THUYU’S GOLDEN COFFIN
A blockbuster exhibition of ancient art left Egypt and started touring the world in 2004. It stayed on the road for the next decade and was visited by ten million people on four continents. The largest golden object in the show was a massive mummy case1 seven feet long, two feet wide, and forty inches high. The refined, elegantly sculpted face was broad, with a wide nose, a dainty chin, and eyes of obsidian and calcite set in blue glass; it gazed serenely into eternity, a slight smile hovering on its lips. It was sheathed from head to toe in gleaming, beaten reddish gold. The overwhelming size and ostentation made the coffin, if not the most subtle or exquisite piece in the show, perhaps the most imposing.
The coffin was made in the royal workshops for a woman named Thuyu who likely bore no resemblance whatever to the face on the cover. Thuyu was perhaps a commoner, perhaps petty nobility. She was a priestess of the god Amen and moved into the palace when her daughter became the Great Royal Wife of the pharaoh known as Amenhotep the Magnificent during Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. As a special favor, Thuyu and her husband were given a tomb in the highly exclusive Valley of the Kings. One day around 1370 B.C. Thuyu was placed in the coffin and the coffin was sealed in her tomb. It sat in silence and unremitting darkness for almost 3,300 years.
* * *
The two well-dressed men riding donkeys through the afternoon shadows in the Valley of the Kings on February 12, 1905, might have been tourists—an old man and his grandson on a world tour, perhaps, visiting Egypt between stops in Naples and Constantinople. A cold southern wind sent clouds of sand flying around them. The sturdy little animals they rode (the older man using his handmade English saddle) were available for hire by the day or month, but the two were not sightseers; their donkeys had been rented for the digging season because the men were tomb hunters, returning to work after lunch. Both were excited, although their demeanors remained properly restrained and only the constant cigarette puffing by the older man gave away his anxious anticipation.
For five days their workmen had been breaking apart and clearing concretelike rubble out of a stairway carved more than three thousand years before into the bedrock of the royal cemetery—a stairway found at the bottom of a thirty-foot mound of sand and rock chips that had taken sixty men three weeks to remove. The previous day the crew had reached the top of a doorway and they had spent this morning digging to uncover that. The older man knew the passage might end abruptly in a blank limestone wall, an unfinished mistake abandoned by the ancients. The younger rider dreamed it might lead, as such doors had led his companion twice before, to a pharaoh’s tomb.
The older man was Theodore Montgomery Davis,2 a sixty-six-year-old American millionaire who had been granted the right to excavate in the valley. Davis’s agreement with the Egyptian government gave him the authority to lead the exploration and the obligation to pay for it, a familiar role; in America he had dug a canal, built railroads, cut down forests, and opened iron and silver mines. He was an art collector who socialized with presidents and had erected a mansion for himself in Newport, Rhode Island. He had selected the spot where the stairway was found although, as he later wrote, “the site was most unpromising … certainly no Egyptologist, exploring with another person’s money, would have thought of risking the time and expense.”3
He was a fit, wiry man, five feet nine inches tall (average for his day) with hazel eyes that were striking for their direct, appraising gaze. His brown hair was turning white and he wore elaborate muttonchop whiskers that had been stylish in his youth but were now considered old-fashioned. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, an expensive woolen jacket, a vest, and a collar and tie; his legs were protected from the donkey’s flanks by puttees and knee-high spats.
Davis’s companion was twenty-four-year-old British archaeologist Arthur Weigall, the newly hired antiquities inspector for the Egyptian government. Weigall later said Davis tended to regard the valley as his own property, but the young Englishman’s job would be to oversee the American’s work. Acutely aware of his subordinate position to the older man, Weigall knew that Davis’s goodwill would be crucial to his future.
