A Renaissance man’s wayward path

Nov. 17, 2011, 2:02 a.m.
A Renaissance man's wayward path
(Courtesy of Patrick Hunt)

With his tweed jacket and tinted Ray-Ban glasses, Patrick Hunt makes a strong impression. An archaeologist by training, Hunt has traveled to digs around the world to deepen our understanding of the past. Still, his pursuits defy easy categorization — when he’s not excavating or teaching, Hunt keeps busy as a writer, composer, poet and art historian.

At Stanford, Hunt is a lecturer in the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program. Besides teaching classes in the anthropology and classics departments, Hunt is also the director of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project, a research program that specializes in high-altitude excavations. Each summer, Hunt takes a group of Stanford students to Europe to retrace Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps.

Even in his early years, Hunt had a strong passion for academia, even if it didn’t translate into being a model student. As a boy in San Diego, Hunt had a complicated relationship with school.

“I was truant a lot,” he said. “But they always knew where to find me: in the library.”

A love for the written word inspired Hunt to write poetry and even invent several languages as a teenager.

Hunt was introduced to archaeology when a family friend invited him to participate in a dig at the San Diego Museum of Man.

“That was where I first saw the disjunction between looking at a site today and imagining what it must have looked like 300 years ago,” Hunt said. “And that contrast really fired up my mind.”

“I had these wild dreams about finding buried stuff,” he added. “These were literal dreams about a burial of a unit of Roman soldiers in my backyard. It was so real. I would jump out [of bed] in my bathrobe and go get a shovel to check.”

Music was another major influence in Hunt’s life, especially since his mother was a concert pianist.

“My brothers and I ended up being an a cappella singing group, and we did this quite a bit around Southern California,” Hunt said.

In high school, Hunt fell in love with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

“It was like wax plugs fell out of my ears,” he said. “I would lie for hours in the dark, surrounded by Bach [in] stereo sound, and it was just incredible.”

Hunt briefly attended a music conservatory, but rebelled against the compositional rules that limited his creative freedom. Hunt recounted a time when one of his professors rejected a manuscript he had composed.

“He told me, ‘Patrick, this is nothing but melody!’” Hunt said. “And I just said, ‘Thank you.’”

Hunt’s compositions have been widely performed by professional ensembles in the United States and Europe.

Hunt arrived at Stanford by an unconventional path. After finishing his Ph.D. at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, Hunt moved to Berkeley, where he was involved in Near Eastern studies research.

On a whim, Hunt wrote a letter to Stanford asking about open positions. Religious studies professor Lee Yearley forwarded the letter to the head of the Classics Department. Hunt was then invited to be a visiting lecturer, and he has been here ever since.

“That was complete luck, that somebody didn’t put [my letter] in the trash pile,” he said. “These people [were] very open, kindhearted, really formidable scholars.”

Hunt’s enthusiasm for the humanities has also attracted attention outside academia: PBS and The History Channel have featured Hunt as an expert in their television documentaries. Recently, Hunt was filmed in Italy for a National Geographic special, “Iceman Murder Mystery,” which aired on Oct. 26.

Hunt also maintains an active presence online. A few years ago, venture capitalists encouraged him to found Electrum Magazine, an online publication guided by the slogan “Why the Past Matters.” Now, his Silicon Valley patrons are seeking to expand the magazine.

To Hunt, new technologies like the Internet enhance the humanities, rather than threatening them.

“[The Internet is] paperless, and it doesn’t provide instant gratification, but it does provide instant dissemination,” he said.

Throughout his life, Hunt has never been afraid to defy convention.

“There have to be people willing to take the boundaries out and do something independent,” he said. “They have to be fearless — or at least less fearful.”

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