From digs to lecture halls

David Orr, a lifetime archaeologist, makes a home for himself as a professor.

Anthropology professor David Orr’s office in Gladfelter Hall may as well be an archaeological site, with shelf-lined walls overflowing with historical books and files filled with documents and photographs.

It is an office that the professor and lifetime archaeologist knows well, as he is able to pull books from their place in the array of literature within moments of bringing up any specific collaborator or mentor of his. Some work of Wilhelmina Jashemski, a highly acclaimed Pompeian archaeologist who Orr studied under, is settled reverently on a top shelf.

Since an agreement between the National Park Service and Temple in 2003, Orr has been teaching a variety of classes that are equally diverse in nature as his personal experience with architecture.

About 50 years ago, Orr said, he was working with prehistoric archaeology during his undergraduate years. After working in the prehistoric department, he went on to study classical archaeology at the University of Maryland, with a focus on the famed ancient Italian city of Pompeii, known for its demise in a volcanic explosion. There, he completed a dissertation on what he called “Roman household worship.”

Though Pompeii holds great emotional significance, as Orr described, he had many more interests to dig into. After returning to the United States in 1973, he discovered a passion for the American archaeological field.

Orr recalled that a number of his colleagues in the classical archaeology department went on to pursue careers in the American field. The interest was always there, he said.

“I was exposed in the [1960s],” Orr said. “Even though I was studying classical archaeology and going over to Italy, I was exposed to the American field.”

Despite being recognized for his work in classical archaeology during his residency in Italy with the prestigious Prix de Rome award, he said he has never taught classic archaeology full-time.

Dr. John Cotter, a renowned American archaeologist known for his work developing historical archaeology in the United States, was Orr’s colleague and mentor who recommended Orr take his position at the mid-Atlantic region of the National Park Service headquartered in Philadelphia.

“We had shared an office,” Orr said, referring to the time both he and Cotter taught at the University of Pennsylvania. “He encouraged me to take his job and I did.”

In doing so, Orr became chief archaeologist of the region with the National Park Service.

Orr maintained that position from 1977 to 2006, and became established at Temple due to an agreement between the park service and the university. In exchange for an office, Orr began teaching part time at the university in 2003, before retiring from the National Park Service and becoming full-time at Temple in 2006.

“Right from the start, the idea was that I would mentor graduate students who are interested in historical archaeology,” Orr said.

At any given time, he teaches Battlefield and Conflict Archaeology, which he introduced to the department, as well as Urban Historical Archaeology, Heritage Management and a gen-ed course.

Heritage management, he said, is important to know for those entering the field, as it covers the laws and procedures archaeologists must abide by during excavation. Sometimes, such as this coming fall, Orr teaches a course on Pompeii – a valuable artifact in its own right due to his personal experience.

“I guess immodestly, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Orr said. “I would like to think that based on all the exposures to all these different archaeologies, I bring that to the table.”

Orr connects with Ph.D. students working on dissertations and has been personally responsible for arranging their involvement with digs.

One such student, Christopher Barton, is currently undertaking an excavation in Mount Holly, N.J., of a historical community called Timbuktu, created in the 1830s by escaped slaves and freed African-Americans. Barton said he is practicing a strategy of involving the community, a value he learned from Orr.

“All my students believe in public presentation,” Orr said. “Barton actually involved the descendant community [at Timbuktu]. The people descended from the ex-slaves who built this town. There’s empowerment, it’s their site in a way.”

Orr said he is a firm believer in making excavation an interactive process, involving and teaching the community whenever possible. Barton, who has been working with Orr since 2009 at the recommendation of a University of Pennsylvania adviser, said the most important thing Orr instilled in him is “pragmatism and patience.”

“Working with the Timbuktu community, the idea is you get all these competing interpretations about a site,” Barton said. “People kind of view that as a detriment to archaeology. Something that [Orr] taught me is to take what people think is a detriment, and make it an advantage.”

Orr, who called involving and working with students at digs “the whole point” of his teaching position, also said interpretation is of the utmost importance to him. He is the recipient of the Lifetime Preservation Award and the Crystal Owl for his interpretation work.

Perhaps the most difficult task of this nature, interpreting one’s own existence, is a process Orr said he has almost completed. His memoir, “Some Things of Value: A Child Confronts His Material World,” addresses his youth through object interpretation.

“I lived in a government project,” Orr said, describing the setting of his memoir in Warren, Ohio. “One of the first ones built in the United States. [The memoir] will tell the story of things that may or may not be relevant to me but are relevant to what the objects are. It’s experimental. I think it’s going to be interesting.”

He said he expects the memoir will be published very soon, possibly within a month or so.

Orr may have decades of experience behind him, but he has no plans to scale back his involvement in archaeology or at Temple, to the relief of his students, including Barton, who said he is inspired by Orr’s continuous commitment.

“He’s got more energy than me, and I’m 30 [years old],” Barton said. “History never sleeps.”

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at

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