Gregory L. Possehl; spent years digging up history

Gregory L. Possehl explored many archaeological sites.
Gregory L. Possehl explored many archaeological sites.
Posted: October 23, 2011

Gregory L. Possehl spent parts of his academic life on archaeological digs in South Asia, but he also paid attention to the West Philadelphia neighborhood of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"One of the roles the University Museum plays is as a doorway for our neighbors to see what goes on at the University of Pennsylvania," Dr. Possehl explained in a 1985 Inquirer interview.

Speaking of a Penn exhibit on the history of Buddhism meant in part to attract nonacademics, he noted: "This is an educational display that will be pretty, too, by the way. We don't mind being beautiful as long as we have our message."

Dr. Possehl, 70, associate director of the University Museum from 1981 to 1992 and chairman of Penn's department of anthropology from 1994 to 2001, died of respiratory failure Saturday, Oct. 8, at Boston Medical Center.

"Dr. Possehl was a leading expert on the rise of the Indus civilization in India and Pakistan," Penn biographical notes state.

That ancient Indus society, researched at more than 2,000 archaeological sites along the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers, existed from 4300 to 1500 B.C.

To help authenticate his studies, Dr. Possehl wrote on his website, he spent nine seasons on excavations of ancient sites in the Indian state of Gujarat.

AltaMira Press published his book, The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective.

A 2004 Penn announcement reported that the work had been named Outstanding Academic Book for 2003 by Choice magazine, which Penn described as "the key publication for academic librarians across the nation selecting books for collections."

He had published papers in several scholarly journals.

Dr. Possehl went far afield to share his enthusiasms with nonacademic audiences.

He was one of three lecturers on a 1981 trip to India sponsored by the Women's Committee of the Penn Museum and the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In a 1981 Inquirer Sunday magazine story reporting on the trip, Dr. Possehl told the reporter accompanying the lecturers that a certain ficus tree is considered sacred by Hindus because of its size.

"Greg, who himself is quite large at 6-3, is also regarded as special because of his size," the reporter wrote. "When he strides through a village, people touch him for luck."

Born in Tacoma, Wash., he earned a bachelor's degree in 1964 and a master's in 1967, both at the University of Washington, and a doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1974, all in anthropology.

Dr. Possehl joined the South Asian regional studies department at Penn in 1973, moved to the anthropology department in 1993, and retired in 2007, though he continued to teach.

The Penn biographical notes state that "Dr. Possehl and his collaborator Dr. Vasant Shinde of Deccan College conducted four seasons of excavations at Gilund in Rajasthan," the Indian state, "beginning in 1999."

"In the 2002-2003 field season, he discovered a bin filled with more than 100 seal impressions" dating to 2100-1700 B.C.

"The existence of these seals, and their particular styles, offer surprising new evidence for the apparent complexity of this non-literate, late and post-Indus culture."

In 2004, the Indian Archaeological Society named him an honorary fellow.

In 2007, Dr. Possehl began "new excavations at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bat," in the Persian Gulf nation of Oman, the Penn notes state.

"The site consists of the largest and best-preserved Bronze Age cemetery in the region."

In 2001-02, he was an Overseas Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge in England.

A Penn website states that he was a member and often a chair of the university's Committee on Manufacturer Responsibility.

Dr. Possehl is survived by a son, Michael; a daughter, Christine White; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren. He is also survived by former wife Ann Taylor and companion Susan West. Penn is planning a memorial service.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or


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