en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 22, Number 1January/February 1971

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Great Good Luck Of Mister Smith

Somewhere under the vast hill that covered ancient Nineveh lay the missing 11th tablet. Could it be found? George Smith decided to try.

Written by Robert S. Strother
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

In the year of 1866, George Smith was employed as an engraver of banknotes in the city of London. He was a modest young married man with several small children, remarkable in his poor neighborhood only because he often spent half the night hunched over his desk in pursuit of an unusual hobby.

Six years later Smith suddenly found himself in the center of a controversy which swirled through Christendom, being hailed simultaneously as a hero of science and denounced as a blasphemous meddler. Four years more and he was dead at 36, struck down by fever, exhaustion, and heartbreak in far-off Aleppo.

That agonized death in Syria ended a career that in the short span of a decade had swung open a wide door on the early history of civilization. George Smith, by a stroke of incredible luck, had discovered on a jumble of neglected clay tablets proof that man's cultural heritage was richer and far more ancient than had been supposed. It began, not with the ancient Greeks sung by Homer, but more than 20 centuries earlier in Babylonia, whose bloodthirsty kings, dimly glimpsed in the Bible, emerged from the tablets as eager patrons of agriculture and astronomy, engineering and the arts. Hero worship started Smith on his hobby. The engraving shop of Messrs. Bradburry & Evans was not far from the British Museum where the fabulous treasures recovered recently from ruined palaces in the wicked old city of Nineveh were on display.

On a chance luncheon-hour visit one day, the rather frail young man saw at close range two giants of British archeology—Sir A. H. Layard and Sir Henry Rawlinson. Layard was famous for having discovered the Nineveh treasures. But in Smith's eyes, the burly Rawlinson was an even more glamorous figure, for Rawlinson, while leading the adventurous life of a political agent on the frontiers of the Empire, had brought off a dazzling feat of scholarship.

On trips to remote places, Rawlinson had copied mysterious inscriptions left by vanished civilizations, and then had taken up, as the most challenging possible puzzle, the task of reading them. After years of work he had succeeded in establishing the signs and rules of three of the lost languages so well that any scholar willing to put in enough close work could decipher them.

The cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing of the ancient Assyrians was among Rawlinson's triumphs, although it turned out later that, unknown to archeologists at the time, George Freiderich Grotefend, a 27-year-old German school teacher, had cracked the same problem—on a bet—40 years earlier. Rawlinson and other scholars had gone much further, and it was mainly due to them that the clay tablets, buried in the wreckage of Nineveh 2,500 years earlier, now could be understood by the initiated.

A chance comment helped nudge George Smith toward fame. A Museum attendant remarked that it was a shame nobody took the trouble to read "them bird tracks" on thousands of clay tablets in the back room. Who could say what secrets in the long history of the Bible lands might not be I revealed? Smith's vague ambition to emulate Rawlinson crystallized then and there into a resolve: he would learn to read cuneiform. It seemed a daring goal for a man who had been forced by poverty to drop out of school at the age of 15. It was not surprising that the tablets had been ignored in the excitement created by the tremendous finds Layard's diggers had hauled out of the ruined palaces of long-dead kings at Nineveh and its suburbs. The spectacular treasures are still among the most thrilling in the British Museum, just as similar objects taken from the nearby wreckage of Sargon's palace by the great French archeologist Paul Emile Botta are among the best in the Louvre. They include powerfully sculptured alabaster statues of human-headed lions and bulls with wings, fabulous five-legged beasts, friezes in beautifully executed bas-relief with scenes of war and the hunt, engraved chests, rich vases, well-minted coins, paintings, and a thousand other things—all from a highly-organized civilization whose existence had been blurred by time into legend.

