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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Donald J. Ortner: Physical Anthropologist, Museum Curator, Paleopathologist

How does tuberculosis leave its mark on a human skeleton? What is the significance of changing ankle stability in an ancient culture? What do skeletons tell us? Donald J. Ortner (1938-2012), a biological anthropologist in the National Museum of Natural History, explored questions such as these. Many of his projects focused on paleopathological studies of human skeletons; essentially Ortner researched the visible effects of ancient diseases on bone.

Donald J. Ortner at the base of a shaft tomb at the Bâb edh-Dhrâ cemetery site in Jordan, circa 1977, Box 64, Donald J. Ortner Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
The photograph above portrays Ortner in the midst of one of the larger paleopathological projects of his career: Bâb edh-Dhrâ. East of the Dead Sea in Jordan, the site of Bâb edh-Dhrâ includes an Early Bronze Age town and cemetery. From 1975 to 1983, the archaeological team of the Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain (EDSP), co-directed by Walter Rast and R. Thomas Schaub and comprised of people from an array of different disciplines, carried out excavations of the site. While an extraordinary 373 individual skeletons have been uncovered, it is estimated that the cemetery consists of 37,699 bodies buried in over 2,500 shaft tombs. In general, these shafts are about 4 feet across and 6 feet deep; you can see Ortner standing at the base of one of them in this photograph. At the bottom, hemispherical burial chambers were dug out to the side of the shaft, 3 feet high in the center and 6 feet in diameter. Women, men, young, and old were buried together in these chambers with an average of about 5 people per chamber.

During Ortner’s first field season at the Bâb edh-Dhrâ site in 1977, he was given the honor of opening the first excavated burial chamber, A78. The following excerpt from Ortner’s article “Cultural Change in Bronze Age” (Smithsonian Magazine, 1978) describes Ortner’s reaction to opening the chamber:
“I shall never forget the exhilaration. Covered with dust, perspiration rolling off me in the 100-degree-plus heat, I pulled away the stone blocking the north chamber and saw revealed for the first time in 5,000 years the human skeletons and exquisite pottery inside.” 
Ortner and his team used analyses of the specimens and tombs to examine how the transition from a nomadic way of life to an urban one affected burial practices. He also discovered information about the health of these Early Bronze Age people, finding indications of arthritis, brucellosis, and tuberculosis on the bones. Ortner continued his study of specimens over a period 30 years, fascinated by and perhaps even admiring of a group of people so troubled by infectious diseases, yet “surviving and even thriving” (Ortner and Frohlich: 368).

Aside from his work at Bâb edh-Dhrâ, Ortner pursued several other projects related to the history and evolution of human infectious diseases. Throughout his 49 years (1963-2012) in the Department of Anthropology in the NMNH, Ortner was a well-respected colleague and mentor; he filled many positions from Museum Technician to Curator to Acting Director of the Museum.
The Donald J. Ortner Papers are now open for research at the National Anthropological Archives. The National Anthropological Film Collection, formerly the Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA), holds films that document Ortner’s work in Bâb edh-Dhrâ. An appointment is required to view the materials.

Alice Griffin, Contract Processing Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

Sources consulted: 
Ortner, Donald J. “Cultural Change in Bronze Age.” Smithsonian Magazine (1978): 82-87.

Ortner, D. J., and Bruno Frohlich. “The EB IA Tombs and Burials of Bâb edh-Dhrâ, Jordan: A Bioarchaeological Perspective on the People.” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 17 (2007): 358-368.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Lots of love…" Letters from Antarctica, December 1962

Below are letters written by Invertebrate Zoologist Waldo Schmitt to his wife, nicknamed "Stummy", while he was completing field work in Antarctica during 1962-1963.  Schmitt wrote these letters during his last major trip into the field.  Schmitt had been going into the field since 1911 when he served aboard the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Albatross as an Assistant Naturalist during its cruises along the west coast of America and Alaska.  He married his wife Alvina in 1914.

The letters below were taken from crowdsourced transcriptions from the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  Photographs were taken by Waldo during his time in Antarctica.

