May 20 2013 4:00pm

The Millionaire and the Mummies (Excerpt)

John M Adams

Perfect for fans of archaeology and Egyptian discoveries, take a look at The Millionaire and the Mummies by John M. Adams, out on June 25:

Egypt, The Valley of the Kings, 1905: An American robber baron peers through the hole he has cut in an ancient tomb wall and discovers the richest trove of golden treasure ever seen in Egypt.

At the start of the twentieth century, Theodore Davis was the most famous archaeologist in the world; his career turned tomb-robbing and treasure-hunting into a science. Using six of Davis’s most important discoveries—from the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s sarcophagus to the exquisite shabti statuettes looted from the Egyptian Museum not too long ago—as a lens around which to focus his quintessentially American rags-to-riches tale, Adams chronicles the dizzying rise of a poor country preacher’s son who, through corruption and fraud, amassed tremendous wealth in Gilded Age New York and then atoned for his ruthless career by inventing new standards for systematic excavation. Davis found a record eighteen tombs in the Valley and, breaking with custom, gave all the spoils of his discoveries to museums. A confederate of Boss Tweed, friend of Teddy Roosevelt, and rival of J. P. Morgan, the colorful “American Lord Carnarvon” shared his Newport mansion with his Rembrandts, his wife, and his mistress. The only reason Davis has been forgotten by history to a large extent is probably the fact that he stopped just short of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, the discovery of which propelled Howard Carter (Davis’s erstwhile employee) to worldwide fame just a few short years later.

Thuyu’s Golden Coffin


Davis awoke as usual the next morning when his valet brought him his juice and laid out his clothes for the day; Emma and the girls were awakened by her maid. When the situation called for it, Davis would trade his donkey for a hired carriage, and after a hurried breakfast on Monday, February 13, a stream of carriages left the Nileside moorings of the dahabiyehs. Emma rode with Alice Wilson, who had been ill for several days but could not bear to miss the opening of the tomb, and Davis rode with Sayce. The men chatted nervously as they crossed the country to the valley. Davis told Sayce a story he was particularly fond of, about the time he asked his friend and Newport neighbor Alexander Agassiz, a noted naturalist, why he thought the Almighty had made living things. “To eat each other,” had been Agassiz’s instant reply.

The group arrived at the tomb around nine o’clock and found Weigall and the Smiths had been joined by the work crew. As soon as Maspero arrived, orders were given to take down the wall at the bottom of the stairs. “It was very slow work, as every stone had to be examined for hieroglyphs and signs, and every basket of sand and debris sifted and examined for objects of interest,” Davis wrote.

As the work began, Maspero told Davis there was a location in the adjoining western valley that he thought was promising and asked Davis to accompany him to the site to inspect it. Maspero more likely wanted to talk privately about a problem he was having with an employee named Howard Carter, a young British archaeologist who in 1922 would discover the tomb of Tutankhamen. The first three years of Davis’s digging in the valley had been supervised by Carter and they were good friends, but the archaeologist was now embroiled in a controversy that would soon result in his resignation. Davis would hire the unemployed Carter to paint illustrations for his next book.

The winds of the day before had ceased and while Davis and Maspero were gone, Emma and the group waited in the sun, seated on rocks or in carriages (with and without parasols) as the workmen took down the wall to the tomb. Although Davis was entitled to be the first entrant to any tomb he discovered, Emma wrote that when one of the workers came out of the tomb and told Weigall the entrance was free, he and Smith went down the tantalizing stairway. As the two scrambled down the steep ramp beyond the door, Smith noticed a bunch of desiccated ancient onions and a large black wig discarded by the thieves. At the end of the thirty-foot ramp the men found another stairway of seventeen steps. At the bottom was another doorway, again blocked by a wall of stones and mortar. Like the door above, the wall had been breached at the top.