Nevertheless, while the Victorian public was flocking to the exhibit halls to see the wonders, George Smith plunged into his new hobby in the storeroom. Almost every day he slipped away from his engraver's bench to spend the noon hour poring over tablets or matching fragments broken by workmen in shoveling them around like so much coal. Tolerant Museum officials, noticing that Smith's sharp eye enabled him to see at a glance subtle differences not apparent to them, allowed him to make papier mache "squeezes" for closer study at night.

Meantime, Smith was spending every shilling he could spare on books about Mesopotamia, the ancient "land of the two rivers," and about Nineveh and Babylon, its rival capitals in the days of the Old Testament. Within a few months, to the astonishment of the savants, Smith was deciphering cuneiform. With that accomplishment a lost world of marvels lay before him.

It was a fortunate chance that the tablets he studied came from the library of 30,000 "volumes" King Assurbanipal had collected 25 centuries before. That cultured young monarch, grandson of the bloodthirsty Sennacherib, was the world's first encyclopedist. His domain corresponded to the territory of modern Iraq and much of Syria, and its history runs back to ancient Sumer, first of all cities. The region had produced the first civilization in history, the first architecture, and the first science. Assurbanipal wanted to preserve in his capital all the knowledge men anywhere in the known world had gained.

"Seek out and bring to me the precious tablets for which there are no copies in Assyria," the King ordered his agents as far away as India and Egypt.

Works on farming and irrigation were especially interesting to the King. The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers was made fertile in his day—as it had been for several centuries before him—by a network of well regulated canals, and Assurbanipal wanted to make sure the methods he was sponsoring were as modern as any the Egyptians were using along the Nile.

The tablets poured in and were filed away in the King's vast new library which stood with equally splendid palaces and office buildings in a long row along the east bank of the Tigris. Already catalogued in the royal library were some astonishing books: a treatise on geometry as advanced as the one Euclid wrote 1,500 years later (and which is still in use today); and an astronomical work on the Saros, or cycle of 223 lunar months over which eclipses repeat themselves. The Assyrians were keen astronomers, and had compiled at that time a continuous record of planet positions and eclipses which covered a far longer span of time than any similar record of our own era. They were good at arithmetic too. They divided the circle into 360 degrees of 60 minutes each, as we do today, and they found out that by giving numbers a value according to position, they could make a few symbols indicate enormous quantities. Other systems in use in antiquity were much more cumbersome, as anyone who has tried to multiply Roman numerals must know.

Archeologists smile over the story of an eager apprentice who could not sleep until he had deciphered the hieroglyphics on an old bottle. The strange inscription yielded a humdrum message: "Please replace stopper after use." After practicing on similarly prosaic writings—deeds, accounts, and court decisions from the provinces—Smith moved up to more complicated inscriptions, and good luck marked his first try. He deciphered the Biblical story of Jehu's payment of tribute to King Shalmaneser, and thanks to the eclipse record, was able to establish the date as well. Sir Henry Rawlinson was impressed, and wangled a minor Museum job for Smith. In 1867 the eager young amateur's hobby became a profession. Smith's luck held. His first feats as a professional were remarkable. He determined that the Elamites invaded Babylonia in 2280 B.C., and that a total eclipse of the sun had occurred at Nineveh in the month of Siva, or May, of 703 B.C. Those two solid dates were among the many he used to unlock the sequence of dynasties.

Smith's colleagues soon realized that he was a man of extraordinary powers. He could recall the complete contents of every tablet he had deciphered, how it looked, and where it was stored. When he went outside his special area to decipher some Cypriot inscriptions which had long baffled scholars, his friend A.H. Sayce hailed him as "an intellectual pick-lock" with a "heaven-born gift of divining the meaning of a forgotten language and of discovering the clue to an unknown alphabet."

Burrowing deeper into his treasure trove, Smith made an astonishing discovery. The "book" he was deciphering was the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the very first written story in the history of mankind. Smith's copy had been stamped out on 12 clay tablets 3,000 years earlier, and it was an old tale even then.

