BOZEMAN — Nancy Mahoney was looking for an archeology collection that her Montana State University students could use to research real artifacts and get experience working in a museum.
When Pat Roath, collections manager at the Museum of the Rockies, introduced her to the Joseph L. Cramer and Oscar T. Lewis Collection housed in the museum at the edge of the MSU campus, Mahoney was intrigued.
The collection, originally owned by Oscar Lewis, includes 200 to 300 artifacts found at the Pictograph Cave complex near Billings, the Hagen site near Glendive and other places in Eastern Montana.
“It was love at first sight, this history of the beginning of archeology in Montana,” Mahoney said.
The collection is remarkable not only for what it contains but also because it shows the development of professional archeology in the state.
Oscar Lewis, a passionate self-taught archeologist, was the foreman of the Works Progress Administration excavation at Pictograph Cave in the 1930s and 1940s.
Before his death in 1963, Lewis gave his collection to his friend, Joseph Cramer, a geologist who loved archeology, particularly that of the earliest Americans.
Cramer, now retired and living in Denver, documented Lewis’ work in a ledger with photos, meticulous reproductions of Lewis’ drawings of pictograph paintings and information copied from Lewis’ notes.
The ledger also is part of the Museum of the Rockies collection.
The Cramer-Lewis Collection represents only a fraction of what was found during the WPA project from 1937-1941. Most — about 30,000 artifacts — are at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Lewis was a remarkable man by anyone’s measure. He was born in 1887 in Wisconsin. After his family came by covered wagon to North Dakota, he lived near the Sioux, which sparked a life-long interest in American Indians.
When he was 18, Lewis moved to Montana. Although he had credentials to be a teacher, he turned his back on the classroom to hunt wolves for the bounty because it paid better and “suited his nature,” Mahoney said.
He married Clara Kinsey in 1918.
Lewis homesteaded in Eastern Montana before he was starved out by the drought of the 1930s, said Joseph Cramer in a recent telephone interview.
Lewis’ fascination with American Indians led to a keen interest in arrowheads and other artifacts he came across on the Eastern Montana prairie.
He also read about archeology, becoming knowledgeable enough to be hired as foreman of WPA archeology projects, including those near Glendive and at Pictograph Cave State Park.
“He had the breadth of knowledge about Montana prehistoric remains that would have been hard to match by anyone in his day,” Mahoney said.
Lewis had a knack for finding deposits of artifacts because he knew so much about American Indians.
“He thought like an Indian,” Cramer said. “He was able understand why they camped where they did, which was where to find artifacts.”
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Lewis was the thread of continuity between H. Melville Sayre, a geologist who started the WPA Pictograph Cave excavations, and William Mulloy, the young archeologist who took over the project.
Lewis helped and guided Mulloy, who later would credit Lewis with keeping the excavation’s records and artifacts in order as the leadership of the project changed, Mahoney said.
Lewis also was a bridge from a time when archeology as an amateur pursuit to when it became a profession in the state, Mahoney said.
In every spare moment, Lewis would look for artifacts, even when he was working for the WPA.
Lewis has drawn criticism because he kept some artifacts, which was not illegal at the time, but is today.
But he wasn’t the only one with a personal cache of arrowheads.
Things could be pretty “fast and loose” at WPA excavations, said Sara Scott, heritage resources program specialist with Montana State Parks, which administers Pictograph Cave Park.
The excavations became wildly popular with as many as 10,000 visitors showing in up in one year, Scott said.
Arrowheads found at the caves seemed in such an abundant supply that visitors often were given one as a souvenir.
Cramer was a geologist working for Standard Oil of Indiana in Billings when he met Lewis.
Lewis lived northeast of Billings on a small farm and never had much money, Cramer remembers.
Lewis died in 1963, after a car accident when he was driving between his home and Huntley, Cramer said.
Before his death, Lewis had given Cramer his collection of artifacts, with the understanding that Cramer would find a reputable institution for them.
That’s why Cramer donated the collection to the Museum of the Rockies in 1991.
Cramer continues his interest in archeology.
He and his wife endowed programs at seven universities that have projects across the West to research the earliest Americans.
Cramer also funded professional archeological work at MSU and the Museum of the Rockies, Mahoney said.
Mahoney has been teaching in the MSU Anthropology Department since 2007. Her doctoral research was on the Anasazi peoples in the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.