Episode 49. George Smith: the man behind the headlines: transcript

0:13  JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:32  JT

In December 1872, a young assyriologist named George Smith shared what he thought was an exciting discovery. The rest of the world agreed. He made headlines internationally. Immediately, and single handedly, he changed the position of assyriology in the popular consciousness forever. In this episode, we look at Smith, his work, and his legacy. To mark the 150th anniversary of his landmark lecture, I call on several colleagues to shed light on this special character. Let’s meet them now, in order of appearance.

1:11  SH

My name is Sophus Helle. I am a writer, translator, and cultural historian. And I have a special love for the Babylonian epics and Gilgamesh in particular.

1:23  GB

My name is Dr. Gareth Brereton. I’m an archaeologist. I’m interested in the archaeology of early Mesopotamia. And I’m currently working on some research for the Tello / Girsu project, looking at the archival sources and the collecting histories around Girsu, and its involvement with the British Museum.

1:42  SP

My name is Strahil Panayotov. I’m currently a curator for Assyrian medicine at the British Museum and working also as assistant at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. So I’m basically researching the cuneiform world and the stories around this world.

2:00  EJ

My name is Enrique Jimenez, an assyriologist at LMU Munich. And I work on Babylonian literature, which is the topic that brought me to George Smith.

2:10  CW

I am Cornelia Wunsch. I am an assyriologist. And I have very early on specialised in the late period, which nobody wanted to do back then. And I was interested in legal documents. Of course, they give you a lot of knowledge about what people were doing, how they were expanding their lives.

2:33  MW

My name is Mark Weeden, and I’m an associate professor of ancient Middle Eastern languages at University College London, in the department of Greek and Latin.

2:43  PS

I’m Pippa Steele, a senior research associate based at the Faculty of Classics in Cambridge. Much of my scholarship has been dedicated to the languages and writing systems of ancient Cyprus, as well as the Bronze Age Aegean and systems of Cretan hieroglyphic, Linear A, and Linear B, plus the later Greek alphabet.

3:04  JT

I also bring in a former curator at the British Museum during the late 19th and early 20th century–Sir E.A. Wallis Budge. Budge was himself a remarkable character. He rose from humble origins to a position of high regard in society. He earned a reputation as an entertaining dinner guest, no doubt due to the many humorous anecdotes he recounted. Some of the information he relays is demonstrably wrong, however. So we must take everything he says with a pinch of salt.

3:43  JT

We start the story with one of Budge’s anecdotes set in 1872. The story goes that Smith was working on the tablet we now know as the Flood Tablet.

3:56  JT

One side of it was easily legible; but the greater part of the other was covered with a thick whitish limelike deposit, which resisted all his brushings and attempts to remove it. It happened that Ready [Robert Ready, hired by the museum to conserve tablets] was absent from the Museum on private business for several weeks, and there was no one else to whom Birch [Samuel Birch, head of the department] would allow the tablet to be given for cleaning. Smith was constitutionally a highly nervous, sensitive man; and his irritation at Ready’s absence knew no bounds. He thought that the tablet ought to supply a very important part of the legend; and his impatience to verify his theory produced in him an almost incredible state of mental excitement, which grew greater as the days passed. At length Ready returned, and the tablet was given to him to clean. … A few days later, … Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines which Ready had brought to light ; and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, ” I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.” Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself !

5:21  JT

Smith had just found a story about a great flood, the details of which were astonishingly similar to the biblical story of Noah. He promptly wrote up his discovery and presented it to Birch and to Henry Rawlinson, who was leading the Museum’s programme to publish the most important tablets. It was decided that he should share his amazing discovery with the world. So Sophus, how did he do this?

5:47  SH

Smith presents his findings at the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3 1872. And this is a much anticipated moment. And we know this in part from an article that was published in The Times. In the wonderful style of 19th century newspaper reports, you get a sense of the cheering, and the clapping that went on in the audience. So it’s quite a lively picture. And it’s liveliness for us today derives in no small part from the fact that The Times’ report says that the sitting Prime Minister, William Gladstone was in the audience, which gives you a sense of both how anticipated this was and how important this discovery was felt to be.