But it was not the story's age that thrilled Smith. As he groped his way through the damaged eleventh tablet in the series, he could barely suppress an un-scholarly shout. The narrative he was reading was nothing other than the Biblical story of The Flood—but the Epic of Gilgamesh was centuries old when Genesis was written!

Except for 17 lines missing with a lost fragment of the tablet, it was all there: the Lord's flood advisory warning, directions for building the Ark and stocking it with all the animals in pairs, the prodigious rainstorm. The landing on a mountain peak, the dispatch of birds as scouts, and the rainbow of promise at the end. Everything was the same except for Noah, who went under the name of Ut-Nipishtim in the earlier version.

Public interest in Assyriology, as archeological exploration in Mesopotamia is called, was especially keen in Britain and America a century ago. Everybody knew something of the background through familiarity with the Bible. The Prophet Abraham had walked its plains, Isaiah and other prophets had hurled curses—with good reason—at its cities, Daniel had emerged from his ordeal there, and Jonah was buried on one of its mountains. Beside the Waters of Babylon the captive Jews had wept for Zion, there they had marveled at the Tower of Babel, and there Nebuchadnezzar, who built the Hanging Gardens, had ruled in all his might and madness.

How much was inspired truth, how much legend? We know now, through recent excavations at Ur of the Chaldees by Sir Leonard Woolley, that the entire plain between the Mountains of Elam on the east and the Syrian Desert on the west—some 30,000 square miles—was once submerged by a tremendous flood, and that the Biblical story and that of Gilgamesh are echoes of a historical event remembered from the dawn of civilization.

But that's now. A century ago, all was in doubt. The raging debate over the creation of man which had been touched off by publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species helped bring interest in the findings of science on Assyria to fever heat. George Smith's discovery was well timed. His monograph on The Early History of Babylon, published in 1871, was eagerly read and hotly debated.

In a public lecture attended by William Gladstone and other notables, on December 3, 1872, Smith quietly announced that although part of the text was missing, the Epic of Gilgamesh showed that the Bible's account of the Deluge was merely a Hebrew adaptation of an age-old Babylonian story. His statement created a sensation. People who regarded the Bible as completely original and equally inspired in every detail listened to Smith's summary with anger or dismay. Others who saw the sacred writings of the Hebrews as legends with some basis in fact were pleased. But almost everyone agreed in worrying about that missing fragment of Tablet Eleven. Smith really should have the complete text to work with. Perhaps the missing portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh had survived through 50 centuries and could still be found. It was that suggestion, shrewdly planted by George Smith and eagerly taken up by the public, that led to the great good luck of Mr. Smith.

Museum officials had been deaf to their employe's hints of a trip to Nineveh for a look around. The institution was hard up, of course, and Smith, after all, was a self-taught man in a minor post. Fortunately, the Daily Telegraph had a promotion man who knew a hot story when he saw one, and he persuaded the newspaper to offer a prize of 1,000 guineas to the man who would bring back from the ruins of Nineveh the missing fragment of the Flood story. As planned, it was Smith himself who took up the challenge.

For the ex-engraver, it was the chance of a lifetime, a dream come true. The Museum gave him a six-month leave of absence, and perhaps with the aid of the Telegraph he scraped together some money for expenses. In January 1873, he reached Constantinople.

Turkish government officials at that time were convinced that all archeologists were looking for gold. They scoffed at Smith's claim to be looking for a clay tablet, pointing out that the British Museum already had several carloads of clay tablets, and two months of negotiations, backed by some mild pressure by the British Foreign Office, were needed to obtain the Sultan's "firman," or permission to dig. In March, however, Smith was aboard a horse, probably for the first time in his life, and crossing the Syrian Desert. Destination: Nineveh.

The remains of Nineveh are buried with an enormous mound or "tell" called Kuyunjik, which rises 90 feet from the desert floor on the east bank of the Tigris, immediately opposite the old Arab town of Mosul. Like all visitors to the site, Smith fell into melancholy thought on the vast span of human history cut off by destruction of the city by the Medes in 612 B.C. The site had been settled continuously since 5000 B.C., so that Nineveh had existed as a city almost twice as long as it has since existed as a ruin.

