Edgar James Banks

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Edgar J. Banks in 1922

Edgar James Banks (May 23, 1866 – May 5, 1945). American diplomat, antiquarian and novelist.


Banks was an antiquities enthusiast and entrepreneurial roving archaeologist in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire, who has been held up as an original for the fictional composite figure of Indiana Jones. Starting from his position as American consul in Baghdad in 1898, Banks bought hundreds of cuneiform tablets on the market in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire and resold them in small batches to museums, libraries, universities, and theological seminaries, several in Utah and the American Southwest and across the United States. These tablets had been dug up by locals at sites like Telloh and the many other tells of central Mesopotamia. Banks purchased many more cuneiform inscriptions from a dealer in Istanbul. The Ottoman government did not regulate the trade in such minor antiquities.

He wrote a book, published in 1912, about his excavations of the ancient Sumerian city of Adab, located in what is now Bismya/Bismaya in Iraq. The book contains lively accounts of his excavations in Adab and discoveries of a sequence of buildings from the prehistoric into the reign of Ur-Nammu in the ancient Sumerian city.[1] It details also his extensive expeditions in the region and struggles with the Ottoman bureaucracy who, though he had been funded for an expedition to the site of Ur, had been refused permits for digs at Babylon, Tell Ibrahim, or other prominent sites. In 1903 it was decided that his excavations were to be at Bismya, the site of ancient Adab, in Iraq.

In 1909 Banks became a professor of Oriental languages and archaeology at the University of Toledo.[2] After World War I, Banks travelled and lectured extensively, scattering his cuneiform tablets among purchasers wherever he went. Tablets Banks sold to Charles W. Ames are now in the Science Museum at the University of Minnesota and many other private and public sites in the U.S.

Banks is credited with the discovery of the Plimpton 322 tablet in Southern Iraq.[3] It is believed to be the world’s oldest trigonometric table, predating Hipparchus by around 1000 years and, using base 60, also the most accurate trigonometric table, avoiding inexact numbers.[4] It thus displayed knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem long before the birth of Pythagoras himself.[5] The ancient cuneiform tablet was sold to the New York publisher George Arthur Plimpton, reportedly for $10. It was housed in Plimpton's private collection before being donated to Columbia University upon Plimpton's death. The artifact, now famously known as Plimpton 322 (denoting that it is the 322nd item in the catalog), has provided great insight into the Babylonian era mathematics.

Edgar Banks also started two movie companies and climbed Mount Ararat in a search for Noah's Ark. Cecil B. DeMille apparently invited Banks to become a consultant on bible epics in 1921.

Banks was an active lecturer and author. It was during such a lecturing trip in 1921 that he discovered Eustis, Florida, and decided to retire there. He passed away in Eustis in 1945 at the age of 79. The Eustis Historical Museum features one room with exhibits about Banks.


  1. ^ Banks, Edgar James (1912). Bismya or The Lost City of Adab. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons.
  2. ^ "BANKS, Edgar James". The International Who's Who in the World. 1912. p. 74.
  3. ^ "3,700-year-old Babylonian tablet rewrites the history of maths - and shows the Greeks did not develop trigonometry". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2017-08-25.
  4. ^ Mansfield, Daniel F.; Wildberger, N. J. "Plimpton 322 is Babylonian exact sexagesimal trigonometry". Historia Mathematica. doi:10.1016/j.hm.2017.08.001.
  5. ^ Robson, Eleanor. (2001) "Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon: A Reassessment of Plimpton 322" Historia Mathematica 28: 167-206.

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