For Davis, the relationship was natural to the point of tedium; almost everyone he came in contact with was a subordinate. Davis’s wealth ensured that those who met him were invariably conscious of what his favor could provide, and he was far from stingy. The week before, he and his mistress had inspected the building he had constructed for a girls’ school run by Presbyterian missionaries in Luxor (ancient Thebes), across the Nile from the valley. Once Davis decided a man—or a woman, as at the school—was reliable, he was generous and charming. Weigall later said that “thanks to his good nature, the serenity of our work was ruffled by but few breezes.”4
As their donkeys arrived at the excavation site the two men dismounted and eagerly inspected the hole gashed by the ancients into the bedrock.5 Davis’s diggers had finished exposing the doorway at the bottom of the steep, thirteen-step stairwell; a stone and mud-mortar wall filled the door space. The men immediately noticed that an opening had been made at the top of the blocking wall, proof that something lay beyond the doorway but also a sign the tomb had been entered by ancient grave robbers. It was an unwelcome indication but not a surprise. Every king’s tomb in the valley—including the two Davis had already discovered—had been robbed millennia before, leaving behind only broken fragments of the riches they had contained when they were first sealed.
Night would fall before the workmen could clear the wall blocking the doorway, so Davis ordered a halt for the day and sent all his men home except the reis
(the Egyptian foreman). The day before, Davis had called in police to guard the site overnight, knowing the several hundred natives living in poverty and squalor in villages near the valley were as interested as their ancestors had been in acquiring some of the wealth a tomb might provide. Accumulating his fortune had given Davis a keen appreciation of human frailty; his own wealth was the result of intelligence, hard work, and luck coupled with fraud, perjury, and bribery.
With the workmen gone, Davis and Weigall inspected the tomb’s entry. The doorway at the bottom of the steps was six feet tall and blocked by the wall except for the top eighteen inches, a chin-level opening impossible for them to crawl through without a ladder. Peering through the opening, they saw a steep ramp descending farther into the earth; to one side Davis saw what he thought was a cane lying on the floor. The young son of the reis
was enlisted, and with his turban undone and tied under his arms, the boy was lifted up to the opening and then lowered into the chamber. The ramp was clear beyond the door but the space was almost completely empty. The boy handed back through the opening what Davis had seen—an ancient staff of office—followed by a neck yolk from a chariot and a stone scarab (a religious amulet carved as a beetle) covered in gold foil. The frightened child was hauled back out of the dim chamber after reporting there were no paintings or carvings on the walls.
Davis wrapped the objects in his overcoat, secured them to the pommel of his saddle, and headed for home. As he traveled across the plain from the valley back to the Nile he was surprised when some villagers told him they knew he carried the staff of a prince, a large scarab, and a chariot yolk of solid gold. News spread rapidly among the locals, and inconspicuous watchers kept an eye on foreign diggers; Weigall had decided to spend the night at the tomb since it was assumed Egyptian guards could not be relied upon and a European’s presence was needed to protect the find. “The mouth of a lonely tomb already said by native rumour to contain incalculable wealth,” he wrote, “is not perhaps the safest place in the world.”6
Home for Davis was his dahabiyeh,
a unique style of sail-powered houseboat used for travel up and down the Nile. Davis’s twin-masted boat had all the opulence of his Newport mansion: a grand piano in the salon, a crystal chandelier in the dining room, a library, four bedrooms, and bathrooms with tubs. A large U.S. flag floated across the stern. The crew of twenty Nubian sailors wore matching white turbans and brown cardigans with the name of their ship—the Beduin
—stitched across the chest in red. The Beduin
was tied up to the west bank of the Nile, about three miles from the valley.
Seated on deck in one of the brown, hooded wicker chairs decorated with bright yellow and black cushions and arranged around a collection of handmade carpets, waited his companion of the past twenty years, Emma B. Andrews. Emma, a cousin of Davis’s absent wife, was a wealthy widow from Columbus, Ohio, and a year older than Davis. Today she would be called his mistress (and that is how Davis’s wife referred to her), despite their separate bedrooms in Newport and on the Beduin.
She was intelligent, cultured, and unconventional. One of her passions was education for young women; now the champion for the school in Luxor, when she had moved into the mansion with Davis and his wife eighteen years before she had been elected vice president of the Newport Industrial School for Girls.
The couple spent every winter in Egypt and preferred to travel with company. On this trip they had brought twenty-three-year-old Jean Hardy from Columbus, a member of Emma’s extended family, and Alice Wilson, also in her early twenties and the daughter of Davis’s closest friend and business partner. Davis’s English valet and Emma’s French maid rounded out the party.