They peered through the hole until, after a short time, they heard the voices of Davis and Maspero outside. Weigall emerged from the tomb pale and breathless. “I thought he had been affected by bad air,” Emma wrote, “but it was only excitement—for he ejaculated ‘wonderful,’ ‘extraordinary,’ etc.” Smith crowed there was “everything down there but a grand piano!” Smith remembered that Maspero, seeing the men’s smoking candles, asked if the passageway was clear. Both men agreed it was. Maspero ordered a message be sent to the Duke of Connaught.

Davis, Maspero, and Weigall now descended into the tomb, each carrying a candle. As they passed down the ramp Davis noted a bouquet of dried flowers to the side; a roll of papyrus that proved to be a Book of the Dead was also discovered in the passage.

At the bottom of the second staircase Davis found a bowl “showing the finger-marks of the man who with his hands gathered the mud and plastered it on the doorway wall” three millennia before. Inspecting the door, Davis wrote, “we found that the opening which the robber had made was too high and too small . . . Though we had nothing but our bare hands, we managed to take down the upper layer of stones, and then Monsieur Maspero and I put our heads and candles into the chamber.”

The sight that greeted Davis and Maspero was the most astounding discovery ever seen in the Valley of the Kings; it would be eclipsed only once, seventeen years later when Howard Carter saw the “wonderful things” in the tomb of Tutankhamen. The candle flames were reflected in what appeared to be a room filled with gold, and as the men’s eyes adjusted they began to discern coffins, furniture, statues, boxes, and more, all with golden surfaces glinting through the drifting motes of dust. In front of them was the greatest collection of ancient art and fine craftsmanship ever found in Egypt. With the sole exception of Tutankhamen’s, it remains to this day the richest tomb ever discovered in the valley.

They were amazed to see that while the tomb had indeed been robbed, it was not seriously disturbed. A huge wooden sarcophagus—a box eight feet long, six feet high, and trimmed in gold intended to hold mummy cases—was directly opposite the door; its top had been lifted off and set aside by the robbers. Within were three nested coffins, their lids also removed, and in the innermost gilded coffin lay a mummy. Its wrappings had been torn from the face and hands, revealing an elderly man whose features reminded the artist Smith of Abraham Lincoln. To the left was a similarly opened sarcophagus, the inner golden coffin containing a woman’s body. At the far end of the chamber was a perfect chariot.

The robbers had clearly searched the mummies for jewelry but had left the chamber crammed with ancient funeral goods. The tomb, according to Maspero, “was violated with discretion by persons who almost possessed respect for the dead, and who were in too great a hurry to despoil it thoroughly.”

Struck dumb, the men gaped at what the world press would soon trumpet as the greatest find in the history of Egyptian archaeology. It was a moment of personal triumph for Davis. The archaeologists of the antiquities service—including Maspero—had emphasized how unlikely a discovery on that spot would be. Davis insisted he chose the location simply to finish exploring the section of the valley they had already almost completed. With uncharacteristic pride, Emma wrote that although the experts did not think the site worth working, “Theo in his thorough way said he should go on clearing up both sides of that side valley.”

The moment finally passed, and the men set about entering the burial chamber through the opening in the top of the door. Davis was the first to go through and made the entry with little difficulty; at age sixty-six he still rode horse back and played tennis every day in Newport.

Maspero faced a greater challenge than Davis. The director general was an extremely large man who enlisted Weigall’s help in getting through the hole. After what must have been a prodigious effort by young Weigall, Davis’s moments alone with the treasure ended when Maspero’s considerable bulk was heaved through the opening into the chamber. As Maspero himself put it, “There is no slit behind which an archaeologist suspects he may find something new or unknown too small for him to get through. He undergoes much discomfort, but he manages to squeeze through.”

