By Finn J.D. John • Offbeat Oregon • 

Offbeat Oregon: Oregon’s real-life Indiana Jones

Image: UO Libraries##Luther Cressman (left) poses for a photograph with geologist Howard Stafford in front of Cressman’s Model A during fieldwork, most likely at the Catlow Valley cave site, in 1932.
Image: UO Libraries##Luther Cressman (left) poses for a photograph with geologist Howard Stafford in front of Cressman’s Model A during fieldwork, most likely at the Catlow Valley cave site, in 1932.
Image: UO Libraries##Luther Cressman inspects an Indian basket from a collection at the UO Museum of Natural History in 1937, when the museum was still located on the second floor of Condon Hall. The museum, which Cressman founded, has moved to its own building and has been renamed Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
Image: UO Libraries##Luther Cressman inspects an Indian basket from a collection at the UO Museum of Natural History in 1937, when the museum was still located on the second floor of Condon Hall. The museum, which Cressman founded, has moved to its own building and has been renamed Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
Image: UO Libraries##Luther Cressman in Condon Hall at the University of Oregon, with a friend, in 1946.
Image: UO Libraries##Luther Cressman in Condon Hall at the University of Oregon, with a friend, in 1946.

In the summer of 1981 a little action-adventure movie titled Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, and fans have been speculating ever since on who the character of Indiana Jones might be based on.

The most popular speculation — Vanity Fair magazine goes so far as to opine that he is “almost certainly” the basis for Jones — is Roy Chapman Andrews, a globe-trotting paleontologist and former director of the American Museum of Natural History.

Well, the fact is that Jones probably wasn’t based on any real person. Indy is the brainchild of George Lucas, the Star Wars guy. Lucas was a serious fan of pre-war pulp-magazine fiction, and the adventure pulps back in the day were full of characters like Indiana Jones.

But then again maybe he was based on a real person, because in the era Jones was set in, the real world was full of those characters too.

Besides Andrews, there were literally dozens of swashbuckling academics and sorta-academics adventuring around the world — digging for dinosaur bones, bushwacking through the Amazon looking for the “Lost City of Z,” or of course digging among ancient Egyptian tombs and pyramids. Names like Othniel Marsh, Howard Carter and Percy Fawcett spring to mind. Even mystery author Agatha Christie and her second husband, Max Mallowan, could be counted among this adventuresome cohort.

Oregon, too, has a couple candidates it could field as potential proto-Indiana Joneses. One of them was Gilbert Gable, a swashbuckling explorer and paleontologist with a rich wife and a regular nationwide NBC radio show called “Highway to Adventure.” Gable is better known from later in his life, after he settled down (sort of) as mayor of Port Orford and became the brains behind the “secession” of the State of Jefferson in 1941.

The other candidate is a far more likely prospect, though. He was a maverick anthropologist with an unimpeachable Ivy League background, a tenured faculty member at Oregon’s flagship university, a former military man who did his fieldwork in an Army-surplus campaign hat with a big revolver on his hip in case he ran across a snake. He hated snakes.

As far as I know, he never used a whip. But other than that, the parallels with Indiana Jones are quite striking.

There’s even an echo of Indy’s love life in our man. In lieu of Marian Ravenwood, our candidate’s love interest was a diminutive classmate four years younger than he — a woman you just might have heard of. Her name was Margaret Mead.

As was the case with Indy and Marian, our hero started dating her when she was still a child — a 15-year-old high-school student. As was clearly implied to have not been the case with Indy, though, their relationship stayed respectably Platonic until six years later, when they married.

Our man’s name was Luther Cressman, founder of the University of Oregon Department of Anthropology and first director of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Luther Cressman was born in 1897 in Pennsylvania, and grew up on the East Coast.

In 1914 he enrolled at Pennsylvania State College, where he studied classics and English literature and met Margaret Mead, who at the time was a sophomore at one of the local high schools. Upon graduation in 1918, he headed into the recruiting office to “do his bit,” and went into training as an artillery officer; but the war ended abruptly before he could be deployed, and he was released.

