George Smith was born in 1840 in London to poor parents, and consequently left school at the tender age of fifteen to take up an apprenticeship with Messrs Bradburry and Evans, a firm of engravers situated not far from the British Museum. Young George worked hard and saved his wages to buy all the latest works about Mesopotamia, the Land Between the Rivers .
George Smith, pioneering English Assyriologist ( Public Domain )
Often he would spend his lunchtimes marveling at the then-recent discoveries from the ancient city of Nineveh that were housed in the museum. The magnificent alabaster statues of human-headed lions and bulls with wings, fabulous five-legged beasts, bas-reliefs depicting scenes of war, richly engraved chests, coins and paintings all proclaiming a civilization whose existence has been blurred by time into mere legend.
Refined low-relief section of a bull-hunt frieze from Nineveh, alabaster, c. 695 BC ( CC BY 3.0 )
Cuneiform writing on the back of a Lamassu ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
It was here, within the hallowed halls of the museum, that the young engraver caught glimpses of two of the leading archaeologists of the time, Sir Henry Rawlinson and Sir Austen Henry Layard.
Gifted Code Breaker
It was a passing comment by a museum attendant that spurred George on to greater things. What if someone could read “them bird tracks”? What secrets were locked away on the thousands of cuneiform-covered fragments of clay tablets that filled the back storeroom? George Smith decided he was going to learn to read the ancient Sumerian script.
As members of the public flocked in their thousands to view the treasures dug out from the ruined palaces of long-dead kings, George worked away at his new passion. Within a few months, and to the surprise of the museum officials, Smith was deciphering cuneiform.
George was lucky enough to have been working on tablets that were part of the massive library of King Assurbanipal from twenty-five centuries earlier. Assurbanipal had ordered his agents, from as far away as Egypt to the west, and India in the east, to “Seek out and bring to me the precious tablets for which there are no copies in Assyria.”
Ashurbanipal as High Priest. ( Public Domain )
Farming and irrigation were of special interest to the King. The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers was made fertile by a massive system of irrigation 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 came from near and far, in their hundreds, and were all given space in the King’s magnificent new library which stood, with its associated offices and palaces, on the east bank of the Tigris River. Thousands of tablets filled with the wisdom of the known world: books on architecture, law, astronomy, science and mathematics were all catalogued in the King’s library at Nineveh.
In 1867, Sir Henry Rawlinson wangled George a job at the museum. The amateur became a professional. His work output was amazing. He managed to show that the Elamites (from present day Iran) invaded Babylonia in 2280 BCE, and that a total eclipse of the sun had occurred at Nineveh in the month of Siva, or May, of 703 BCE. Those two solid dates were among the many he used to unlock the sequence of dynasties.
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Top Image: Deriv; Famous relief from the Old Babylonian period (now in the British museum) called the “Burney relief” or “Queen of the Night relief”. ( Public Domain ), Cuneiform tablet c. 24th century BCE ( Public Domain )
By Ted Loukes