George Smith (assyriologist)

George Smith (assyriologist)

Infobox musical artist
Name = George Smith

Img_capt = George Smith, assyriologist
Born = March 26, 1840
Died = August 19, 1876

George Smith (Chelsea, London March 26, 1840 – August 19, 1876), was a pioneering English Assyriologist who first discovered and translated the "Epic of Gilgamesh", the oldest-known written work of literature.


Smith was naturally talented, but since he'd been born the son of a working-class family in Victorian England, his ability to move upward and gain a formal education was limited. [Damrosch, pp.12-15] At fourteen, Smith was apprenticed to a printing firm to learn banknote engraving, in which he excelled. In his spare time, however, he became fascinated with Assyrian culture and history, reading everything that was available. His interest was so keen that while working at the print shop to support his wife and children, he spent his lunch hours at the British Museum, studying the cuneiform tablets that were first unearthed near Mosul by Austen Henry Layard and his Iraqi assistant Hormuzd Rassam during an archeological expedition in 1840 and then brought back from the Middle East to the British Museum where they were made available to the public on a limited scale.

Smith soon became more knowledgeable about cuneiform than the museum staff and he was brought to the attention of leading Assyrian scholar of the day Henry Rawlinson. Smith then made his first important discovery, the date of the payment of the tribute by Jehu, king of Israel, to Shalmaneser III. Sir Henry suggested to the trustees of the Museum that Smith should join him in the preparation of the third and fourth volumes of "The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia". ["The cuneiform inscriptions of Western Asia" IV, London 1861 and III, London, 1870] In 1867, Smith was appointed assistant in the Assyriology Department.

The earliest of Smith's successes was the discovery of two inscriptions, one fixing the date of the total eclipse of the sun in the month Sivan in May 763 BC, and the other the date of an invasion of Babylonia by the Elamites in 2280 BC.

In 1871, Smith published "Annals of Assur-bani-pal" transliterated and translated, and communicated to the newly-founded Society of Biblical Archaeology a paper on "The Early History of Babylonia," and an account of his decipherment of the Cypriote inscriptions.

In 1872, Smith achieved world-wide fame by his translation of the Chaldaean account of the Great Flood, which he read before the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3 and whose audience included the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, the only known instance of a serving British Premier ever attending a lecture on Babylonian literature.

This work is better known today as the final chapter of the "Epic of Gilgamesh", the oldest known work of literature in the world, for which Smith is now popularly and justly famed as the discoverer. The following January, Edwin Arnold, the editor of "The Daily Telegraph", arranged for Smith to go to Nineveh at the expense of that newspaper, and carry out excavations with a view to finding the missing fragments of the Flood story. This journey resulted not only in the discovery of some missing tablets, but also of fragments that recorded the succession and duration of the Babylonian dynasties.

In November 1873, Smith again left England for Nineveh, for a second expedition, this time at the expense of the Museum, and continued his excavations at the tell of Kouyunjik (Nineveh). An account of his work is given in "Assyrian Discoveries", published early in 1875. The rest of the year was spent in fixing together and translating the fragments relating to the creation, the results of which were published in "The Chaldaean Account of Genesis" (1880, co-written with Archibald Sayce).

In March, 1876, the trustees of the British Museum sent Smith once more to excavate the rest of Assurbanipal's library. At Ikisji, a small village about sixty miles northeast of Aleppo, he fell ill with dysentery. He died in Aleppo on August 19. He left a wife and several children, to whom a small annuity of 150 pounds was granted by the Queen.



Smith wrote about eight important works, [Damrosch, p.77] including linguistic studies, historical works, and translations of major Mesopotamian literary texts. They include:

*George Smith (1871). "Annals of Assur-bani-pal".
*George Smith (1875). "Assyrian Discoveries: An Account of Explorations and Discoveries on the Site of Nineveh, During 1873 to 1874"
*George Smith (1876). "The Chaldean Account of Genesis"
*George Smith (1878). "History of Sennacherib". Edited by Archibald Henry Sayce.
*George Smith (18--). "The History of Babalonia". Edited by Archibald Henry Sayce.

Online editions
* [ "Assyrian Discoveries"] . New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876. From Google Books.
* [ "The Chaldean Account of Genesis"] . New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876. From Internet Archive.
* [ "History of Sennacherib"] . London: Williams and Norgate, 1878. From Internet Archive.
* [ "The History of Babalonia"] . London : Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge ; New York : E. & J. B. Young. From Internet Archive.


*Walter Johannes Damrosch (2006). "The Buried Book". ISBN 0805080295. Ch 1-2 (80 pages) of Smith's life, includes new-found evidence about Smith's death.
*C. W. Ceram [Kurt W. Marek] (1967), "Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archeology", trans. E. B. Garside and Sophie Wilkins, 2nd ed. New York: Knopf, 1967. See chapter 22.
*Robert S. Strother (1971). [ "The great good luck of Mister Smith"] , in "Saudi Aramco World", Volume 22, Number 1, January/February 1971. Last accessed March 2007.
*"" (1876), by Archibald Henry Sayce, in "Littell's Living Age", Volume 131, Issue 1687.
*David Damrosch (2007). [ "Epic Hero"] , in "Smithsonian", Volume 38, Number 2, May 2007. Last accessed June 2007.

External links

* [;idno=cdl205 Smith, "The Chaldean account of Genesis"] Cornell University Library Historical Monographs Collection. {Reprinted by} [ Cornell University Library Digital Collections]

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