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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Wisconsin's Indiana Jones?

Our publication this week of Aztalan: Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town (the first monograph on Aztalan since 1933), and the recent discovery of important prehistoric remains by 7-year-old Joshua Bradford near Sauk City, seem to demand an archaeolgical Odd Wisconsin. Luckily, today is the birthday of Wisconsin's most famous archaeologist, Roy Chapman Andrews.

Raised in Beloit, Andrews once said, "I was born to be an explorer" and, like so many other famous sons and daughters of our state, he left the Badger State at the earliest possible moment. Using money saved from his job as a taxidermist, he landed in New York in 1906 and was taken on by the American Museum of Natural History. Over the next 30 years his scientific expeditions carried him from New York to Indonesia, China, and Central Asia, usually with a cowboy hat and a revolver. The press portrayed him as a swashbuckling scientist who conquered the Gobi Desert and Mongolia to discover dinosaurs and recover relics. He did, in fact, survive life-threatening encounters with armed bandits, venomous pythons, angry whales, and hungry sharks, and was erroneously reported dead at least once as he roamed the world in the name of science.

Andrews is widely believed to have been a model for the movie legend Indiana Jones (made famous by Harrison Ford) although, according to the Virtual Exploration Society, producer George Lucas never specifically cited Andrews as the inspiration for that character. "However," their biography continues, "in 1977 he did tell Steven Spielberg when they first discussed the concept for the movie trilogy that he had been inspired by movie serials he had seen in the 1940's and the 1950's. It is likely that the writers for those films, in turn, had been inspired by the real-life adventures of explorers like Andrews from a generation before. Although Andrews was the most high profile of these explorers it is possible that other figures, like Percy Fawcett and W. Douglas Burden also contributed to the archetype of the dashing adventurer/scientist that appeared in those Saturday afternoon B flicks that Lucas enjoyed as a kid."

From 1934 to 1942 Andrews served as the museum's director, but after a life of adventure he probably didn't much enjoy being institutionalized. In 1942 he moved to California to spend the rest of his life writing about his experiences. He described his many expeditions in several books including "Meet Your Ancestors" (1945), "In the Days of the Dinosaur" (1959), and the autobiographical works "Under a Lucky Star" (1943) and "An Explorer Comes Home" (1947). His popular books for lay audiences helped spawn a fascination for dinosaurs among children that show no signs of waning 50 years later. Andrews died in Carmel, California, on March 11, 1960.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on January 26, 2006
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