George Smith was born on March 26, 1840, in Chelsea, England. He became a bank note engraver with an interest in archaeology.
Smith was an intelligent and talented young man who was held back by his working-class background. Education was not readily available to him, so he made a point of educating himself. He excelled as an engraver and, with a wife and young family, he spent his lunch hours in the British Museum, teaching himself cuneiform.
Smith’s proficiency with cuneiform soon surpassed the staff at the Museum and thus he came to the attention of Henry Rawlinson, the leading Assyrian scholar of the day. Rawlinson arranged for Smith to be made assistant to the Assyriology department, to work at translations of Babylonian tablets.
So it was in 1872 that he sat in a small room in the British Museum poring over the recently acquired tablets from Assyria.
These tablets were first unearthed near Mosul by Austen Henry Layard and his Iraqi assistant Hormuzd Rassam during an archeological expedition in 1840.
Among the tablets Smith deciphered the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, about an ancient Babylonian folk hero who travelled the world facing new and exciting adventures. This epic story is the oldest-known written work of literature in the world.
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As George Smith read this difficult cuneiform script he came across the story of Gilgamesh’s meeting with Uta-napishtim, who told him…
But there the epic of Gilgamesh ended. Alas! The last piece of the puzzle was missing. One tablet still lay buried in the mounds of greater Nineveh. The “London Daily Telegraph” offered 1000 guineas to the person who would go and find the missing tablet!
George Smith went, and in Mesopotamia he attacked the pile of rubble left by Layard and Rassam. It was, as one writer says, like looking for a needle in a haystack! (Gods, Graves and Scholars, by C. Ceram, page 274). But he found it!
Not only did it complete Uta-napishtam’s story … it told of a flood … and a boat and animals … and of birds being sent forth when the boat rested on a mountain.
Here was the Babylonian version of Noah’s Ark. There are some real differences from the Biblical account. But it is obvious that both have a common origin.
As Christians we believe this Babylonian version was handed down by word of mouth, being distorted along the way; whereas the Biblical account, vouched for by the Lord Jesus Himself (Matthew 24:37), is an inspired record of what really happened.
Smith made three visits to Mesopotamia, and specifically Assurbanipal’s ancient library at tell Kouyunjik (ancient Nineveh). On his third trip, with the British Museum Professor George Smith fell ill with dysentery and died at Aleppo at the age of 36 on August 19, 1876.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com