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Book Review: The Millionaire and the Mummies

December 11, 2015

John M. Adams. The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis’s Gilded Age in the Valley of the Kings.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Cover

This fascinating biography of Theodore Davis, arguably the best-known patron and Egyptologist of the early 20th century (until—as Adams argues—Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb), is a mix of biography, American economic history, and the history of archaeology.  Its chapters are organized around 6 objects Davis and his team found in the Valley of the Kings during his almost 13 years there, discovering and clearing 18 tombs, and clearing out 4 more previously-known tombs.

Davis

Theodore Davis. Image from NewportRI.com

While the focus of the book is, clearly, Davis’s time in Egypt paying for and many times supervising excavation work, stories of his early life and career in the US are interwoven throughout the adventures in the desert.  Davis was, seemingly, the ideal American success story.  He had the kind of success that was only possible during the days before professionalization of the legal system, of engineering, and most definitely before banking regulations and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  Davis had ambition and drive, and was self-taught in everything he ventured.  He started work as a surveyor in the frozen Michigan forests in the 1850s, and thanks to some family connections he quickly moved his way into frontier law in Iowa.  He finally made his way to New York City in 1865, becoming “an effective and discreet, if not overly scrupulous, attorney” for the likes of Boss Tweed, the Ocean Bank, and some of the other Tammany Hall conspirators  (94).  Basically, he worked for a bunch of crooks.  He was one of the main “Robber Barons” of this period, making his money in dubious transactions based on questionable stocks and possibly non-existent lands and resources (here‘s a good article on Robber Barons, if you’re interested).  After 5 years in New York, he had made the equivalent of about $3 million and the money was going to keep rolling in thanks to profits off of a canal, more land, and mines in Michigan.  True to his Robber Baron status, Davis was determined to give much of his money to the arts as well as to his family.  In the end, his ungrateful and bratty nephew Terry* tried to steal all of his money before he died, then kept it all in probate for years after Davis’ death.  In any event, the main beneficiary of his money was Egyptian archaeology.

Davis is well-known by historians of Egyptology and appreciated for his work in the Valley of the Kings.  He systematically dug the valley and in so doing found 18 tombs, stopping at what is now KV 61, just short of finding King Tut’s tomb, KV 62.  Adams goes on to outline the 13 seasons Davis spent in Egypt paying the likes of Howard Carter, Percy Newberry, Arthur Weigall and others to do the digging for him.  Davis was different from some other wealthy amateurs in that he had the blessings of Gaston Maspero and refused most of the items he was offered at the end of the season.  In the end, he amassed a substantial collection (much of which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art today) but he could have taken much more, according to the terms of his agreement.  Davis further published his excavations, where most other wealthy amateurs, such as Charles Wilbour —another Robber Baron who may have been running from legal troubles himself—did not.

Adams did an amazing job of piecing together Davis’s seemingly separate lives as a wealthy New York lawyer and businessman and then as an Egyptologist.  I enjoyed the details of the digs, from the dirt, dust, heat, and disappointment intermingled with some successes and the luxury life Davis lived in Egypt and the US.  One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Adams’ rich detailing of the Ocean Bank scandal in the 1860s in which Davis made a lot of money as the receiver for the bank after it went under.  He was able to get money from the bank’s shareholders in order to repay its depositors (again, before the FDIC), while taking quite a bit for himself off the top (133-136; 140-142; 150-153; 174-178; 215-219).  This led to the first of 3 congressional hearings about Davis’ illegal business maneuvers, but he always seemed to escape jail time.  In his business dealings, Davis is set up as an opportunist who seems to be amassing wealth so that he will never again go shoeless, hungry, and frozen in the wilderness (see: early work in Michigan).  Adams never excuses Davis’ work in this way explicitly, but in highlighting his charitable giving—both to Egyptology and to his family—it seems that Adams glosses over many sins, much as the Robber Barons had hoped people would do.

