Valdosta Daily Times

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July 14, 2013

WEIRD Valdosta

A few of the stranger stories from the region’s past

- — Babylon Valdosta

Valdosta State University has possessed several small tablets from ancient Babylon.

The 10 tablets are approximately one and half inches square. They are made of clay and come from the ancient Babylon/Mesopotamia region of the Middle East. Ages of the tablets range from 2300 B.C. to 500 B.C. Eight are in excellent condition, with markings visible, while two are in poor and crumbling conditions, with few discernible markings. The tablets in fine condition are the oldest and are believed to be from the Ur III period, circa 2112-2004 B.C. The two disintegrating tablets are believed to be from the time of Hammurapi and the neo-Babylonian respectively.

The markings are cuneiform, a writing form used by the Babylonians and Assyrians, and are carved into the clay of pre-baked tablets.

How did VSU come into possession of these tablets?

Meet Edgar J. Banks.

In 1920, Dr. Richard Holmes Powell, first president of South Georgia State Normal College, which became VSU, and for whom Powell Hall is named, purchased the tablets for about $40, according the VSU Archives website.

“Local legend has it that Powell purchased or arranged for the purchase of the tablets while he was on leave from the college serving abroad in the Red Cross in 1918 (during World War I),” according to Dr. Melanie Byrd, a VSU history professor, on the university website. There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Powell’s Red Cross service was overseas or that it brought him into contact with the tablets’ seller, Edgar J. Banks.

Banks was a turn-of-the-century archaeologist and antiques dealer with numerous adventures in the vein of Indiana Jones. Unlike the fictional Jones, Banks is regarded as less than heroic in his pursuits. The word “infamous” is as likely to accompany his name as the word “famous.” Banks was a breed of archaeologist scouring the remnants of ancient civilizations at a time when American populations wanted a touch of the Holy Land but many European nations wanted confirmation of empire, Byrd said in a past interview.

Unearthing relics of past empires and claiming them as the possessions of current empire-builders was the vogue of early 20th century state-sponsored archaeology. As presumptuous as this may sound to modern sensibilities, Banks was reportedly viewed as a rogue even within this system. His dealings reportedly led authorities to kick him out of what is now Iraq.

In 1900, though, “Banks applied for and eventually received permission from Ottoman (Empire) authorities to dig in the modern-day city of Bismya, Iraq, site of the ancient city of Adab,” according to the VSU website. “It is likely that the tablets similar to the ones owned by VSU were acquired from this area; however, he also purchased tablets from workers at other sites.”

“He imported at least 11,000 such relics to the United States,” according to Banks biographer Ewa Wasilewski, “and some estimates suggest the number may have been as many as 175,000 pieces.”

VSU is one of several universities, colleges and museums across the United States owning pieces purchased from Banks.

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