But the brief military experience threw Cressman into a bit of a moral crisis. He had been spared from the requirement to go to France and try to kill people; but it bothered him that he’d been on his way to do that, and as the war fever faded in America Cressman got more and more determined to do his part to help society transcend war.

“The sensitive among us could not help but find the conflict between the utter brutality of the behavior for which we were being trained, and the moral values on which our lives were based,” he later wrote. “The haunting question of ‘why did I have to kill?’ would not go away.”

He took orders as an Episcopal minister in 1923. But at the same time, he continued his education at Columbia University. By this time, Mead had her undergraduate degree as well, and the two of them became grad-school classmates at Columbia. They were married that same year.

The two of them became a sort of golden couple in the intellectual circles at Columbia. Their apartment became a social hub for free-thinking Bright Young Things at the university. They studied under Franz Boaz, who was already known as the Grand Old Man of American anthropology.

But in 1925, they separated to pursue their studies abroad — Mead in Samoa, and Cressman in Europe. Neither one of them was willing to subordinate his or her career to the other and become a “trailing spouse.” So they decided to end their marriage (although they remained lifelong friends) and go their separate ways.

Cressman’s career took him to the West Coast, where he started at the Washington teachers’ college in Ellensburg (known today as Central Washington University). A year or so later, he moved south to take a job at the University of Oregon. By this time he was married once again, to Fabian Society member Dorothy C. Loch, a brilliant English woman nine years his senior whom he met at the British Sociological Society while doing research in Europe.

At the UO, Cressman started as a sociology professor. But when, in 1930, a farmer in Gold Hill uncovered some Indian burial mounds, Cressman was invited to come take a look; and when he arrived, the archaeology bug bit him hard.

Cressman’s work collecting and documenting the artifacts and human remains from the Gold Hill site sent him off in a new professional direction.

He took on the project of documenting and preserving pictographs and petroglyphs all over the state. Over the first three years of the 1930s, Cressman roamed across the state in his Model A Ford, visiting every piece of rock art he could learn about. He would contact local postmasters to ask about rock art in their delivery areas, and then he and a graduate student or faculty colleague (often his friend Howard Stafford from the Geology department) would make lengthy trips into the Oregon outback, camping in abandoned homesteaders’ shacks and photographing and documenting everything they could find, meeting the locals and learning the stories and legends of the rock art from the remaining Indian communities out there.

In the course of doing this, Cressman gleaned an understanding of the cultures of “ancient Oregonians” — an understanding that formed into a theory that put him at odds with the conventional wisdom of nearly every other scientist at the time. Essentially, every archaeologist but Cressman was convinced that the Clovis People, an ancient culture named after a New Mexico town where their artifacts had been first discovered, had been the first humans to ever live in North America.

This “Clovis First” theory held that until a hundred centuries ago or so, there had been a “land bridge” connecting Siberia with Alaska, and that the Clovis people had crossed over it into Alaska some 13,000 years ago, arriving in an empty virgin continent. According to the theory, their slow spread through North America had only reached what is now Oregon just two or three thousand years ago.

Cressman didn’t buy it. No way, Cressman said, were the artifacts he was finding out there young enough to be Clovis stuff. And he was not shy about sharing that theory, which made him something of a pariah in archaeology circles.

The interesting thing about Cressman was that, in an age in which scientists tended to stay in their lanes — paleontologists sticking to looking for bones, geologists sticking to rocks, anthropologists studying native cultures, biologists studying pollen and tree ring evidence, all mostly in isolation from one another — Cressman made a point of reaching out across intellectual silos and making connections with people studying other things. In this way, he was able to put together pieces of evidence that less eclectic archaeologists would never see.

Nowhere did this approach serve him better than with the legends and artistic traditions he learned about from his Indian friends, and the insights from geologists like Stafford that helped him estimate rough dates for his finds.

And, this is kind of the point at which the comparison with Indiana Jones breaks down. Grabbing a golden idol off of its pedestal where it has sat for thousands of years and hustling it off to a display case in a sterile room in the Mother Country without so much as a photograph taken — Cressman would have considered that an act of cultural vandalism. Stripped of its context, an idol — or a flint arrowhead, or a pair of sage-bark sandals — loses its ability to tell its story: how it was used, who made it and when, what the environment was like when it was made, what its artistic style reveals about the movement of ancient peoples across the land.