Participant sitting with a penguin on the Palmer Peninsula, Antarctica c.1962,
SIA RU007231 - Waldo L. Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2012-0662
December 15, 1962
Dear Stummy, 

Here we are in Antarctica at McMurdo. A bright and sunny day; there are puddles of water, ice-edged to be sure in the streets (such as they are of volcanic ash largely; and no colder than a
crisp winter day at home; maybe a little more crisp about 15° this early a.m and now at 8 p.m it is 18°, the same as at noon. We are in the "land of the mid-night sun. The sun is high in the heavens, and as bright as the clearest day at home at mid-day.

Oh! yes from the shore as far out as you can see a sheet of snow covered ice over which the tractors plough back and forth hauling supplies from the ice - airfield where the planes land about 3 miles from the Station proper. 

Quite a place and honestly it doesn't feel as cold as the thermometer has it. We sleep two In about an 8x8 room, one cot above the other bunk bed style with a fair sided [[bedsi?]] locker, one ceiling lamp, & one chair. The sleeping accommodations are quite primative - the meals on the other hand quite lavish - meat twice a day, and a hot plate of beans on the side at lunch
and dinner to day. Dessert at lunch today was bread pudding with raisins; at dinner a square of chocholate cake with white icing. The coffee seems quite good. Canned milk does not stand up well, tends to separate they say, and so Proam is used instead. We have to walk about half a block, or is it a block to the toilet facilities. There are no showers - "sponge baths" are what serves here. I got about 4 hrs sleep on the plane and am beginning to feel sort of dopy. Tomorrow the mail goes out so I shall try to send this and a few cards. A pretty one to each
of you in Coronado.

Gee Stummy, I should have sent you out to Barb's before I left. Please don't feel apprehensive about money matters or Barb, or me either things will work out alright. I believe I get $12 a day per d for the days we are not either on a ship or at this station. Of course I [[Had?]] pay the
hotel, but I shall get the per diem which will more than offset it. Then I should get the $1,800 on top of that. It will more than cover all the bills and some besides, and that is not taking the "pay" checks into account.

Stop worrying. It looks as though I shall come through alive to plague you the rest of our days. And don't worry about Barb until you see for yourself this time out there. Too bad about Ruth. To think after all these busy years that she had to run into this trouble whatever it is. ||| The Seiglers sent me an Xmas card! 

Be good Stummy we aren't going to be so badly off. I'll check over those taxes when I get back
Lots of love girl and then some 


View of vessel during specimen collecting near Peterman Island, Antarctica, 1962-1963,
SIA RU007231 - Waldo L. Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2012-0666.
Dec. 16, 1962

Dear Stummy,

Here we still are, I hardly know what to write. In the hotel they moved me to a single room on the second floor a bother because I'll only be here another day or two. Tomorrow or the next day I move in with Jack Crowell at Eddie Goodall's place. I did not go out Sunday with Jack
because I wanted to see the Museum director G.A. Turbot, and a Dr Stonehouse who has been up on the Palmer Peninsula where we are going or expect to go. Stonehouse was due last night at 5 oclock but did not return on the plane. I had thought he was on vacation but he's down at McMurdo.

The weather is/as I wrote before. The present is the more rainy season and though its summer we get temperatures in the low 40's at night, and in the low 60's (63) at midday if the sky clears by then and the sun comes out.

There is no heat in these rooms or this hotel except the hot water tap and a fireplace in some of the rooms. There was one in the double room we had but none in the cubicle I am in now.

I am sitting here writing on my lap because there is no table and bureau top is too high, wearing my heavy blue shirt. On bed I have besides sheet, two thin blankets and 2 spreads white, and red one. Yes, I am plenty warm, but at that the room is colder than out of doors, at least when I go out after breakfast. The other reason I have not yet moved out of hotel is that Eddie
Goodalls place is way out by the airport and the busses that go by his place run 45 mins apart in busy - rush hours - and 1.10 mins apart during day. Most of yesterday I spent in the public Library here checking up on Antarctic animal & biology literature. I want to go back at
least another day to check over some of the reports of earlier expeditions.I had intended doing this at home and would have done so except for that darn moving. I hate to think of what I have awaiting me back at Museum.

