‘Decoding Gilgamesh’ – The Sumerian Scholar who REFUSED to IGNORE the Evidence

The gilgamesh poem went on to become one of the most important archaeological finds of the 19th century. Even today, it is still the oldest substantial epic that we have. So who was George Smith, and why is his discovery of this ancient text so enduringly significant? The poem tells of the adventures of the king of Uruk in Mesopotamia from around 4,000 years ago. The reason that the Epic’s rediscovery caused such a controversy in the 1870s was that the King’s voyages were analogues for stories from the Old Testament, pressed into clay at least 1,000 years before the Bible’s first books and many centuries before Homer. The impact of the discovery challenged literary and biblical scholarship and would help to redefine beliefs about the age of the Earth. –– ADVERTISEMENT –– The ”flood’’ tablet constituted the 11th part of the 12-book Epic, and belonged to a slush pile of shards shipped back to the British Museum from Ottoman Iraq by Sir Austen Henry Layard. There were so few people in the world able to read ancient cuneiform that the fragment lay undisturbed in the Museum for nearly 20 years. Cuneiform is not a language, but an alphabet. The script’s wedge-shaped letters (cuneus is Latin for wedge) are formed by impressing a cut reed into soft clay. It was used by speakers of several Near Eastern languages including Sumerian, Akkadian, Urartian and Hittite; depending on the language and date of a given script, its alphabet could consist of many hundreds of letters. If this weren’t challenging enough, cuneiform employs no punctuation (no sentences or paragraphs), it does not separate words, there aren’t any vowels and most tablets are fragmented and eroded. Related Articles Sordid song and dance over Richard’s bones 24 Sep 2013 Stella Loves… 25 Oct 2010 An epic, but not an epic treatment 09 Jan 2005 A strange story simply told 09 Nov 2004 Lost history of when Britannia ruled the waves 14 Jul 2013 Christopher Howse: On the plains of Nineveh 07 Jul 2007 A fragment of the epic (ALAMY) Smith, an unlikely scholar, was the man for the task. Born of modest parents in Chelsea (his father was a carpenter), he left school at 14. He married young, moved to Crogsland Road in Camden, and had six children. Unsatisfied, he spent what spare time and money he had pursuing his interests of Assyriology and biblical archaeology. He was so often seen at the British Museum that Sir Henry Rawlinson (the discoverer of the Behistun monument, a “Rosetta Stone of cuneiform languages”) eventually employed him as a classifier. But even for such highly skilled and specialist work, he was paid little more than the cleaning staff. On the evening he came across Layard’s fragment, Smith is said to have become so animated that, mute with excitement, he began to tear his clothes off. (Though much repeated, there is only a single source for this story, E A W Budge’s Rise and Progress of Assyriology – published 50 years after Smith’s death.)

 

h/t silversides