Reeling in the Years

Preserving Luther Cressman’s historic fieldwork films

By Kristin Strommer
Director of Communications and Marketing
Museum of Natural and Cultural History 

Late last year, the National Film Preservation Foundation generously awarded the museum $18,000 to support the preservation of archaeological fieldwork films housed in our collections vaults. The films, which span the 1930s through the 1950s, document Oregon field investigations undertaken by Luther Cressman, the pioneering archaeologist whose work profoundly changed scholars’ understandings about the peopling of North America.

The project, now underway in our Anthropological Collections division, involves the restoration and digitization of 21 original reels, none of which have been viewed since the 1980s. It’s the third and final phase of a larger effort—all supported by the NFPF—to preserve our entire collection of Cressman’s field films.

Cressman archaeological fieldwork footage from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (left to right)

Cressman’s archived fieldwork footage from (left to right) the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s

The footage from the 1930s likely centers on sites in Oregon’s Great Basin—possibly including Fort Rock Cave, where Cressman and his crew famously recovered 10,000-year-old sagebrush bark sandals—while the 1940s and 1950s footage may be associated with his work on the Klamath Indian Reservation. The later field trips also included stops at Wickiup Reservoir and Odell Lake in the Cascades, where Cressman uncovered archaeological materials that predate the eruption of Mount Mazama around 7,700 years ago.

Preserving the films means that generations of scholars will have access to the information they contain—from clues about Cressman’s methods to glimpses of life at the field camps during the early years of Oregon archaeology. We’re extremely pleased to be able to steward these records, and we thank the NFPF for their continued support.

Header image: Maryann Frary (then Doyle) excavating at Cressman’s 1948 field school.


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