‘The hori­zons of his­tory re­treated’

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

When Ge­orge Smith re­dis­cov­ered The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872, it earned him some fame, a lit­tle for­tune, and led him to­wards a hor­ri­ble, lonely death.

Few could have an­tic­i­pated the me­dia storm that would break when the Epic’s dis­cov­ery was sneakpre­viewed in The Daily Tele­graph on Novem­ber 14, 1872. And with­out the en­ter­pris­ing pub­lic spirit of the pa­per’s edi­tor-in-chief, Ed­win Arnold, the Epic might still be buried in the sands of Nin­eveh, just out­side Mo­sul in Iraq. The poem went on to be­come one of the most im­por­tant ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds of the 19th cen­tury. Even to­day, it is still the old­est sub­stan­tial epic that we have. So who was Ge­orge Smith, and why is his dis­cov­ery of this an­cient text so en­dur­ingly sig­nif­i­cant?

The poem tells of the ad­ven­tures of the king of Uruk in Me­sopotamia from around 4,000 years ago. The rea­son that the Epic’s re­dis­cov­ery caused such a con­tro­versy in the 1870s was that the King’s voy­ages were ana­logues for sto­ries from the Old Tes­ta­ment, pressed into clay at least 1,000 years be­fore the Bi­ble’s first books and many cen­turies be­fore Homer. The im­pact of the dis­cov­ery chal­lenged lit­er­ary and bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship and would help to re­de­fine be­liefs about the age of the Earth.

The ‘‘flood’’ tablet con­sti­tuted the 11th part of the 12-book Epic, and be­longed to a slush pile of shards shipped back to the Bri­tish Mu­seum from Ot­toman Iraq by Sir Austen Henry La­yard. There were so few peo­ple in the world able to read an­cient cu­nei­form that the frag­ment lay undis­turbed in the Mu­seum for nearly 20 years.

Cu­nei­form is not a lan­guage, but an al­pha­bet. The script’s wedge­shaped let­ters ( cuneus is Latin for wedge) are formed by im­press­ing a cut reed into soft clay. It was used by speak­ers of sev­eral Near Eastern lan­guages in­clud­ing Sume­rian, Akka­dian, Urar­tian and Hit­tite; de­pend­ing on the lan­guage and date of a given script, its al­pha­bet could con­sist of many hun­dreds of let­ters. If this weren’t chal­leng­ing enough, cu­nei­form em­ploys no punc­tu­a­tion (no sen­tences or para­graphs), it does not sep­a­rate words, there aren’t any vow­els and most tablets are frag­mented and eroded.

Smith, an un­likely scholar, was the man for the task. Born of mod­est par­ents in Chelsea (his fa­ther was a car­pen­ter), he left school at 14. He mar­ried young, moved to Crogs­land Road in Cam­den, and had six chil­dren. Un­sat­is­fied, he spent what spare time and money he had pur­su­ing his in­ter­ests of Assyri­ol­ogy and bib­li­cal ar­chae­ol­ogy. He was so of­ten seen at the Bri­tish Mu­seum that Sir Henry Rawl­in­son (the dis­cov­erer of the Be­his­tun mon­u­ment, a “Rosetta Stone of cu­nei­form lan­guages”) even­tu­ally em­ployed him as a clas­si­fier. But even for such highly skilled and spe­cial­ist work, he was paid lit­tle more than the clean­ing staff.

On the evening he came across La­yard’s frag­ment, Smith is said to have be­come so an­i­mated that, mute with ex­cite­ment, he be­gan to tear his clothes off. (Though much re­peated, there is only a sin­gle source for this story, EAW Budge’s Rise and Progress of Assyri­ol­ogy – pub­lished 50 years af­ter Smith’s death.) Smith quickly pre­pared a pa­per to present to the So­ci­ety of Bib­li­cal Ar­chae­ol­ogy.

De­cem­ber 3 1872 was a cold and show­ery day. At 9 Con­duit Street in May­fair (now the dou­bleMiche­lin-starred restau­rant Sketch) Smith stepped up to be­gin his lec­ture to the So­ci­ety. Be­cause The Daily Tele­graph had pre­viewed Smith’s dis­cov­ery, the room was thick with re­porters and mem­bers of the pub­lic – even the Prime Min­is­ter, Wil­liam Glad­stone, was in at­ten­dance.

Smith re­counted to his au­di­ence how he’d read of a ship com­ing to rest on a hill­top “fol­lowed by the ac­count of the send­ing forth of the dove, and its find­ing no rest­ing place and re­turn­ing”. In other words, he had dis­cov­ered a Baby­lo­nian ac­count of the bib­li­cal del­uge – more­over, one that pre­dated the Bi­ble. He then read his trans­la­tion of the en­tire frag­ment.

