Mesopotamian flood myths (4)

George Smith was born into a working-class family in Chelsea, London, on March 26, 1840. He had a limited education and at the age of 14 went to work in a London publishing house as an engraver. He was fascinated by the ancient world and would spend his lunch hours either at the British Museum or studying the early works of Layard and Rawlinson on the cuneiform tablets that had been unearthed near Mosel (The site of the Assyrian city of Nineveh) during the excavations between 1840 and 1855.

George Smith
George Smith

At some point during this period, Smith was introduced to Henry Rawlinson, and by 1861, he was working in the evenings, sorting, cleaning and cataloging cuneiform texts in the Museum’s collection. During this period he made a number of important discoveries, including the text regarding the tribute payment made by Jehu King of Israel to Shalmanessar III, the first independent confirmation of a king from the OT.


He assisted Rawlinson in the preparation of some of his manuscripts and was eventually appointed to a position at the British Museum in 1870. He continued to make important discoveries amongst the text tablets in the museum’s collection. The discovery, for which he is perhaps best known came in 1872 when he realised that the text he was working on was an account of a great flood.

tablet from the epic-of-Gilgamesh detailing the flood story
tablet from the epic-of-Gilgamesh detailing the flood story

Further work on this showed it to be the 11th tablet of what we now know as the epic of Gilgamesh [handout p3]. Armed with the information as to the discovery of this text, Smith set off to Nineveh to carry out further excavations and hopefully to find more of the flood story. In this he was successful as well as also discovering other texts which would enlighten scholars on the history of the Assyrian Empire. Smith was to return to Nineveh for two further seasons of excavation, but in 1876, he contracted dysentery and died at Aleppo.
The collection of Ashurbanipal in the library at Nineveh and the work 1900 years later of George Smith, Henry Rawlinson and subsequent scholars has given us a unique insight into many aspects of the Assyrian Empire and its client kingdoms. It has taught us about administration and religion and literature in the Assyrian empire.

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