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Epic Hero

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

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In November 1872, George Smith was working at the British Museum in a second-floor room overlooking the bare plane trees in Russell Square. On a long table were pieces of clay tablets, among the hundreds of thousands that archaeologists had shipped back to London from Nineveh, in present-day Iraq, a quarter-century before. Many of the fragments bore cuneiform hieroglyphs, and over the years scholars had managed to reassemble parts of some tablets, deciphering for the first time these records of daily life in Assyria of the 7th and 8th centuries B.C.—references to oxen, slaves, casks of wine, petitions to kings, contracts, treaties, prayers and omens.

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As scholars go, Smith, 32 years old, was an anomaly; he had ended his formal education at age 14 when he was apprenticed to a printer, and perhaps it was because of his training as an engraver that he had such a knack for assembling coherent passages of cuneiform out of the drawers and drawers of old rubble. In fact, Smith had already established dates for a couple of minor events in Israelite history, and on this brisk fall day he was looking for other references that might confirm parts of the Bible. Then, on a fragment of a tablet, he came across a story that would soon astonish the Western world. He read of a flood, a ship caught on a mountain and a bird sent out in search of dry land—the first independent confirmation of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia, complete with a Noah-like figure and an ark.

Yet he could read only a few lines of the tablet, much of which was encrusted with a thick, lime-like deposit. The museum had an expert restorer on contract, Robert Ready, but he was away on private business. As Smith's colleague E. A. Wallis Budge later recalled, "Smith was constitutionally a highly nervous, sensitive man, and his irritation at Ready's absence knew no bounds." Several excruciating days later, Ready finally returned and worked his magic, whereupon "Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines that Ready had brought to light," Budge recalled, "and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said: ‘I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.' Setting the tablet on the table, Smith jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement."

What he had uncovered would become known in the West as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the 3,200-year-old account of the eponymous hero's exploits and one of the oldest works of literature in the world. It constituted one of the most sensational finds in the history of archaeology. Smith would go on to become the world's leading expert in the ancient Akkadian language and its fiendishly difficult script, write the first true history of Mesopotamia's long-lost Assyrian Empire and publish pathbreaking translations of the major Babylonian literary texts. All that from a self-taught laborer who had never been to high school, much less college.

Scholars had only recently succeeded in cracking the code to the region's history: the complex cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script in which most of the ancient Mesopotamian texts were written. With few established protocols, Assyriology constituted a rare chink in the armor of the British class structure. An inquiring mind with a fresh perspective could be welcomed into the enterprise without a single credential, letter of introduction or family connection. Resources were still pitifully slim, and full-time employment in the field was almost unattainable, so it would be an exaggeration to speak of this as a window of opportunity; it was more of a mousehole of opportunity, but it was all that Smith required.

He was born in 1840 in the London district of Chelsea, at that time a seedy area of grimy tenements and high unemployment. When he turned 14, his father took the sensible route of apprenticing the boy to the printing firm of Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, where he was put to work learning to engrave bank notes.

Working amid the din of printing presses and the smell of damp ink on paper, Smith developed the patience, and keen eye and delicate hand that would later serve him so well in his work with cuneiform tablets. His work also exposed him to a wider world, for Bradbury and Evans had branched out from printing into publishing; they owned the humor magazine Punch and published Dickens and Thackeray in lavishly illustrated editions. In the fall of 1860, the 20-year-old Smith, fascinated by ancient history, began to haunt the Near Eastern collections at the British Museum.

From the firm's offices just off Fleet Street, a young man in a hurry could thread his way among a dense press of carriages, horse-drawn streetcars, window-shopping pedestrians and hand-drawn carts full of cabbages and potatoes to the museum in 20 minutes, probably eating as he walked, so as to spend his lunch break poring over the enigmatic tablets in the museum's collection.

At the time, the dominant figure in British cuneiform studies was Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. Haughty, ambitious and accustomed to command, Rawlinson had been knighted after a distinguished military career in India, Persia and Iraq. Though not a museum employee, Rawlinson was a frequent presence in the department's workroom. It was he who had made the decisive breakthrough in the decipherment of cuneiform writing; 50 years of age in 1860, he had just published the first volume of his Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia.

Everyone sensed that there were exciting discoveries to be made in the chaotic mass of tablets, and newspapers such as the Illustrated London News published dramatic reports of every new confirmation of a biblical name or date. Yet the museum's professional staff were not particularly well qualified to make these discoveries themselves. The head, or "keeper," of the Department of Oriental Antiquities was a learned Egyptologist, Samuel Birch, who had no direct expertise in Mesopotamian studies and left the supervision of the cuneiform collection to his sole assistant, a young classical scholar named William Henry Coxe.

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