Nineveh's last years were its most splendid, but after Sennacherib made it the Assyrian capital, it lasted only 90 years. He had protected it with double walls and a 77-foot moat crossed by arched bridges, but it fell at last on that fateful August day, after a three-month siege. The troops of King Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar, and his allies overran the ancient city with sword and torch. They slaughtered men, women, and children impartially, except for those they especially disliked, whom they impaled. When they left after days of wild murder and looting, Nineveh and all of its gorgeous buildings, including the finest library of antiquity, lay in smoldering ruins. The vengeful predictions of the Old Testament prophets had been carried out to the letter.

Rains over the centuries dissolved the mud-brick core of the wrecked buildings; dust from the desert created by destruction of the irrigation system swirled over the site, obliterating all signs of human habitation so thoroughly that when Xenephon and the 10,000 passed that way 300 years after the fall, they did not recognize it as a former city. Until the 19th century, when the great French archeologist Emile Paul Botta identified it, nobody even knew for sure where Nineveh had stood. Except for occasional stray samples dug out by wandering Arabs, the clay tablets had remained under 20 feet of dirt, their hard-won knowledge lost.

Smith's heart sank as he began to realize the full enormity of his task. Nineveh itself had measured three miles across, and it was the center of a "metropolitan area" which stretched 23 miles from the Palace of Sargon at Khorsabad (excavated by Botta) in the north to that of Nimrod in the south. That entire "Assyrian Triangle" is a mass of ruins, many of them left churned by archeological expeditions and by local robbers. The fragment Smith sought might be anywhere, if it still existed at all.

Assurbanipal's library was, of course, the logical starting place, but Layard's party had covered it up before hostile Arabs chased them off the "dig" 25 years earlier. Smith found it after a brief search, and then suffered a rude shock:

"This pit had been used since the close of the last excavations for a quarry," he wrote, "and stones for the building of the Mosul bridge had been regularly extracted from it. The bottom of the pit was now full of massive fragments of stone from the basement wall of the palace jammed in between heaps of smaller fragments of stone, cement, bricks, and clay, all in utter confusion."

It seemed flatly impossible that his special fragment of clay could have escaped destruction in the violence that produced such a tangle of rubble, but Smith had the eye of a hawk and an indelible mental image of what he sought. Besides, 1,000 guineas was a lot of money in those days, especially to a young man who had rarely had a pound in his pocket.

Smith's great stroke of good luck, surely one of the most remarkable in the history of science, came on May 14, 1873. As usual, he had put the day's crop of cuneiform fragments in a sack and ridden back to the khan in Mosul where he and his horse were staying. Shortly after he sat down to examine them, he leaped out of his chair in joy. His million-to-one gamble had paid off. The fragment in his hand was the missing piece of the Deluge story, and it contained the 17 lost lines. He had succeeded, as he wrote later, in filling in "the only place where there was a serious gap in the story."

The rest was anti-climax. With bland disregard for the urgencies of journalism, Smith waited for several days before telegraphing the proprietors of the Daily Telegraph. It was well that he did. The newspaper created a great stir with the story of the discovery in its issue of May 21, 1874, but told Smith that as far as they were concerned his mission was accomplished. Fortunately, Smith had used the interval productively. By creeping under tons of rocks which threatened to collapse at any minute, he salvaged "two portions of the sixth tablet of the Gilgamesh series relating to the conquest of the winged bull," he wrote in his subsequent book, Assyrian Discoveries. He also turned up an invaluable ' "King List," or record of the succession and duration of the Babylonian dynasties, and pieces of a cuneiform syllabary or dictionary.