6:29  JT

Why was Smith’s discovery so important that even the Prime Minister turned up to hear an academic lecture?

6:37  SH

Its importance derived in large part from the fact that Smith had entitled this lecture “The Chaldean account of the Deluge” and there was a real sense that this was of particular importance for the historicity of the Bible. One can easily read this discovery from a Victorian perspective as proving the Bible right and saying, okay, we now have independent confirmation that the Deluge as described in the Bible is actually a real historical event. But at the same time, there quickly came a sense that later in Germany exploded into what we call the Bibel-Babel controversy, that actually, this was a challenge to the historicity of the Bible. Because the biblical account could be seen as dependent on the Babylonian sources; that actually the Bible was an adaptation of originally Babylonian sources.

7:28  SH

For me, what is particularly interesting is this sense of confusion, perhaps, but also of wonder at this new thing that had arrived. Umberto Eco has a wonderful book, where he describes the confusion felt by European scientists when they discovered the duck-billed platypus that seemed to defy all of their established scientific categories, and they had to slot this new creature into their taxonomies. And it’s something of the same sense of wonder and excitement, but also confusion that I read in these reports. People don’t quite know what to do with this text. I think that is evident, especially through people attempting to understand it through a series of comparisons. Throughout Smith’s account, and throughout the response that is described in The Times, people are comparing Gilgamesh to other texts that they knew. And those are especially Greek texts, and of course, biblical texts. The most obvious comparison is of course, to the biblical tale of the flood, and the parallels there are more than just comparisons. They are posited to be real, direct historical parallels. Smith also describes in his lecture Gilgamesh as this, like Herakles-, or Hercules-like figure, and especially dwells on how both heroes killed lions. And this was actually an important part of the early reception of the Epic, this parallel to Hercules, which we don’t think about so much today.

8:57  SH

When we think about the relation between Gilgamesh and the Greek stories, we think about another comparison that is made not so much by Smith himself, but actually by Gladstone. So after Smith has given his lecture, Gladstone stands up and offers a speech in best Prime Minister fashion, in which he says that this new discovery is important not only for the Bible, but also for the understanding of Homer. And then he goes into this like lyrical praise of Homer and calls Homer, “the friend of my youth, the friend of my middle age, the friend of my old age.” But I think that’s a really important moment to focus on, because it’s easy to slot these Victorians in our minds as oh, just biblically-obsessed people who cared about Gilgamesh, because it reminded them of the Deluge. But they are actually also attuned to its literary significance already on the very first day of Gilgamesh’s modern life. So that’s how Gilgamesh enters the world, by people trying to make sense of it by likening it to texts that they knew better.

10:03  JT

The flood story was interesting for all sorts of different reasons, then?

10:07  SH

I think there are a number of reasons why Gilgamesh does provoke this sensation when it is first discovered. One is that there just was a very large interest in Assyrian matters in general. Frederick Bohrer, in his work on the reception of the visual arts of Assyria in Europe, has noted that there is a bit of a class divide here. That actually the curators of the British Museum and the established art historians looked down on Assyrian reliefs as not fully accomplished, and were much more interested in Greek and even in Egyptian matters. But there was a real popular interest in the Assyrian reliefs. People outside of the academy were really, really interested in them. And I think that is one backdrop for why Gilgamesh as this Mesopotamian tale exploded onto the scene. 

