The Forgotten Indiana Jones - from Ancient Mesopotamia to Hollywood

Article excerpt

Seventeen years ago, I began a search for Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets misplaced or forgotten in Utah "basements." Progress was slow. But in May 1995, after twelve years of patience, the first collection was located in dusty storage in the Utah Museum of Natural History. A second collection (including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and two inscribed bricks) surfaced at Brigham Young University's Museum of Peoples and Cultures in December 1996. These were found following a lead picked up at a social gathering. Someone casually mentioned seeing a "beer tablet" at BYU many years ago.

Two more years passed. Then, in April 1998, The World & I published my article on the origin of writing. The essay included an account of my discovery of the first "forgotten" collection and my ongoing research into the life and work of Edgar James Banks, the archaeologist who brought the collection to the United States.

This article triggered so much interest--including fairly extensive TV and press coverage--that my turtle-speed research accelerated with the speed of light. Subsequently, I have been informed of several collections in both private hands and public institutions including Utah State University at Logan, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints Museum of History in Salt Lake City, and Arizona State Museum in Tucson. Then, in July, I was granted a "dream break," sent to me no doubt by all the ancient deities of Mesopotamia.

I received a phone call from one quite mortal American, Stedman Pool. His first words were intriguing: "Dr. Wasilewska, please write down my phone number and my name since you don't want to lose me." What followed was far more exciting.

Pool referred to an article about my research that also mentioned Professor Banks. Banks sold the first "rediscovered" collection of cuneiform tablets in Utah in 1914, and I'd been trying to unfold his life story--with only modest success--since 1995. In fact, I was getting quite frustrated with this research. Suddenly here was Pool, a friend of Banks' family. He told me that the archaeologist's daughter, Daphne Banks McLachlan, was alive and well in Florida.

It was one of the few times in my life when I became absolutely speechless. In 1996 I had tried to contact McLachlan, but my letters had been returned by the post office. One even carried a note stating that she had passed away. To my delight, I now learned that this was not the case.

A few days later I called McLachlan. I was eager to "jump on the first flight" to Florida. Not having had the greatest experience with scholars in the past, she only hesitantly agreed to see me. Later I learned that she did not believe I would actually come. But how could I not? After so many years of chasing the ghosts of the past, I finally had a chance to connect them with reality. But anxious as I was, I couldn't fly to Florida immediately. Prof. David Owen of Cornell University was coming to Utah to work with me on the collection of cuneiform tablets that had triggered my interest in Banks in the first place. But the day after he left, I was aboard a red-eye flight to Orlando.

My first stop was the Historical Museum at Eustis. The curator, Louise Carter, and Walter Simms, a volunteer, guided me through their collections. Banks had lived in Eustis for many years. We frantically copied documents, and I photographed everything in the museum even vaguely associated with Banks and his family. Then, after a few hours, McLachlan herself came to collect me. I was to be her guest in her beautiful home at Umatilla. She was everything I expected and more. This attractive woman was full of energy, as could only be expected from the daughter of one of the most remarkable, though currently neglected, American explorers.

For the next four days, we "dug" through old papers, letters, books, and pictures. Each had a fascinating story to tell. I believe it will take me years to explore them all in depth and build a credible account of all Banks' remarkable accomplishments. …