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.

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.

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.

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