10:59  SH

The other is–Vybarr Cregan-Reid has a wonderful book on this called Discovering Gilgamesh–that at the time, people were still making sense of what history meant to them in this new way. So there have been these discoveries in geology. And, you know, we’ve coming on to the formulation of a theory of evolution, and so on so forth. These discoveries had radically expanded people’s sense of time. And as Cregan-Reid argues, I think quite convincingly, people at the time had two different notions of history. There was the short history that had been inherited from the Bible of the earth being 6000 years old. And then there was this deep geological time of the history of the Earth stretching back millions and millions of years. And these notions of time kind of co-existed in the late Victorian period. And Gilgamesh falls into that debate and exposes this gap between the two notions of time, because it is felt to be ancient in a way that challenges the shorter notion of time while of course, being not fully geological either. And that is one reason it causes such popular debate and such conceptual confusion.

12:10  JT

How well did Smith actually understand the story?

12:13  SH

I’m actually quite impressed by how well he understands it. And of course, there are very basic things that he doesn’t grasp because the Akkadian language and the cuneiform script was only recently deciphered. And an obvious example of what Smith does not get about the Epic is the name of the main character. The signs that make up the name of Gilgamesh–GISH TUN GIL MASH–it’s not obvious that those should be read Gilgamesh. And it’s only the Theophilus Pinches, who some years later comes up with the correct reading of Gilgamesh in a very dramatic article entitled “Exit Gishtubar”, which was one of the previous readings of the signs. Smith himself has the reading Izdubar, which is for him as good an interpretation of the signs as any. But again, to be fair to him, he does acknowledge that this may very well not be the right reading. The account that he gives, for us it might seem quite garbled, but he also does make a lot of points that remain important to this day, such as identifying Utnapishti with the figure of Xisuthros from Greek mythology. He has a basic outline of the poem in mind that, to me, at least is impressive. 

13:28  JT

Smith isn’t just hoping for an appreciative audience, is he? He’s hoping for something else too.

13:34  SH

Yes, he is. And that’s the other part of Gladstone’s speech because Gladstone very much picks up on this and then quashes it. Gladstone praises what he calls the British tradition of accomplishing great things through individual effort, by which he means no government funding.

13:51  JT

So who was this young man who had just caused such a sensation? Budge describes him like this: “I remember that he was a man of medium height, shy and nervous. He had a broad, high forehead, and keen eyes set rather close together, and he wore a short beard. His hands were small, and his fingers were long, and had curiously pointed tips.”

14:19  JT

Smith was born in 1840, in Chelsea, which was then a working-class neighbourhood. As a 14 year old boy, he took up an apprenticeship at a printing company called Bradbury and Evans, where he learned how to engrave banknotes. According to Budge, one of the owners of that firm declared that Smith was so good at his job that he would have become one of the master engravers of the 19th century. The other said that his decision to give up this well paid job, to follow his literary bent was an act of pure folly.

14:53  JT

Young George was caught up in all the excitement around the antiquities being brought to London from the excavations at Nineveh, and he read everything he could find. As luck would have it, his workplace was located close enough to the British Museum that he could visit during his lunch breaks. He soon came to the attention of Birch, who offered him a role as a repairer. He was supposed to look through the fragments of cuneiform tablets, and join them back into their original complete form. He was obviously very good at this. Budge says that, “He read the Ninevite script with the greatest ease, and his ability to find the general meaning of a passage in an inscription, even though there were words in it that he did not know, proved that he possessed real genius.”

15:42  JT

In 1866, he was rewarded with a promotion to assistant, a more research-based role. Budge continues: “He worked incessantly and heartily cursed the London fog, which deprived him of light. Considering the imperfect state of Assyriological knowledge at that time, and the difficulty of reading the tablets, hundreds of which were still uncleaned, his copies are wonderfully good, and merit the highest praise and the sincere gratitude of all scholars.”