Arriving at the Beduin,
Davis rushed past the cage of live poultry that provided eggs and meat for the five-course dinners served on the boat, past the huge wooden pilings the crew had pounded into the earth to secure the boat to shore, and bounded up the gangplank to share his finds with the ladies. In her journal, Emma wrote that “he had an air of great elation,” and described what he revealed: “a yoke of a chariot, finely decorated in gold and color—in perfect condition … a wand of office—also finely decorated … and a large beautiful green, hard stone scarab, with gilded bands, beautifully inscribed even to the wings.”7
Davis sent messages to two other dahabiyeh
s that were tied up nearby. On board the Miriam
was Gaston (later Sir Gaston) Maspero, director general of the Egyptian Service des Antiquities and the supreme authority for all decisions on archaeological work in Egypt. The French-born son of an Italian political exile, Maspero had been a professor of Egyptology in France since 1869 and from 1881 to 1886 had served as head of the service; he had returned to the job in 1899 (with a substantial salary increase). Maspero, recognized as the world’s foremost Egyptologist, was returning north to Cairo after an inspection tour and was the man who had approved Davis to excavate in the valley, referring to him as the American Maecenas (the ancient Roman patron of Virgil and Horace). Davis’s note invited Maspero to “come over and see something worth looking at.”8 When he arrived, Maspero said he had already heard in Luxor that afternoon that a tomb had been found in the valley filled with gold.
Davis also invited the Reverend Archibald Sayce, an Oxford professor and ordained minister in the Church of England who never wore anything but the black long-skirted clerical costume and three-cornered hat his religious office called for. Sayce, the world’s foremost expert on the ancient Hittites, had largely retired from academic life and spent every winter on the Nile excavating different sites and copying inscriptions. His boat had just arrived in Luxor and moored next to Davis. Like most of the scholarly dahabiyeh
owners, Sayce had been friends with Davis for years.
It was a dramatic and exciting evening on the Beduin,
and laughter and applause echoed over the Nile far into the night. Davis reported that the light had not been sufficient to see what lay beyond the ramp into the rest of the tomb. All agreed that the most likely explanation for the presence of the treasures on the ramp was that the ancient robbers had emerged from looting the burial chamber into better light and discovered the objects were not solid gold but only covered in gold foil. As they examined the finds under the crystal chandelier in the salon, decorated with its Morris green brocades and art fabrics, the group on the Beduin
could only speculate on what else such picky burglars might have left behind.
Maspero was most excited by the chariot yoke, since no complete ancient Egyptian chariot had ever been recovered. Mostly, the group speculated about whose tomb they had found. “We had not the slightest clue,” Davis wrote.9 None of the objects carried a name, although they clearly came from the ancient royal workshops.
Maspero asked if the tomb could be opened the next day. He had received a telegram from Lord Cromer (the British consul general who actually governed Egypt) saying Queen Victoria’s third son would be in Luxor the following afternoon, and the Frenchman was eager to benefit his position with the British by presenting the Duke of Connaught and his party with a noteworthy event. Davis quickly agreed. No one found it easy to sleep that night, as visions of what might lie beyond the tomb’s door kept the explorers awake.
Another of Davis’s friends joined Weigall at the mouth of the tomb that night when American artist Joseph Lindon Smith and his wife, Corinna (of the publishing Putnam family), arrived to camp out with the inspector and the half dozen Egyptian guards. Joe Smith, a forty-one-year-old native of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had studied art in Boston and Paris and dedicated his career to painting the architectural glories of the past. Like Davis, he spent winters working in Egypt; the two had known each other for several years. Davis, whom Smith described as “an eccentric, brusque little man but a good friend to people he liked,”10 had already promised Smith he would be among the first to see any new discovery. Weigall recalled they slept fitfully until the dawn, although Corinna Smith told Emma the night had been one of the most beautiful she had ever spent, despite the cold; she had risen early to make tea and watch the sunrise from a hilltop.Davis’s yacht, the
Beduin, photographed 1902. Reproduced with permission of the Semitic Museum, Harvard University, Lyon Photo No. 142.
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 dahabiyeh
s. 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.11
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.”12
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.”13
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 horseback 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.”14
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 dumfounded, 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.”15 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.”16
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.”17
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.”18 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,”19 as he pointed to Thuyu’s coffin. Corinna broke down in tears at 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.”20
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.”21 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.
