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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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At first, Birch and Coxe paid little attention to the quiet but persistent young engraver. But it gradually became apparent to the two men that Smith could read the tablets better than they. In time, Birch brought him to Rawlinson's attention.

Rawlinson was impressed by the young man's ability to piece tablets together, a task requiring both exceptional visual memory and manual dexterity in creating "joins" of fragments. A given tablet might have been broken into a dozen or more pieces that were now widely dispersed among the thousands of fragments at the museum. Rawlinson persuaded the museum to hire Smith to work on sorting and assembling tablets—a job involving more manual labor than scholarship. As Budge noted, Smith "worked for some years for a salary that was smaller than that then received by a master carpenter or master mason."

But Smith made the fullest use of his new position to increase his command of the language and its script, and by the mid-1860s he was making real discoveries: identifying Hebrew monarchs mentioned in Assyrian inscriptions and giving new detail to biblical chronology. In 1866 Smith published his first article, and he received an important promotion when Rawlinson persuaded the museum's trustees to hire him as his assistant for the next volume of his Cuneiform Inscriptions. "Thus, in the beginning of 1867," Smith later recalled with quiet pride, "I entered into official life, and regularly prosecuted the study of the cuneiform texts."

In addition to tablets and fragments, the museum held many paper "squeezes"—impressions that had been made by pressing damp paper onto inscriptions too big to move. It was an extraordinary trove, if only it could be read, but the problems were not only linguistic. The squeezes deteriorated on handling and were further damaged when mice got at them. Unbaked clay tablets could crumble, and even those that had been baked, giving them the heft and durability of terra cotta tiles, had often been broken amid the ruins of Nineveh. Tablets were stored loose in boxes and sometimes damaged each other; items under active consideration were laid out on planks set on trestles in a dimly lit room. (Fearful of fire, the museum's trustees had refused to allow gas lighting in the building.)

Eager to become a full-fledged archaeologist, Smith longed to go to Iraq to excavate. But museum trustees felt that they had more than enough Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts and wanted Smith at work on the premises. He had no way to support himself in a distant province of the Ottoman Empire, or even to pay his own way there, as he was now supporting a wife and a growing family on his slender wages. Discouraged, he wrote to a friend in February 1872 that the "Government will not assist the movement in the least, at present, in fact I think they will not give a penny until something is discovered." It was then that Smith began systematically surveying the museum's collection for texts that might shed new light on biblical studies. In chancing upon the Flood story, Smith felt he had found the passport to the land of his dreams.

Word of the find spread rapidly, and Prime Minister Gladstone himself was in the audience when Smith presented a lecture to the Biblical Archaeology Society on December 3, 1872. Edwin Arnold, editor of the Daily Telegraph, promptly put up the sum of a thousand guineas to fund Smith on an expedition—much as the Telegraph had successfully sent Henry Morton Stanley to find the explorer-missionary David Livingstone in Central Africa, after Livingstone had ceased to be in contact with England during a long journey of exploration begun in 1866. In January 1873, Smith was at last on his way.

As eager as Smith had been to go to Iraq, he was completely unprepared to do so. He couldn't speak Arabic, Turkish or Persian, and apart from a couple of brief research trips to Paris, he had probably never before set foot outside England.

In his first Middle Eastern port of call, the Turkish city of Smyrna, he was jostled by crowds, upset by noise and confusion, and appalled by the local cuisine. But if Smith chafed under travel's discomforts, he loved the landscape and the sense of connection to the ancient history he had studied so long. As he traveled through remote villages, he was struck by a sense of continuity with the past: he saw clay-brick houses whose style he recognized from ancient reliefs and encountered a threshing machine "similar to those which are found in prehistoric deposits."

On March 2, 1873, he finally approached his life's goal, outside the provincial capital of Mosul. "I started before sunrise, and arrived about nine in the morning at the ruins of Nineveh. I cannot well describe the pleasure with which I came in sight of this memorable city, the object of so many of my thoughts and hopes." It consisted of vast, flat mounds whose featurelessness had astonished British archaeologist Austin Henry Layard when he first saw them in 1840. Kouyunjik, the largest of these, was 40 feet high, a mile long and a third of a mile wide. It was pitted with various trenches and holes dug by Layard and his Iraqi assistant Hormuzd Rassam years before, when they had uncovered more than two miles' worth of sculptured reliefs. (It was Layard and Rassam who would transport to England the tablets Smith would one day decipher.)

Smith knew that Rassam hadn't been able to finish excavating the North Palace library, from which he thought the Gilgamesh tablets had probably come. In fact, he had sold the idea of the expedition to the Daily Telegraph on the rather slender hope that he might be able to find a missing piece of the Flood tablet, some three inches on a side, which he felt should still be lurking among the tons of accumulated rubble at the site. Yet he had to know that this would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. The clay fragment would be almost indistinguishable from the debris around it, assuming it hadn't been pulverized in antiquity or tossed out by Rassam's men during their excavations 22 years earlier.

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