Banks Edgar James | Harvard Review


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Wearing Arab robes, grabbing a gun, the archaeologist glares at the printed page. It may be TE Lawrence, but he is a very different man – not a warrior but a shrewd entrepreneur: Edgar J. Banks, AB 1893, AM ’94.

Opinions about him differ. While one researcher finds that Banks’ work “occupies an important place in the history of field archeology in the Near East”, another calls him a “huckster” and “con artist.” Both could agree that he made his mark as a merchandise seller and that perhaps his main product was himself.

Banks had been well trained in archeology. Beyond his studies at Harvard, he had a doctorate in Assyriology from the University of Breslau. Despite this background, he had only one excavation to his credit, from 1903 to 1905 in what is today Iraq, a work described in his book Bismya; Where The lost city of Adab. Written in an engaging manner, it is as much a tale of exotic travels and adventures as it is archeology. According to its preface, it was intended to appeal “not to the scholar alone, but to the reader who is interested in days and things gone by, and it is above all for him that it was written”.

Its discovery (and its fall) star, the Sumerian statue Lugal-dalu
Electronic Open of the University of Chicago Library

The book begins with the Byzantine intricacies of obtaining a permit to dig from the Ottoman authorities, a three-year process Banks had planned to take two weeks. He describes how only 5% of applications are ever seen “except in the form of smoke through the chimney”. His luck only changed when “an American official in Turkey was kind enough to be shot,” putting pressure on the government in Istanbul. And the permit was only the beginning of the difficulties. The trip to the Bismya site brought threats of desert thieves, cholera, and revolution. Eventually, its excavations yielded a Sumerian city of the third millennium BC. Among the thousands of artifacts he found, the star was a piece that Banks advertised as “the oldest statue in the world.” He transliterates the character’s name, inscribed on his shoulder, to “Da-udu” (the equivalent of “David”), although later scholars have named him, less dramatically, Lugal-dalu. The statue was ultimately his downfall when Banks was accused of attempting to send it, along with other antiques, packaged in a crate marked “honey and manna,” to his sponsor, the University of Chicago. It was not licensed under his permit, and the statue can be found today in an Istanbul museum.

While the dig ended badly for Banks, that alone doesn’t seem to explain the direction his career has taken. We rather have the impression that he was basically more a popularizer than a scholar. He instead became active on the lecture circuit, where a pamphlet describes him as “an archaeologist with a happy ease in popularizing his subjects.” He wrote books for the general public such as The Bible and the spade and The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In articles he portrays himself as a man of daring feats such as the ascent of Mount Ararat – which, he writes, “despite the belief that the gods forbid it, has been the goal of many travelers; few have succeeded. Yet he has also ensured that his academic credentials are never overlooked, claiming in biographical sketches that he has written “several hundred” articles and lectured at “over 200 major colleges and universities.” An anonymous article (the authorship of which dates back to Banks himself) described him, more than a decade after his sole excavation, as “the eminent explorer and archaeologist”.


Banks, still the popularizer, working as “research director” for Sacred Films Inc., 1922
Photograph of The photodramatist, March 1922

In the 1920s there was a foray into biblical films, detailed in articles he wrote such as “‘How Sarah Dressed Her Hair’: Precision of Details Now Demanded by the Public brings scientists to help producers “. The accompanying photograph of Banks bore the hyperbolic caption: “When the University of Chicago needed a leader for its Babylonian expedition, it chose the author of this article, who is one of the greatest. archaeologists of the world. He now uses his extensive technical knowledge as a research director for Sacred Films, Inc. ”

If Banks had a lasting impact, it was through another of his occupations: the trade in antiques, in particular cuneiform tablets (up to 11,000) which went to many collectors and museums. The sales were skillfully made. The letters he sent (at least some unsolicited) began by providing his good faith and stating that he was not just “a dealer in Babylonian antiques”. This done, he adapted his approach to his audience. He tempted a private collector by asking him if he “would like to obtain some authentic Babylonian tablets for your library or your cupboard”. To a librarian, however, he gifted a piece that “should only be in a museum or school, where it can be seen and enjoyed by many” – while also creating a sense of urgency because “a wealthy Chicago man wish to buy it, but I don’t want it, if it could be avoided, to pass into the hands of a private collector. When asked for photographs, he sent the objects themselves instead ; we imagine thinking that it would be more difficult for a client to give up a treasure once it really is in hand.

Many tablets were merely records of routine transactions, but one, now known as Plimpton 322 and housed in Columbia, has been characterized by a science historian as “one of the world’s most famous ancient mathematical artifacts. “. Its exact nature and purpose are still debated, but it may be the oldest known trigonometric table. The banks, unaware of its importance, had sold it to a collector for $ 10.

He did pretty well, however. Its ending was far more peaceful and less exciting than you might expect from someone who built their reputation on fearless deeds. He died in Florida, owning a mansion filled with antiques and 350 acres of orange groves.

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