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 re-sold 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.
Though he had been funded for an expedition to the site of Ur, Banks was foiled by the Ottoman administration, who would not permit digs at Babylon or 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. His 1912 publication about his excavations at Bismya/Bismaya (Adab), the Sumerian city now in Iraq, contains some lively accounts of his struggles with the Ottoman bureaucracy (see link below).
In 1909 Banks became a professor of Oriental languages and archaeology at the University of Toledo. 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 sale of an ancient cuneiform tablet of great mathematical importance to the New York publisher George Arthur Plimpton. The artifact, reportedly purchased for $10, 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 math. Although debate over how to interpret this artifact continues, the artifact is usually taken to display knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, long before the birth of Pythagoras himself.
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 died in Eustis in 1945 at the age of 79.
The Eustis Historical Museum features one room with exhibits about Banks.