* * *
Birds had chirped cheerfully as they careened through blue skies, oblivious to the four-year-old boy below who walked solemnly with his mother and big brother through the mud of the Middle Village Cemetery in Springfield, New York. The ground was still soaked from a freak snowstorm that had hit the week before, on June 11, 1842. Two days after the storm the boys’ father, the Reverend Richard Montgomery Davis, had died of consumption.
The smell of wet earth rose from the freshly dug grave as the reverend’s thirty-year-old widow, Catherine, stood over it with her two sons, seven-year-old Arthur (named after Arthur Tappan, a wealthy New York City abolitionist leader) and Theodore; she carried baby Gertrude in her arms. The cemetery was a short walk down a quiet country lane from the Presbyterian church where Reverend Davis had served as pastor and where the funeral had been conducted. The funeral was well attended despite the chilly weather; Davis had added fifty-five members to the church and most of them had come.
At the service, the visiting minister had described Richard Davis’s conversion to Christ in his early twenties at a Methodist camp meeting during the “Second Great Revival” in 1821, where he found religion and felt a call to the ministry. After graduating from Union College he enrolled at the Auburn Theological Seminary, a hotbed of antislavery sentiment where Davis helped form the Seminary’s Temperance Society in 1828. Fellow students recalled him as “quite eccentric” and “an odd fellow, a queer genius,” who “preached a good deal at random.” He had been ordained in 1831 and ministered in Parma, Marshall, and Bridgewater before coming to Springfield in 1835—where he was, according to the minister, “successful in leading souls to Christ.”22 As the congregation sang the final hymn Catherine may have recalled the funeral of her infant daughter Angellica nine years before, or that of her own father when she had only been ten. As the coffin was carried from the church, the bell tolled from the steeple Reverend Davis had heightened.
Catherine’s future looked bleak as she stood with Arthur and Theodore in the quiet graveyard watching her husband’s coffin being lowered into the ground; she had no claim to the parsonage she and the children had lived in, and her husband had left no savings. Springfield offered few opportunities; it had been a busy stop on the Great Western Turnpike, carrying settlers west after the Revolutionary War, but the Erie Canal’s opening in 1825 had ended the turnpike’s traffic and Springfield had reverted to a midstate rural backwater. It was home to a gristmill, a sawmill, two stores, and fifteen dwellings. The same year Richard and Catherine had moved to Springfield, James Fenimore Cooper (who set his Leatherstocking Tales
in the area) had returned after a decade in Europe to his family home in Cooperstown, ten miles away. In Home as Found
(1838), Cooper satirized the area as a pit of vulgarity, demagoguery, and hypocrisy.
Theodore’s father was the type of man Cooper would have disliked; a famous fire-breathing evangelist approvingly recalled Reverend Davis’s preaching at an 1836 revival meeting as “bordering on the verge of insanity.”23 The climate in the Davis household had been one of godliness, temperance, and abolitionism. Reverend Davis had been one of the leaders of the “New School” antislavery Presbyterians when the issue split the church in 1837; the Springfield congregation, along with another sixty thousand “radicals,” had been expelled by the church’s general assembly. The reverend had died at forty-one; a friend recalled that he “killed himself through his loud, high toned preaching.” He had lived his entire life within 150 miles of his birthplace and was buried under a handsome marble tombstone donated by the church.
That night, after the children were asleep, Catherine sat in silence and considered her future. Born in Berne (twenty miles from Albany), Catherine Hubbell had married at nineteen in 1832. Arthur had been born in 1835 and the family’s situation had improved enough by the following year that Reverend Davis had borrowed $200 to buy a few head of cattle from a Springfield farmer. When Theodore was born on May 7, 1838, New York City banks had just resumed making payments to depositors after the financial Panic of 1837, Queen Victoria was about to be crowned in London, Samuel Morse had just demonstrated his new invention called the telegraph, and a slave named Frederick Douglass would soon escape from his owner in Maryland to New York City. Such events were little noted in Springfield, however; the farmers paid scant attention to the outside world as they raised their corn, cattle, and clover among rolling hills, lakes, and forests. By the time Gertrude Matilda Davis had been born in 1841, Reverend Davis’s consumption had grown so serious that his church had hired a second minister to assist with his duties.
Left destitute with three small children, Catherine was forced to rely on charity. Family helped (she had a dozen aunts and uncles) and friends pitched in as well, but the next few years were difficult. Her sorrows increased when Arthur died in 1843 at age eight. Theodore, now five, returned with Catherine to the cemetery where his big brother was buried next to his father, under a much smaller tombstone. The early loss of his father and brother doubtless contributed to Theodore’s fatalistic attitude, without the comforts of his father’s religion. Years later he wrote to a bereaved friend, “Such is life, and all we poor mortals can do is to face the situation and work out of it as best we may.”24
Catherine’s years of money troubles also made a strong impression on the boy. A relentless drive to become wealthy clearly grew out of Theodore’s childhood poverty, but Catherine managed to raise her son into a man without the bitterness or hardness their circumstances might have produced. She instilled him with a sense of self-confidence and optimism that developed into a cheerful personality; he was recalled by friends as constantly making jokes and quips. Catherine placed a high value on learning, and although he received no formal schooling in Springfield, self-education became a lifelong habit for him.
Catherine survived a half dozen years on the kindness of friends—a farmer and town supervisor who paid off the loan for Reverend Davis’s cattle was never repaid. Other helpers included Jonas and Lucy Titus, who had been friends since Reverend Davis had led the Presbyterian church in Jonas Titus’s hometown of Marshall in 1833. The Tituses raised seven children on their fifty-acre farm, and Catherine had maintained her friendship with them after the ambitious Jonas moved his family west to Detroit in the Michigan Territory in 1836, where he became auctioneer for Wayne County and bought an eighty-acre farm. In 1838 he traveled in a canoe with pioneer Douglass Houghton surveying Lake Superior and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The following year his political connections won him the job of warden at the state prison in Jackson.
When the Titus family returned home to New York for a visit in 1846, they shared their excitement with Catherine about two locations in the Upper Peninsula that Titus had bought to mine for copper. A trip to New York City had produced financial backers who formed a company with him to start mining operations, and in addition to 20 percent of the stock in the company, Titus had received $4,500. He planned to use the money to start the first horse-drawn omnibus line in Detroit.
When Lucy visited again in the fall of 1847, she told Catherine that although the omnibus venture had failed, her hopes were high that the copper mines Jonas had found would soon start producing; the New York financiers had sent their own man to inspect the location and her husband had stayed in Detroit to help the New Yorkers buy another site that also looked promising. On her way home after the visit, Lucy fell overboard from the steamer Hendrick Hudson
during a storm on Lake Erie and drowned a few miles west of Cleveland; her body was never recovered. Within a few months of Lucy’s death Catherine’s money problems were solved when she wed Jonas Titus. The marriage was providential for Catherine; it lasted more than twenty years and provided a comfortable, secure life.
She traveled with her children to their new home in Detroit—a fascinating trip for the curious, energetic ten-year-old Theodore. The journey entailed taking a wagon for twenty-five miles north to the Erie Canal, then gliding in a barge pulled by mules for two hundred miles along the canal to Buffalo and Lake Erie. Another two hundred miles by steamer across the lake brought them to the Detroit River, which took their boat north to Titus’s farm in Wayne County.
Titus’s other children had left home by now and the marriage was a new beginning for both partners, although the change from bucolic and relatively civilized Springfield to frontier Detroit must have been jarring for Catherine’s children. Detroit’s population had increased from 2,000 in 1830 to 21,000 by 1850, its growth fueled by the opportunities of the developing wilderness. A mile west of Detroit the forest started, stretching to the Pacific. An influx of immigrants caused the town to boom as settlers moved west through Detroit while fish, lumber, and produce were transported east. The mineral wealth of the Upper Peninsula, where Titus’s copper mines were located, added to the boom; the first iron furnace west of Pittsburgh fired up in Detroit the year Theodore Davis moved there.
The move allowed Davis to receive the only formal schooling he ever had, in the Detroit public schools. Since Titus had to split his time between the farm and his duties at the Jackson prison fifty miles away, much of the farm labor fell to young Davis and the nineteen-year-old African-American laborer who lived with them. As schooling sharpened Davis’s mind, brutal farmwork hardened his body.