"I searched all around for other fragments of this remarkable tablet," he reported. "Large blocks of stone, with carving and inscriptions, fragments of ornamental pavement, painted bricks and decorations were scattered in all directions, showing how complete was the destruction of this portion of the palace ... One day a workman [uncovered] the edge of a tablet which was jammed between the blocks of stone. We extracted the fragment of tablet, which proved to be part of the syllabary, and joined the fragment already found." The greater part of the rest of this tablet was found "adhering to the roof of the trench." On June 9, after giving a dinner for friends he had made in Mosul, Smith left for England with his treasures.

Honors interspersed with some brickbats were showered on the young archeologist upon his arrival in London. Some skeptics hinted that the Deluge tablets were fakes, and Smith's alleged discovery an elaborate hoax. Although echoes of those charges appeared in print (by the Religious Tract Society) as late as 1925, all significant steam seeped out of the controversy soon after Smith's return. His evidence that the Bible account of the Flood was borrowed from Babylon was too convincing to be denied.

The British Museum promoted Smith, and income from writing and lecturing helped put his wife and brood of small children in easier circumstances. In 1874 he made another attempt to dig in Mesopotamia, but the Ottoman government, offended by some of his remarks on Turkish rule, gave him such a bad time about permits that he accomplished little. He spent the next few months translating and piecing together Babylonian accounts of "The Creation," "The Fall," and the "Tower of Babel."

There is a widespread superstition that Fate manages to balance off a resounding bit of good luck with another equally bad. In the last year of his life, Smith was given good reason for believing it. He did, in truth, have one final triumph which might alone have insured him an honored place in the history of archeology. He was held up in Aleppo, in March of 1876, by reports of Muslim riots and an outbreak of plague in the Mosul region. To pass the time usefully he explored the upper reaches of the Euphrates, and discovered the ruins of a vast city whose existence had barely been suspected. It was Carchemish, the lost southern capital of the Hittite Empire, and its discovery, Professor Sayce wrote at the time, "bids fair to rival in importance that of Nineveh itself." With that feat, Smith's good luck ran out.

Accompanied by Dr. Eneberg, a rising young Finnish archeologist, he pushed on to Baghdad, and after exasperating delays there, was allowed by the Turkish authorities to move on to Mosul. But the trip was in vain. The area was in political turmoil, the Arabs were hostile and the plague epidemic had not burned itself out. Although Smith had the Sultan's grudgingly given "firman," local authorities would not let him dig"

At every turn he was baited by the most pettifogging quirks and scruples," the London Times reported indignantly, "until at last he could bear it no longer and resolved to return home."

At that point his friend Eneberg fell suddenly ill and died, and the grief-stricken Smith, his own health rapidly failing, set off on horseback for the 350-mile ride across the desert to Aleppo.

It was a terrible trip. Smith grew steadily weaker as he followed an old caravan trail along the Turkish border, hundreds of miles from any medical care, eating what he could find in the miserable villages along the way, sleeping whenever exhaustion compelled him to stop.

Between spells of delirium he faithfully made entries in his journal. Some suggested ways to make the best use of his unfinished archeological work; others expressed his growing concern for the fate of his wife and children (who were pensioned later). Almost the last entry read: "I have done my duty thoroughly ... I do not fear the change ..."

In the village of Ikisji on the Turkish border, Smith collapsed and was left to die in a hut which he noticed was of the same primitive style as those first built on the site of Nineveh. With his last reserves of strength, he tried to put his notes in order.

John Parsons, a dentist who had been sent belatedly to search by the British Consul, found him there and took him in a cart over 60 bone-shaking miles to the Consul's home in Aleppo. There the man England was hailing as "the greatest of Assyriologists" died on August 19, 1876. He is remembered in an occasional footnote as a very lucky man.

Robert S. Strother, now a roving editor for the Reader's Digest, has worked for the Associated Press, and Time and during World War II put out the Middle East editon of Yank. He has contributed more than 50 articles to the Digest.

This article appeared on pages 6-11 of the January/February 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1971 images.