.”

Hartley’s passion for archaeology stemmed from his parents, who took him around South Carolina every Sunday afternoon to visit Confederate warships and historical sites.

After graduating from the University of South Carolina with a major in English and minor in history, Hartley enlisted in the Navy for three years.

He continued his career as a television journalist for three years, digging into local issues, before changing fields to do a different kind of digging. He returned to school to pursue anthropology and in 1971 landed a job with historical archaeologist Stanley Southern to assist on a Revolutionary War site.

With the bicentennial anniversary of the war approaching, there was money available to explore the sites, Hartley said.

“By the time I was done with the sites, I had a field education money can’t buy,” he said. “I knew several different ways to take the ground apart, and I was beginning to think in new ways.”

Hartley continued work as an archaeologist and in 1983 began working at Old Salem as a contractor and leader of a field school.

In 1994, Larson enlisted Hartley and his wife, Martha, to build the Old Salem archaeology lab and resuscitate the program. In 1998, Hartley came on staff at Old Salem.

“Mo looked at the bigger picture, not just the 16 blocks,” said Larson, a city councilman. “He brought this whole new interpretive dimension that has had a huge impact on our understanding of Salem.”

But Hartley said there is still much to explore in Old Salem.

“People say to me ‘You already know it all, what is there left to do?'” Hartley said. “But — at the risk of a bad pun — we’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s a tremendous amount of work left to do here archeologically.”

Hartley said he’s confident Old Salem will continue its responsibility to its archaeological endeavor in his absence, especially with Old Salem archaeology fellow Geoff Hughes at the helm of an innovative new project.

Hughes is in the midst of excavating an 18th-century pottery site on Main Street and uncovered two kilns, thought to be built in 1793 and 1811.

Each excavation provides a new window into the daily lives of the Moravians and our roots as a community, Hartley said.

“Archaeology isn’t about an individual excavation,” he said. “It’s about piecing together the many pieces that contribute to our understanding of what Salem is.”

There are still many questions to be explored, Hartley said, including an expanded knowledge of the African-American presence in Salem, specifically the 140 enslaved people in the town around 1860.

It’s an idea that is being delved into by Old Salem’s “Hidden Town Project” and warrants in-depth research, Hartley said.

In retirement, Hartley said he will pursue a series of archaeological projects outside of Old Salem.

“I don’t see how I can put archaeology down. It’s integrated into my person,” he said. “I’m retiring from Old Salem, but not from work. There’s still plenty to do.”


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal,