George Smith [1840-1876] -- By: Milton C. Fisher

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 03:3 (Summer 1990)
Article: George Smith [1840-1876]
Author: Milton C. Fisher


George Smith [1840-1876]

Milton C. Fisher

“Sheer luck,” many would say. How else does an excavator so quickly extract the needle in a haystack he’s traveled thousands of miles to find? George Smith, a man as uncomplicated as his name, in a matter of weeks located the fifteen or so missing lines of the Gilgemish Epic. Sent to Mesopotamia in 1873 by a head-line-seeking British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, Smith was to follow-up on his announcement the previous year of a Babylonian flood story.

A combination of things makes this chapter in the history of archaeological discovery truly exceptional. George Smith, to begin with, lacked the special background possessed by many of the pioneers - military or civil service, independent wealth, formal education. Apprenticed to an engraver of bank notes at age fourteen, he pursued that profession. But an avid interest in archaic scripts and literature drove him to spend long hours at the British Museum. There he caught the eye of Sir Henry Rawlinson (see A&BR Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 6-8), who gave him access to the museum’s vast collection of Akkadian cuneiform documents and eventually an assistant-ship in the department of Assyriology.

Smith soon justified this favor by publishing an inscription which established a chronological reference point - a solar eclipse of 763 BC. Another inscription fixed the date of an Elamite invasion of Babylon, 2280 BC. Wide public attention was captured, however, by his translation in 1872 of the Gilgemish Epic. From among literally thousands of clay tablets he had selected and pieced together in proper order, about eighty proved to be of momentous import.

Written originally before Homer and the Hebrew Bible, and preserved in copy at the great library of Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh (modern Kouyunjik, near Mosul, Iraq), the Gilgamesh Epic was a twice-kept secret of the ages. Henry Layard (see A&BR Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 2-3) had unearthed a stack of baked clay tablets, charred and broken by the ravages of war, in the spring of 1850. For two more decades this remarkable treasure lay buried in the archives of London’s great British Museum before George Smith discovered it.

But George Smith was in for a sore letdown on the heels of his amazing success. When the Daily Telegraph on the 21st of May, 1873, published a glowing account of his discovery of the missing portion of the deluge tablet, they added to his report the words, “as the season is closing.” Smith had hoped that word of his grand achievement would bring a further grant, over and above the original 1000 guineas. Instead, the paper inferred it was time for him to wind up his campaign.

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