Theodore-M-Davis and crew

Davis, second from right, in front of the tomb of Rameses IV, Jan 1907. Others in the picture, from left: Hortense Weigall, Arthur Weigall and Edward Ayrton. From ancient-egypt.co.uk. Can also be found in Adams’ book, p. 145

As an Egyptian Archaeologist, Davis was much as he was in business: detailed, driven, and enthusiastic.  He expected the same from his crew and usually got it, given that he had his pick of the best in Egypt.  Adams detailed life on the Bedouin, the dahabiya or houseboat Davis owned and traveled on with his companion, possibly mistress, Emma Andrews** and any number of friends and family on whom Davis endlessly doted.  Adams presented Davis as the first scientific/systematic excavator in Egypt, and that may be true for some of the work in the Valley of the Kings, but not for Egypt itself.  Flinders Petrie began digging in Egypt in the 1880s and used what is recognized as the first scientific digging system in which he cleared whole layers before moving on to the next.

DH-B-TH-DAVIS-000067

The Beduin, from the T3wy project (t3wy.nl). Also in Adams’ book, p. 9

I had a hard time putting the book down for a few reasons.  First, it is an engaging book and I simply wanted to keep reading.  Adams clearly fully researched all the archives he could find and uses his sources to weave a rich narrative.  It is written more like an adventure novel than anything.  However, I also found it hard to put down because I often lost the storyline if I did, and not just because my toddler kept stealing my bookmark.  The way in which Davis presents the story is in a flashback-flashforward-flashsideways sort of style.  The book starts with Davis and archaeologist Arthur Weigall riding donkeys through the Valley of the Kings in 1905, then, using the connection of death and dead bodies, the narrative flashes back to Davis as a four-year-old boy walking towards his father’s funeral in 1842 (16).  It continues this flashback-flashforward style the rest of the book (for example, see above page notations for the Ocean Bank scandal).  Some of the connections are tenuous—death, robbery, breaking the law—and others are more organic.  But what this does for the reader is break up the story so that you lose the narrative lines if you put it down for too long.  The order of events can become confusing as well.  Finally, there are SO MANY characters here that a character index might be useful for the reader to refer to, as you cannot remember where in the book they first appeared.

I really liked this book and I’m using it as a source for a project I’m working on.  I learned a lot about Davis, about American patrons in Egypt, and about the Gilded Age in the US.  I recommend the book for historians, or for anyone in the general public who is interested in the history of Egypt, especially in all this new flurry of King Tut fever that is hitting the world at the moment.  Be sure to see Adams’ own blog where he periodically updates about his work.

–Kate

* Terry was Davis’ nephew and had lived with Davis while growing up.  Davis sent him to the best schools, and it seems that Terry became a bit spoiled.  He continued failing at all of his ventures, then expecting Davis to cover his failures, which he did many times.  Toward the end of Davis’ life, Terry isolated him from his family by taking him to Florida, changing the will, and forcing the servants to sign affidavits saying that Davis wanted those changes.  He was a real piece of work.

** Emma Andrews was the cousin of Davis’ legal wife, Annie.  Annie was sickly and weak where Emma was vivacious and strong.  She and Davis seemed more suited to each other and, according to some (such as Adams) they quickly fell in love.  Within 5 years of Davis’ marriage to Annie, Emma was a regular, long-term visitor.  She was his companion to Egypt every season and he doted on her.  She was not, however, part of his official visits to the King, as she was not his wife and everyone knew it.  I will be blogging about her soon on my own site.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. harngroup permalink*
    December 11, 2015 9:04 am

    Thanks Kate, that’s a great review of what sounds to be a fascinating book.
    Julia

Trackbacks

  1. I’ve been doing some other stuff… | Adventures in History and Archaeology
  2. Looking back, looking ahead | HARN Weblog
  3. Emma Andrews, Egyptologist | HARN Weblog

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