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Discovering Gilgamesh, the World’s First Action Hero

A self-taught scholar was responsible for finding the world’s first epic myth hidden among broken clay tablets in the British Museum.

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The hero Gilgamesh effortlessly overpowers a lion in this eighth-century B.C. statue discovered in Iraq.

Recovered from Nineveh in the late 19th century, shattered clay tablets covered in indecipherable writing held one of the world’s greatest treasures. Locked within the characters lay the Epic of Gilgamesh—now considered by many to be the world’s oldest epic poem, but hidden to scholars at that time. The tale of the demigod Gilgamesh could have been lost, except for the unrelenting curiosity of an unlikely scholar, George Smith.

Climbing the social ladder in Victorian England was difficult. For many, the prospect of a career at the prestigious British Museum was unthinkable, but George Smith overcame the odds. Born in 1840 to a modest London family, George Smith not only became an expert in the cuneiform script of ancient Mesopotamia, but also made a discovery that turned contemporary notions about ancient history upside down.

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Self-taught scholar George Smith pieced together the Epic of Gilgamesh from broken tablets in the British Museum.

Akkadian Autodidact

At age 14 Smith left formal schooling and became an apprentice in a publishing house that specialized in intricate engravings for banknotes. The work required close attention to visual details and patterns, a skill Smith picked up on the job and which would serve him well later.

His workplace was fortuitously located on Fleet Street—close to the British Museum in the neighborhood of Bloomsbury. In 1860 Smith began spending his lunch breaks there to feed his growing hunger for the study of Mesopotamia. Of particular interest were the discoveries that Austen Henry Layard and other archaeologists had recently made at the site of Nineveh, near Mosul in modern-day Iraq. Smith spent hours at the museum studying the clay tablets and teaching himself to decipher them.

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Rebuilt in the 20th century, the Nergal Gate was originally built in Nineveh in the seventh century B.C. Other monuments erected at the height of the city’s power include the Library of Ashurbanipal, where the Gilgamesh tablets were stored.

The tablets were in Akkadian, an ancient language written in cuneiform script. Its characters are formed from strokes in the form of wedges, the Latin word for which—cuneo—is the root of the term “cuneiform.” To decipher requires dedication and patience. Over time, the scholars working in the antiquities department realized how well Smith could interpret it.

They informed Sir Henry Rawlinson, the foremost cuneiform scholar of the time, of their talented lunchtime visitor. Rawlinson, who had worked with Layard at Nineveh, met Smith and was impressed by his abilities. Smith proved particularly adept at spotting which fragment fitted where when faced with a table strewn with shattered clay tablets.

In 1861 Rawlinson convinced the museum to hire Smith, initially on a part-time basis, to organize the vast number of tablets in its collection. Numbering in the thousands, many originated from Nineveh’s library, built by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century B.C. Created when the Neo-Assyrian Empire stretched from Egypt to Turkey, the tablets were discovered in the 1850s by Hormuzd Rassam, a protégé of Layard. As experts in Akkadian writing were rare, most of the artifacts were simply left in storage at the museum. Over the next decade, Smith pored over them, perfecting his understanding of ancient languages, and soon became an expert.

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The great library of the seventh-century B.C. Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, shown in this 1910 illustration, was unearthed in Nineveh in the 1850s, and thousands of tablets found there were transferred to the British Museum. Among these was the Flood Tablet, deciphered by George Smith in 1872, which alerted him to the existence of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh.

Long days working with the ancient puzzle were relieved by moments of revelation. In his first decade working at the museum, Smith managed to establish dates for events in the history of the Israelites, helping to straighten out parts of the biblical chronology. Smith hoped to travel to the Middle East to seek out more tablets, but the museum wanted him to stay in London and translate the tablets already in their collection.

An Epic Flood

Smith’s great hope was that his work on the broken tablets might reveal links to biblical accounts. His big breakthrough came after a decade of working at the museum. In November 1872 a fragment from Nineveh caught his attention. To a layperson, this piece (now known as tablet K.3375) does not look much different from all the other cracked tablets. But intriguing words astonished Smith and reminded him of something. Much of the lettering, however, was obscured by a layer of grime. Smith, an anxious man, had to wait for several days, his nerves strung like piano wires, before it could be cleaned.

When the restored tablet was placed before him, he deciphered the characters and confirmed his hunch—that they were part of a story about a great flood, with many of the key elements similar to the Noah story in the biblical Book of Genesis:

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The seventh-century B.C. Flood Tablet, shown here, unlocked the Epic of Gilgamesh for Smith.

On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir [identified by some scholars as a real mountain in northern Iraq], followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge . . .

Overwhelmed with emotion at what he had just discovered, Smith began to run around the room in a state of ecstasy, shouting and whooping. One account says that when his colleagues turned around to see what was happening, he stripped off his clothes with joy.

Smith’s work revealed that Mesopotamian writings included an account of a great flood similar to the one described in the Book of Genesis. However, the tablets long predated the Bible, placing the flood story further back in history than originally thought.

Smith’s discovery caused a sensation, not just for academics but also for the general public. In return for exclusivity, the London Daily Telegraph newspaper offered to fund an excavation led by George Smith in the Middle East. He would search for the missing pieces that would complete the story begun by his initial translations.

Smith’s archaeological career proceeded rapidly; only days into his excavation at Nineveh he stumbled on missing lines from the account of the flood. Later that year, the discovery of other fragments enabled Smith to start filling in the blanks.

As Smith amassed all these pieces, a poem began to take shape. Now known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, this work was totally new to scholars. Believed to have been composed around 1800 B.C., it is one of the world’s oldest great literary works. It tells the story of the demigod Gilgamesh who, among other adventures, embarks on a quest for immortality, during which he hears the story of a great flood that wiped out humanity. In the 1870s Smith published his translations of the work in several books—most notably in The Chaldean Account of Genesis.

Dreams Cut Short

Smith’s career was short-lived. Despite the desire to travel to ancient sites in the Middle East, Smith was not physically equipped to cope with the climate. In the course of his excavations, he suffered constant illness, most likely caused by the searing heat.

In August 1876, during his third trip to the region, Smith fell ill with dysentery while in Syria. His assistant prepared him a mule-drawn litter to carry him to Aleppo, but the medical help he so desperately needed came too late. The man whose quiet scholarship had convulsed Assyriology and biblical studies, and whose discoveries would inspire the great archaeological digs of the next century, died in the Syrian city at just age 36.