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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.

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