Too bad that mail is going to be so little and far between. Now take this one. If I send it home Thelma will have to forward it, but at that it will just about reach you when you get to California.

There is nothing much else to write a-bout. Here at this hotel the meat is mutton most all the time but they do have a fish course and now and then pork and chicken, of course eggs for breakfast almost smothered in bacon strips, not crisp fried either. I try to have them bring me only one strip, but they seem incapable of doing it, or just won't from force of habit. The hot tea at 7 a.m served in room is not so bad - in a fairly cold room. However the
water runs hot and that's a comfort.

Maybe at Eddie's place over the week end I'l have a table to write on. Next week if we still are here I shall try to get in a little collecting. I'd hate to be here a couple of weeks and not have a New Zealand crab for the Museum collection, but nothing is handy, and the few "tools" I brought are so tied up in warehouse at airport that I can't well get at them. They are also too well packed to undo for fooling around here.
Also I am afraid I'll have to let Christmas buying go over. the sending is the chief problem after trying to think of what to buy. I do hope you are keeping "weller," getting over that too worried spell. It will be nice to see Barb and the kids again. Lots of love girl first to you and then the rest

- from the old man - Waldo

Helicopter fire on McMurdo Base, Antarctica, prior to arrival of emergency response team,
SIA RU007231 - Waldo L. Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2012-0665.
Penguins on the Palmer Peninsula, 10-11am January 28, 1963,
SIA RU007231 - Waldo L. Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2012-0665.
Dec. 16, 1962

Dear Stummy,

Today we had snow - a brief flurry this a.m. a bit of a let up and then with lunch more through the rest of the afternoon and supper perhaps till 7 or 8 // I got off a number of Xmas cards including one to Dick.

This was an earlier letter, Before the unfinished one above. The part that got carboned read as follows "You may not think that I know what I am doing, but we are utterly dependent on the Navy. Today I want to get Xmas cards; its finally come to the point where I get them, or not. The
question is to whom to send them and how many. If as the bunch here is doing I would get U.S. stamps on them which we can do from here out, but there is the thought that folks would expect N.Z.stamps. - That decision I wont make till I get cards written /// As ^ [[insertion]] is
[[/insertion]] always the case, we are having unusual weather, the summer has suddenly descended upon us - after all the cool weather I have been complaining about in the 40s and 50's - day before yesterday was in mid 80°s and yesterday it was over 90°! Believe it or not, today, the temperature is back more to normal summer temperature. When its cool here its delightful, when its chilly, not so good! [When its hot, it is pretty hot & uncomfortable, you want to move along.

Lesley Parilla, Cataloging Coordinator
Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

More on the Photographic Adventures of Katherine Joseph

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) president David Dubinsky with cast members of the ILGWU revue "Pins and Needles." Left to right: Ruth Rubenstein, Rose Newmark, Lynn Jaffe, Millie Weitz, Ann Brown, and Nettie Harari at the White House, March 3, 1938. Photograph by Katherine Joseph, © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg. Katherine Joseph Papers, Archives Center, NMAH.
This is an update to the September blog by Richard Hertzberg and myself, “Every Minute Counts,” about documentary photographer Katherine Joseph. The biographical information in that blog, as well as in the Archives Center’s finding aid and catalog entry, was derived from Katherine Joseph’s daughter Suzanne Hertzberg's 2002 master’s thesis for the University of Southern California, “Photo by Katherine Joseph.”

Ms. Hertzberg then transformed her thesis into a book for publication--a handsome biography of this little-known, talented photographer, entitled Katherine Joseph: Photographing an Era of Social Significance (Bergamot Books, 2016). Illustrated with many of her mother’s photographs, it places Katherine Joseph’s career firmly in the tradition of 1930s-1940s documentary photography, as well as in the context of American women’s history. As such, it is far more than an affectionate memoir. Since Katherine Joseph told her children so little about her photographic career, Suzanne Hertzberg had few specific personal memories to relate, and had to pursue extensive research on her elusive subject.

The collection was donated to the Archives Center in 2007 by Suzanne and Richard Hertzberg.

David Haberstich,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History