Shortly after Davis’s arrival, in the summer of 1848, Titus received news from his lawyer that enraged him and made a strong impression on his stepson. At dinner in the farmhouse, over vegetables and meat raised on the farm and cooked on a wood-burning stove by Catherine, the flickering oil lamps and candles illuminated Titus’s flushed face as he shared the story.
The New Yorkers who had bought his copper leases had agreed they would develop Titus’s mines and any others the company bought. The man they had sent to the Upper Peninsula had determined Titus’s sites were worthless, but the new spot he had found that Titus had helped purchase—“Location 98” it was called—appeared to be worth the large investment required to open a mine. The New Yorkers’ lawyers had then formed a separate company to work the new site with ownership identical to the old company—except for Jonas Titus. None of the profits from Location 98, which proved to be enormous, would go to Titus; he had been betrayed, robbed, and made a fool of by the eastern sharpies. It is likely this was when ten-year-old Theodore decided to be a lawyer.
* * *
Inside Yuya’s tomb, Davis’s reflections over Thuyu’s body ended when he stood up, cried, “Oh my God!” and keeled over in a dead faint. The archaeologists carried him out of the tomb, up the stairway and the long ramp, to the entry, where they bathed his head and hands in water and gave him a drink of brandy. He came to and was helped to one of the carriages, where the young ladies attended to him.
Davis was fully recovered by four o’clock when His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, who was touring Egypt in his official capacity as inspector general of the army, arrived with full military escort. Traveling with the party was the crown prince of Sweden, who would marry the duke’s daughter at Windsor Castle in four months. The duke, Maspero, and Weigall spent an hour in the tomb marveling at the treasures, including Thuyu’s elegant coffin.
When they emerged, Emma records, the duke “strode over to the rocks where Theodore was and heartily congratulated him, and begged to present him to the Duchess.” The artist Joe Smith recalled waiting for the duke to make a short speech thanking Davis for his contribution to archaeology; as he began speaking, Smith saw his “donkey boy” Hassan—who had not been fully paid for the animals he had provided the Smiths—burst through the line of distinguished foreigners and begin shouting in Arabic that he wanted his money. The duke, who spoke Arabic, stopped in midsentence and asked Hassan, “Who is it, my good man, that owes you so much money?” Hassan pointed to Smith’s wife. The duke turned to the embarrassed woman, said “Madame, you should settle your donkey debts,” and resumed his tribute to Davis.25
The world press lavished attention on the discovery. The New York Times
called it “the greatest find in the whole history of Egyptian research,” with contents that “surpass in beauty and interest any previous discovery in the land of the Pharaohs.” The paper noted with provincial pride that the discoverer was “an American, a New Yorker.”26 The Illustrated London News
called it “Egypt’s richest treasure trove,”27 and other newspapers spoke of Egyptologists at Harvard “in a flutter over an archaeological discovery of the first magnitude in the land of the Nile.”28 The Century Magazine
described the “surpassing splendor and significance”29 of the find. The foremost Egyptologist at the British Museum, E. A. W. Budge, hailed it “the most envious and gorgeous funeral furniture which has ever been seen in an Egyptian tomb.” Davis became an international celebrity; in different press accounts he was given the titles of professor, archaeologist, and Egyptologist (although he never claimed to be any of those things).
Publicity in the United States gave Americans a direct connection to Egyptian archaeology for the first time. Newspaperman William Randolph Hearst had written to his mother in 1900 that “In Egyptology as in everything else the great idea is to do something new and ‘sensational’ and not laboriously potter over what has been done before.”30 An ancient tomb full of gold was sensational, and the hero in America was the Yankee who had found it. The explorer was a distinct category of public hero in the early twentieth century, and Davis was the first American one in Egypt.
Yuya’s tomb and treasures fueled an outbreak of “Egyptomania” worldwide. Newspaper coverage, magazine articles, and books found an eager reading public, and interest in the pharaohs increased so much that tourists visited Luxor in unprecedented numbers the following year. Davis’s career kept Egypt in the limelight; when he was credited with discovering the tomb of Yuya’s daughter Tiye two years later, she became the archetypical Egyptian queen (Nefertiti was still unknown) and a cigarette company that provided trading cards of celebrities to sell its products dedicated a card to her, endowing the ancient Egyptian with blue eyes and blond hair. When Davis later discovered what became known as the “Gold Tomb” it sparked an international craze for Egyptian-themed jewelry. Popular interest generated funds for more exploration; from 1905 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston began paying for digs in Egypt, followed by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania.
