James Henry Breasted, Rockford’s Own Indiana Jones

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Image via http://www.goodreads.com

James Henry Breasted was an American archeologist, Egyptologist, and historian who was born in Rockford in August of 1865. Breasted lived in Rockford until 1873 when he and his family moved to Downers Grove, IL. While he never moved back to Rockford, he was buried here in Greenwood cemetery, not far from our very own Tinker family!


Breasted was the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Egyptology from Yale in 1894 and was appointed by the University of Chicago’s President William Rainey Harper to fill the first teaching position in Egyptian studies in the United States, at the University of Chicago. Breasted received support and encouragement from John D. Rockefeller Jr. who, in 1919, funded The Oriental Institute as a laboratory for the study of the rise and development of ancient civilization at The University of Chicago.

Breasted was a renowned author with multiple works on early civilizations in the ancient near east. His interests included morality and religion in ancient times and translating hieroglyphics into the English language. Breasted’s training in Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic at Yale allowed him to work with local diplomats and make the arrangements needed to conduct his research. Breasted tapped into people’s innate interest in Egyptian studies and culture to fundraise and in turn make his trips to Egypt and Mesopotamia possible. He was fortunate enough to go on many excursions and even conducted an epigraphic survey of Egyptian tombs and temples along the banks of the Nile.

While there is no evidence Robert Tinker and James Breasted ever crossed paths, we do know that they were both amazingly talented men who not only did great work on a local level but on an international level as well.

Similar to Robert Tinker, Breasted’s honeymoon was not quite how we picture them today. While Robert’s honeymoon was more of a family vacation to Hawaii, with his bride, her sister, and his mother, Breasted’s was more like a business trip. Fortunately, it was paid for by the University of Chicago. The university sent Breasted and his wife to Egypt with 500 dollars to purchase antiquities they could bring back to the Oriental Institute.

Although he was not classically trained, Robert was certainly a historian who always found and cherished interesting things from distant lands. Roberts’ focus tended to be on European artifacts and architecture; Breasted focused on the middle East, even coining the phrase “The Fertile Crescent”. That being said, we do know Robert visited Egypt in 1862 and thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the Bay of Alexandria, as can be seen in the mural of said bay that Robert had painted out of his sketchbook onto his kitchen wall.

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So Here’s Where Indiana Jones Comes In

The fictional character of Indiana Jones attended the University of Chicago and studied under Professor Ravenwood. Abner Ravenwood is an unseen character, but we are told he was Indiana’s mentor at the University of Chicago. In fact, on December 12, 2012, the University of Chicago Admissions Office received a mysterious package addressed to “Henry Walton Jones, Jr.” Yet they could find no faculty or staff by that name. A student worker then realized that the package was meant for Dr. “Indiana” Jones, the famous fictional archaeologist. Inside the package was the journal of Abner Ravenwood, the fictional University of Chicago professor who trained Indiana Jones.

Interestingly enough a Robert Braidwood was James Henry Breasted’s colleague and mentor at the University of Chicago. Both James Henry Breasted and Henry Walton Jones Jr. (aka Indiana jones, after the family dog) were professors of archeology and thoroughly enjoyed field work just as much, if not more than teaching. These men also seemed to embody the idea of a virtuous treasure hunter, always searching for the next great discovery to gain knowledge and a better understanding of it, often bringing their discoveries to museums.

Although directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have never credited their idea for Jones to Breasted, the similarities are certainly present and enough to make any Rockfordian proud.


¤ Stephanie


Charles Breasted. Pioneer to the Past: The Story of James Henry Breasted, Archaeologist. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Chicago, 1943, p.12.

Emily Teeter. Pioneer to the Past: James Henry Breasted and the Birth of American Egyptology. Lecture: 2014.


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