16:13  JT

Yet not everyone viewed Smith positively. Among the visitors to the Museum was an eminent scholar called Jules Oppert. Alongside Rawlinson, Oppert had been one of the four scholars who in 1857 had participated in a test to prove that cuneiform really had been deciphered. Over the years, Rawlinson showed him interesting tablets that had been found, including fragments of what we now know as the Gilgamesh Epic. Oppert secured funding to publish this material, and was very upset to learn that it had been entrusted to Smith. According to Budge, he was bitterly disappointed, and expressed his annoyance vividly and picturesquely in many languages. He bore no malice against Rawlinson and Norris [another assistant] for, said he, ‘they are scholars’, but he took a great dislike to Smith, whom he described as a ‘mechanic’.”

17:14  JT

It was against this background of scholarly rivalry that Smith delivered his spectacular lecture at the Society of Biblical Archaeology. He yearned to excavate Nineveh to find the fragments that would fill gaps in the Flood story. In all the excitement, the Daily Telegraph offered to fund an expedition. In return, they would get to publish regular updates on his progress. It was a rather unusual arrangement.

17:41  SH

It sounds today like an absolutely crazy scheme. But you know, it’s miraculous that it actually works. And I think it’s quite important to note the context in which the Daily Telegraph is doing this–as pointed out by David Damrosch in his work on Gilgamesh’s early reception–they are very much competing with the New York Times that had financed the expedition to find Livingstone in Africa. So there was a sense of one-upmanship.

18:09  JT

Smith set out for Nineveh just a month later. And within just a week of starting work, by the most incredible stroke of luck, he found a fragment that restored the text of the Flood story. Smith was obviously ecstatic, and he wanted to keep digging for more. But the Daily Telegraph now had the headlines they had wanted. They published a message from Smith declaring his mission complete. This was not the message Smith had sent. Outraged, but powerless, he closed the excavations and grudgingly returned to Britain.

18:46  JT

So much for the first expedition. Soon after Smith’s return, he was introduced to the aspiring young Budge. Budge remembers the meeting like this, “He was describing his work among the ruins of Kuyunjik, and its difficulties, with an air almost of apology, although the results which he obtained prove that his mission had been a splendid success. His portion of modesty was so great that I have since thought that he left very little of that quality for the use of later Assyriologists, who have built upon his foundations.”

19:24  JT

The excavation permit was still valid until the spring of the next year, however, so the Museum funded a second expedition. During these excavations, he found many more tablets, but the work did not go smoothly. The wintry weather hindered progress, and relations with local people were complicated. Having handed over duplicate objects for the collection of the Imperial Ottoman Museum in Istanbul, he returned home, tired and frustrated.

19:54  JT

Back in London, Smith devoted himself to research. During this time, Smith produced a whole series of important publications. In his free time, he wrote an account of his two expeditions to Nineveh, which he called, Assyrian Discoveries. It being 1875, this was by no means an excavation report that we would recognise. For all its weaknesses, it was at least a publication (something which not all excavations can claim). It was published quickly. And it does actually contain all sorts of information that we can use to understand something about where objects were found, and what those contexts were like. It’s also a compelling read.

21:05  JT

For him, the first expedition was a great adventure. You can feel his excitement. He starts his story by telling us, “I got off from London on the evening of the 20th of January 1873 and crossed the channel during the night. As the weather was stormy, I paid the usual tribute to Neptune, but reached the French coast in good condition for breakfast.” We can supplement his published account with details from private letters sent to his family. Some of these are now in the archives of the British Museum. One of them is a lovely letter to his son Fred, sent from Istanbul. He tells him that, “I want to come all the way back to England to see you all before I start for Assyria.” He then signs off, “your loving Papa”, before drawing two funny sketches, which you can see in the show notes. One is his son Freddie, the other Smith being seasick with the label “poor Papa in the boat”.

22:09  JT

Despite the mixed results of his archaeological forays, Smith looked set to enjoy a long and very successful career, translating cuneiform tablets. But now fate would deliver one last dramatic turn in Smith’s extraordinary life. Gareth and Strahil explain for us what happens next. Let’s start with you, Gareth. Smith had experienced all kinds of frustrations on his second mission. Yet he ended his book about that mission with a plea for further funding to continue the work. Whose idea was this third mission? And what was it intended to achieve?