The discovery also proved to be a pivotal point in the practice of archaeology. Explorers in the valley had previously scrambled for treasure in spots where they thought finding a tomb was likely; as Davis put it, “exploring hither and thither where I supposed the greatest probability existed.” However, after Davis’s find in such an “unpromising” spot, he realized he was leaving the intervening areas unexplored, and conducted his digs for the next nine years in a methodical, exhaustive search of every inch of the valley. “I commenced at the south end of the valley,” he wrote, “and cleared every foot of the mountains and foot-hills of all the deposits of stone and debris, and continued this manner of search by following the rock down as long as it was vertical and until it flattened.”31
Years later it was suggested Davis’s search policy had been Maspero’s or Howard Carter’s idea. It seems likely; the plan of inspecting every foot of bedrock for tomb entries is not an especially complicated concept, but Davis was the first digger in Egypt to commit himself to the years of effort the task would require and who was willing to pay the considerable costs for doing it. It resulted in Davis’s setting an all-time record for discoveries in the valley. By the time he was through he had found eighteen tombs (almost a third of the valley’s total) and immeasurably increased knowledge about the valley, the royals who were entombed there, and their world. He remained relatively modest about his achievements, however; toward the end of his life he told Joe Smith that “what he would always remember with pride was that his work was merely a clearing job, and he had never searched for loot on a ‘likely’ site.”32
The only flaw in Davis’s policy was his belief that the ancients had known the valley was sometimes a watercourse; he and the Egyptologists assumed no one would dig a tomb into the flat floor where it would be vulnerable to vast floods of water on the rare occasions of rainfall. When he concluded his work, Davis believed he had found every tomb left in the valley.
He was close to correct. In the hundred years since, only three more tombs have been found. To keep things straight, the tombs in the valley are given numbers; Davis’s last find was KV (for “Kings’ Valley”) 61, and Tutankhamen’s tomb is KV 62. In 2006 American archaeologist Otto Schaden discovered the curious cache of coffins, jars, and pillows in the chamber known as KV 63, and a tiny, undecorated, and thoroughly looted chamber designated KV 64—usurped for an “intrusive” (later than the original) Twenty-second Dynasty chantress of Amun’s mummy—was discovered in 2011 by Susanne Bickel and Elina Paulin-Grothe. The splendor of Tutankhamen’s treasures, however, erased the public’s memory of Davis’s accomplishment; he was the most famous Egyptian explorer in the world in his day, but the discovery by his ex-employee Carter (seven years after the American’s death) has overshadowed everything else ever found in Egypt and made Davis virtually unknown.
Even the blockbuster exhibition that showcased Thuyu’s coffin in the twenty-first century was titled “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” although a quarter of the show’s artifacts were dug up by Davis. His only mention in the catalog is “a rich American businessman … Not an easy man to work for.”33
Like the pharaohs he resurrected, Davis had hoped that his works would preserve his name, but he has been forgotten. His methods transformed archaeology from grave robbing into a science, but today he is scorned by the archaeological community. He stole the fortune that allowed him to indulge in hunting ancient treasures and gave away everything he found to museums. Those who came up against him while he was amassing his wealth would have been surprised he ever shared anything with anyone; those who knew of him when he was born would have been surprised he ever had anything to share at all. The tens of millions who have gazed in awe at Thuyu’s coffin since Davis discovered it would be surprised to know the first man to contemplate its beauty in modern times followed a path to Yuya’s tomb almost as dramatic as any of his discoveries.
Copyright © 2013 by John M. Adams
JOHN M. ADAMS is director emeritus of the Orange County Public Library. He has served on the Board and Executive Committee of the American Research Center in Egypt (the professional organization for U.S. Egyptologists) and founded the Southern California Chapter of ARCE and served as its president. He is a regular contributor to Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt. He edited the Egyptological newsletter Sedjem for five years. He lives in Winchester, Illinois.