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Epic Hero

How a self-taught British genius rediscovered the Mesopotamian saga of Gilgamesh —after 2,500 years

Actually, the very difficulty of the quest was an advantage for Smith: the longer the piece stayed missing, the more excavating he could do. Smith wanted to begin digging the very day he arrived, but he was delayed by local officials who, suspicious of his purposes or desiring bribes (or both), refused to honor his permit from the Ottoman government. He had to travel 200 miles down the Tigris to Baghdad to straighten things out. On returning with his authority confirmed, Smith hired laborers from Mosul and surrounding villages and began to enlarge Rassam's old pit. Work began on May 7, 1873, and remarkably, within a week, lightning struck again: Smith found a scrap of tablet containing the missing part of the Flood story, describing the provisioning of the ark: "Into the midst of it thy grain, thy furniture, and thy goods, thy wealth, thy woman servants, thy female slaves...the animals of the field all, I will gather and I will send to thee, and they shall be enclosed in thy door." He telegraphed word of his find back to the Daily Telegraph; thanks to the laying of the first successful transatlantic telegraph line just seven years before, his feat was reported in newspaper stories around the globe.

Smith would later describe his find in his Assyrian Discoveries, published in 1875, in scholarly terms: "On the 14th of May.... I sat down to examine the store of fragments of cuneiform inscription from the day's digging, taking out and brushing off the earth from the fragments to read their contents. On cleaning one of them I found to my surprise and gratification that it contained the greater portion of seventeen lines of inscription belonging to the first column of The Chaldean Account of the Deluge, as Smith first titled the epic, and fitting into the only place where there was a serious blank in the story...and now with this portion I was enabled to make it nearly complete." Smith is almost excessively matter-of-fact here—he was famous for his modesty, and once blushed to the roots of his hair when a woman asked him if she could shake hands with "the great Mr. Smith."

To Smith's deep regret, the Daily Telegraph immediately recalled him, no doubt so as to save money, now that they had their media coup. Not wanting to admit this, however, the paper perfidiously altered the phrasing of Smith's telegram to suggest that he himself had chosen to end his mission. Still fuming over this deception two years later, Smith protested in Assyrian Discoveries that "from some error unknown to me, the telegram as published differs materially from the one I sent. In particular, in the published copy occurs the words ‘as the season is closing,' which led to the inference that I considered that the proper season for excavating was coming to an end. My own feeling was the contrary of this."

As it happened, the fragment Smith so rapidly found was not from Gilgamesh at all but was from what scholars now know to be the opening of an even older version of the Flood story, dating from perhaps 1800 b.c. (An account of a catastrophic flood is found in sources throughout ancient Mesopotamian literature.) Had he realized this, Smith might have been able to argue that his assignment hadn't been completed, though he actually had gotten what he was sent to find, the beginning of the story.

Violence was flaring up around Mosul, with warfare between rival Arab tribes; refugees were streaming around the mounds where Smith was digging. Smith, oddly unperturbed, reserved his outrage for the Turkish government's refusal to protect the antiquities in the lands under its rule. Ultimately, Smith had to sail from the Mediterranean port of Alexandretta in July 1873 without his treasures; weeks later they were released by Turkish customs officials and safely shipped to England.

Back in London, Smith found himself famous. The Daily Telegraph had run articles trumpeting

 

"THE DAILY TELEGRAPH" ASSYRIAN EXPEDITION
COMPLETE SUCCESS OF EXCAVATIONS
THE MISSING PORTION OF THE DELUGE
TABLET DISCOVERED.


"The distinguished Assyriologue," as Smith was now anointed in the press, was in demand as a speaker, and the British Museum experienced an upsurge in attendance. And just as Smith had hoped, the acclaim surrounding his Stanley-and-Livingstone-style success did finally induce the museum's trustees to provide further funds—one thousand pounds. Smith left London in November 1873, determined to make the most of the few months still allowed for excavation by his permit from Constantinople.

Though he deeply missed his family, his letters home overflow with excitement. "I have all sorts of treasures," he wrote to his wife, Mary, after several months of work, "historical, mythological, architectural &c &c. I expect to bring home from 3,000 to 4,000 objects, you must come to the Museum and see them, it will be nothing to me if you do not share my success." Smith invariably sent love and kisses to "the little cherubs," Charley, Fred, Cissie, Arthur—nicknamed Twopenny—Bertie and Ethel. He asked after the older children's studies and the younger ones' progress in walking and talking, and he drew for them comic sketches: of his seasickness when crossing the English Channel, of riding on horseback brandishing a sword, and precariously perched atop a camel.

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