Weigall entered the tomb last. As he described the scene later, “We saw a sight which I can safely say no living man has ever seen. The chamber was pretty large—a rough hewn cavern of a place. In the middle of the room were two enormous sarcophagi of wood inlaid with gold.” He recalled being most moved by the apparent timelessness the scene conveyed; he likened it to entering a town house that had been closed for only a few months. “We stood, really dumbfounded, and stared around at the relics of the life of over three thousand years ago, all of which were as new almost as when they graced the palace.”

 He was impressed by alabaster vases, two beds, and three wooden armchairs decorated with gold. “In all directions stood objects gleaming with gold undimmed by a speck of dust, and one looked from one article to another with the feeling that the entire human conception of Time was wrong.” He felt as though he were “mad or dreaming . . . Maspero, Davis and I stood there gaping and almost trembling.” Maspero echoed Weigall’s emotions; he felt he had “left behind him all the centuries that have elapsed since the dead man was alive; the mummy has just descended to the vault, the celebrant performs the last rites, the acolytes finish placing the furniture and the offerings . . . Fortune, which often betrays us, has this time deigned to shower its favors on Mr. Davis.”

Stepping gingerly among the objects through the still, slightly stale air, they searched for the owner’s name, marveling at all they saw. Davis wrote their candles “gave so little light and so dazzled our eyes that we could see nothing but the glitter of gold.” It was Maspero who found the tomb owner’s name, inscribed in gold on the sarcophagus. The tomb belonged to a man named Yuya, a chief officer in the Egyptian chariotry, and his wife, Thuyu. The men recognized the couple’s names from the “marriage scarabs”—palm-sized carved stone beetles with an inscription on the underside announcing the union of King Amenhotep III and his Great Royal Wife, Tiye. “The name of her father is Yuya. The name of her mother is Thuyu,” the scarabs read, and Amenhotep had them widely distributed (some fifty survive) to spread the news through Egypt in 1386 B.C.

The explorers had not found a king’s tomb; they had found an almost undisturbed burial that a king had provided his in laws as a very special favor. The mummies were the grandparents of Akhenaten, the “heretic pharaoh”; they were the great-grandparents of King Tut.

In the excitement of reading the inscription, Maspero handed his candle to Davis and leaned closer to the giant wooden box, which was painted with a flammable tar called bitumen. Davis moved the candles closer to illuminate the characters until the Frenchman broke the silence by shouting at Davis to get the candles away from the pitch-covered box. “Had my candles touched the bitumen, which I came dangerously near doing,” Davis wrote, “the coffin would have been in a blaze. As the entire contents of the tomb were inflammable . . . we should have undoubtedly lost our lives.” Having avoided by inches what would have been the most bizarre archaeological disaster ever to occur in Egypt, the three men decided it was time to leave the burial chamber. They set the workmen to taking down the wall and returned to the sunlight; Maspero invited the rest of the group to inspect the tomb—just as soon as electric lights were strung into it.

As Corinna Smith entered the burial chamber Maspero assisted her over the dismantled wall and commented, “Doubtless you are the first woman that has been in this tomb chamber alive—there’s a dead one over there,” as he pointed to Thuyu’s coffin. Corinna broke down in tears as the sight of the treasure; Emma recalled “a dim glitter of gold everywhere and a confusion of coffins and mummies.” Sayce found the tomb “historically interesting and full of treasure . . . Wherever we stepped we trod upon fragments of gold foil.”

After they had seen the tomb the group adjourned to a nearby plateau where the Beduin’s crew had assembled a full sit-down luncheon. After lunch Davis, Weigall, and Maspero reentered the tomb and the archaeologists began recording the conditions and started to inventory the objects. Davis spent the time gazing at Thuyu’s mummy. “I studied her face and indulged in speculations germane to the situation, until her dignity and character so impressed me that I almost found it necessary to apologize for my presence.” That he could sit and calmly reflect in the company of a desiccated corpse belies a familiarity with death. In fact, his earliest memories were of a funeral sixty-two years before.


The Millionaire and the Mummies © John M. Adams 2013


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