Basically, Luther Cressman was doing 21st-century archaeology in the late 1930s. And the academic (and sometimes pseudoacademic) artifact hunters of the day didn’t all appreciate the insights he was gleaning from that “meta-data” that he was being so careful to preserve.

The great breakthrough in Cressman’s fieldwork came as a direct result of his having familiarized himself with Indian basketmaking art and other distinctive Native artistic traditions. He was able to recognize the pedigree of bits of basketry that he saw sticking out of the ground in places like the Catlow Valley. Looking for more, he found himself exploring the caves that had been carved in the rimrock around places in Lake County that had once been on the shores of a great inland sea.

In one of those caves, he made the first of several discoveries of the sagebrush sandals that would make his reputation.

He found, in excavations, that he could roughly date his finds by recording whether they were buried above or below the layer of ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama, the ancient supervolcano that exploded and created Crater Lake. At the time, nobody knew exactly how old Crater Lake was; but, there would come a time when researchers would learn it was more than 7,500 years ago — proving Cressman had been right to be skeptical of the Clovis-first theory.

Below that layer of ash, in an overhang known as Cow Cave — now called Fort Rock Cave — he found sandals as well as the butchered bones of Pleistocene animals that were known to have died out more than 10,000 years ago.

Ever the consciensious fieldworker, Cressman treated every square millimeter of the sandals he found with a preservative solution. A few years later, he was doubtless vigorously kicking himself after the technology of radiocarbon dating was developed. None of the sandals he had pickled in preservative could be dated.

Luckily, an amateur artifact collector had dug some sandals out while Cressman wasn’t looking. Cressman was able to get hold of them, and sent them to be radiocarbon dated.

They proved him right. They dated back over 10,000 years.

The scientific community did not give up its “Clovis first” theory easily, but over the years they have by and large been forced to concede that Cressman was right and they were wrong.

That was especially true after the early 2000s, when UO researcher Dennis Jenkins recovered some coprolites — dried or fossilized human feces — that dated to 14,500 years ago.

There were some voices in the scientific community that clung to the Clovis theory for a few years after that, claiming the results of Jenkins’ coprolites must have been an error introduced by careless researchers. But such protestations had the distinct whiff of desperation to them. After all, where were these allegedly careless researchers going to be able to find 14,500-year-old DNA samples to contaminate the dig with?

The result is that a new scientific consensus has developed, and anyone who still thinks Cressman was wrong has been left behind, yelling at clouds.

You can actually see some of the sandals on display at the Klamath County Museum in Klamath Falls, by the way. Most of them are on display at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, though.

For fans of Oregon and its cultures and history, Luther Cressman isn’t just an Indiana Jones character. As an archaeologist, he’s better than Indiana Jones in pretty much every way. But then, he’d probably do a worse job outrunning boulders, crawling through tombs full of snakes, and punching Nazis — so it’s all good.

There is just one kind of unsatisfying aspect of Cressman’s story, though. Although Margaret Mead was one of the most important anthropologists in the history of anthropology, if not the most important, it does seem a little unfair that the most common takeaway from the story of her ex-husband’s life and career is still the relatively insignificant fact that he was once married to her.

But then, that’s a familiar story, isn’t it? From Ada Lovelace to Zelda Fitzgerald, from Alma Mahler to Marcia Lucas (and let’s not forget Dorothy Loch!), history is full of great women who are remembered more for who they were married to than what they accomplished. And, of course, what’s sauce for the goose is always sauce for the gander!

(Sources: “Luther Cressman: Quest for First People,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced by Kami Horton and first aired in 2014; “Luther Cressman,” an article by Virginia Butler published by The Oregon Encyclopedia on Sept. 15, 2022; Dorothy C. Cressman papers at UO Archives)

Finn J.D. John’s most recent book, “Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon,” was published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: or 541-357-2222.


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