Rawl­in­son con­trib­uted to the dis­cus­sion, sug­gest­ing that the date of the Epic might be as early as 5150 BC (this was, in fact, Smith’s own es­ti­ma­tion). To loud ap­plause, Glad­stone rose to re­spond with en­thu­si­asm to the pa­per, but also to quash Smith’s ap­peal for a pub­licly funded ex­ca­va­tion to find more parts of the poem. Glad­stone cel­e­brated the “in­di­vid­ual ef­fort” which was “the pride of this coun­try”, and joked about “the vul­gar ex­pe­di­ent” of ap­ply­ing for pub­lic funds. In the days that fol­lowed, the story was re­ported widely on both sides of the At­lantic. But it was not un­til Jan­uary 1873 that the stepped in to of­fer the Bri­tish Mu­seum £1,000 for Smith to con­duct fur­ther ex­ca­va­tions. Tak­ing travel ad­vice from Arnold, Smith de­parted for Ot­toman Iraq later that month.

His jour­ney was not an easy one. Smith had never trav­elled be­fore, and his let­ters home (il­lus­trated for his chil­dren) demon­strate that he suf­fered chronic sea­sick­ness. On his ar­rival, Smith found him­self be­set by of­fi­cial­dom. His per­mis­sions were not valid, the pa­pers had not been signed by the right peo­ple. He was de­layed for months.

Dig­ging be­gan on May 7, and within three days he be­lieved he had dis­cov­ered more bro­ken frag­ments of the “Del­uge”. In fact, he had dis­cov­ered an­other lon­glost poem: The Epic of Atra­ha­sis. In Smith’s own words, “The pro­pri­etors of The Daily Tele­graph, how­ever, con­sid­ered that the dis­cov­ery of the miss­ing frag­ment of the del­uge text ac­com­plished the ob­ject they had in view, and they de­clined to pros­e­cute the ex­ca­va­tions fur­ther… de­sir­ing to see it car­ried on by the na­tion.” The brief ex­ca­va­tion was over. The ques­tion of fu­ture fund­ing would de­pend on Glad­stone.

Per­mis­sion was granted and on a sec­ond dig (in 1874) Smith dis­cov­ered Baby­lo­nian ac­counts of the cre­ation, the fall of man, the pesti­lence, the Tower of Ba­bel, and frag­ments of many other leg­ends. But it was on the third ex­ca­va­tion in 1876 that Smith ran into dif­fi­cul­ties.

He left Eng­land in 1875, and was so de­layed by Ot­toman of­fi­cials that he did not ar­rive at Nin­eveh un­til July 1876. By then, with tem­per­a­tures al­ready in the mid40s, it was too late to dig. He fell ill.

Smith’s note­books in the Bri­tish Li­brary re­count his de­scent into delir­ium, and the fi­nal pages make for heart­break­ing read­ing. He set off for Eng­land, but died be­fore he got as far as Aleppo. He was 36, only four years into his ca­reer as an Assyri­ol­o­gist. The news­pa­pers mourned Smith’s early pass­ing. They ex­plained that he had died ex­er­cis­ing a heroic com­mit­ment to the science. The ded­i­ca­tions and obituaries, though, masked a slightly darker story; one where Smith may have been sub­ject to co­er­cion in his de­ci­sion to de­lay.

Smith had pre­vi­ously writ­ten to re­quest cur­tail­ment of the dig be­cause “plague” was sweep­ing the low­lands of Syria and Iraq. Per­mis­sion was re­fused. He was told by the mu­seum sec­re­tary that the trus­tees would con­sider it to be “very ob­jec­tion­able” if he were to ter­mi­nate the ex­ca­va­tion early. It is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine the same be­ing said to Rawl­in­son or La­yard.

Tragic as it was, Smith’s brief spell as an Assyri­ol­o­gist has en­dur­ing sig­nif­i­cance. Many more digs fol­lowed in his foot­steps (in­clud­ing some led by Max Mal­lowan, Agatha Christie’s hus­band). Ini­tially, the re­dis­cov­ery of the Gilgamesh poem en­cour­aged the Vic­to­ri­ans to re­visit what we might now call the creation­ism de­bate. Whether the Earth was cre­ated on Oc­to­ber 23, 4004 BC, or at some other point in a deep and un­re­cov­er­able past, was a ques­tion that hung in the air through­out the 19th cen­tury like a long-sus­tained note. Gilgamesh also deep­ened the fo­cus of doc­u­mented his­tory by tak­ing us closer to the very be­gin­nings of writ­ten records.

And fi­nally, the hori­zon of nat­u­ral his­tory also re­treated. Later in the pe­riod, the Epic be­came part of a new phi­los­o­phy that pos­tu­lated an even greater age for the Earth than had been hith­erto es­ti­mated. The ge­ol­o­gist Ed­uard Suess used the im­pli­ca­tions of the poem’s dis­cov­ery as part of an in­tro­duc­tion to his mas­sive, four-vol­ume, The Face of the Earth (1885-1901).

Had he not died so young, Smith could have gone on to be­come the Dar­win of ar­chae­ol­ogy. As it is, even the lit­tle work that he was able to do still re­fash­ioned the land­scape of his own and other dis­ci­plines for­ever.

Dis­cov­er­ing Gilgamesh by Vy­barr Cre­gan-Reid (Manch­ester Univer­sity Press, rrp £70), is avail­able from Tele­graph Books at £70 + £1.35 p&p; The Epic of Gilgamesh, trs. An­drew Ge­orge (Pen­guin Classics, RRP £8.99) is avail­able to or­der from Tele­graph Books at £8.99 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.tele­graph.co.uk

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