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Lunch » Tags » Untagged » The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis's Gilded Age in the Valley of the Kings » User review

Archeology by the gilded and the guilty

  • Sep 29, 2013
One of the historical tragedies of the last 200 years is that while the scientific mind has deduced the value of digging up the past, the technology and techniques have not been up to the task, and the organization and funding of archeological digs have often be left to dissolute English dukes and, as Adams tells us here, a gilded and guilty American robber baron.  Much of the revolutionary and anti-Western reaction in Egypt the last few decades, while it may have taken on an Islamic face, is a reaction to these past centuries of imperialistic, culturally insensitive, and sometimes unscientific plundering of historical treasures.

But before you condemn the robber baron, read Adams history.  Theodore Davis made his money through shady land deals and shyster lawyering at a time when vast amounts of land were owned by governments and territories and were sought by railroads and mining companies for unfettered capitalist exploitation, backed by a legal profession that required little formal education other than apprenticeship in rough hewn frontier justice.  It was a time, in the years before and after the U.S. Civil War, when many men made their fortunes this way and Davis was just one among many.  Despite his scant formal education, Davis was driven by bare-faced ambition and gathered his fortune in land, mining and canal ventures, all intertwined in complex legal and financial arrangements that accusers in court and Congress could never untangle, leaving Davis by the Gilded Age of the 1890s an absolutely wealthy and relatively young man.

Like his peers, Davis sought a way to spend both his money and his time, and Davis found his in travel to the warm and dry climate of the winter tourist season in Egypt, where visiting the splendors of ancient Egypt visible above (the pyramids) and below (the unsystematically dug and plundered tombs of Pharaohs) ground gave Davis a new ambition.  Beginning around the turn of the century, he funded increasingly systematic digging in the Valley of the Kings and despite techniques which seem primitive and historically insensitive today, helped establish scientific principles for Egyptian archeology.  While he funded the digs and offered his input into the digging, he always hired professionals to lead his efforts and almost always deferred to their guidance, excepting only those rare times when his frontier intelligence suggested insight and guidance.  Over the next decade, Davis's expeditions uncovered more tombs in the Valley of the Kings than any other, and their finds are prominently displayed in museums and touring exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts even though his legacy is either a minor footnote or a "surprising dislike by archaeologists and Egyptologists, although their professional forebears found him helpful and charming."

Adams intertwines the biography of Davis the robber baron with the history and biography of his digs, cutting back and forth between the two at opportune times to explain personal and historical facts.  Davis by all accounts a ruthless businessman was a personally gregarious man who loved having friends and family around, and was generous with much of his extended family of cousins, nephews, and nieces.  Adams tactfully handles the tale of Davis's unusual marriage (he and his wife lived apart much of their married life and never had children, but never divorced) and relationship with his wife's cousin, who was his constant companion on his Egyptian expeditions.  But Adams pulls no punches in describing the sad end of Davis's life and the bitter struggle over his money by the extended family that had benefited so much by it.

Davis may have become an historical footnote, but he deserves the kind of biography that Adams has written.  While the science and politics of archeology and imperialism have moved beyond Davis, leaving him stranded and forgotten, take a moment to step back into his age and life and learn about the shoulders we stand on today.

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September 29, 2013
Good detailed review!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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