22:49  GB

Yes, I mean, in his publication, Smith complains a lot about his second journey, especially the stretch back to Aleppo. So he travelled during a severe winter, where it was raining heavily and the rivers were flooded, so it made crossing very difficult. At one stage of the journey on the approach to Urfa. Smith was also abandoned by his guiding guards. Then at Berecik the customs official seized Smith’s cases of antiquities, despite having the correct paperwork to hand. When the antiquities are finally released, the pasha at Aleppo would not allow Smith and the antiquities to leave the city. And this forced the British Consul to intervene on Smith’s behalf. But despite these complaints, like you say, Smith ends his book about his mission, with what appears to be a plea for 5000 pounds to continue the work for a further three years. However, Smith does not put himself forward to lead any future work. Rather, he states that, “Any interests which may be taken in my labours may take the form of encouraging further and systematic exploration of this important field.”

23:53  GB

So it’s not clear that Smith was interested himself in going on this mission and perhaps thought that someone else might take his place. If then appears that Sir Henry Rawlinson persuaded the Museum Trustees to fund the third expedition to Iraq at the end of 1875. And the objective was to continue excavations at Nineveh in hope to recover more tablets for the British Museum collections. And Smith actually received explicit written instructions by the Principal Librarian, in effect the Museum director, pertaining to all aspects of the expedition, which includes the following: “You will restrict your researchers to the exploration of the mound of Kuyunjik and the remains of the Royal Library of Assyria and especially those portions of the site of the Library, which you have not already excavated. And you will direct your attention in particular to the acquisition of inscribed tablets, whether complete or fragmentary. It is most desirable, moreover, that you should obtain the part of tablets required to complete the portions already in the Museum collection. You will not extend your excavation beyond the limits above prescribed, without obtaining in the first instance the sanction of the Trustees of the British Museum.” So Smith’s instructions were very clear.

25:04  JT

What did Smith think about this third mission?

25:07  GB

He was pledged and he felt compelled to go, even though he obviously–through his letters to his wife–made his feelings clear that he didn’t want to be there at all. This fateful trip did not begin well. Having been held up in Constantinople for months on end to wait for his firman or excavation permit. And he wrote a letter to his wife Mary while stuck in Constantinople. He was overwhelmed by doubts regarding the success of the mission, and actually planned to leave the excavation in the charge of his assistant Peter Mateev so he could return home early. So this is part of the letter: “My Dear Mary, I do not enjoy my stay here. Although I live well, I’m certainly thin and often I feel I would sooner have cold mutton at home than be here. The truth is, I do not do very well as a single man. I’ve been married too long. It was all very well in the first expedition, but the gilt was soon off the gingerbread. And if I had not been pledged, I would not have come now. I have often considerable doubts as to my success and greater doubts as to my stopping until 1877. But we shall see. I start on the 8th. That may alter my tone. It is miserable waiting here. After this it will be two weeks before you hear from me. Kiss all our pets and tell them Papa will soon come back. And look one of these days to see my cab drive up to the door. If I am successful this year, I will come home in July and leave the excavations in the charge of my assistant who is a very good and likely party. Your loving hubby, George.”

26:33  GB

In a letter now lost, Smith actually wrote to the Principal Librarian regarding his plan, to which received the following response. “Dear Sir, I have received your letter of 12th and 20th of March and laid them before the Trustees. As you have not yet been in a position to commence operations at the mounds, there is only a passage in your letter which calls for immediate comment. It is that passage in which you say, referring to Mr. Mathewson, ‘after he has been under my instructions at the excavations, I hope it necessary to be able to leave him in charge of the work and I may return to England.’ These words appear to suggest that you’re contemplating quitting the excavations before the expiration of your leave of absence. This the Trustees consider to be very objectionable. It is not stated that Mr. Mathewson’s labour would be equally efficient with your own, and if not equally efficient, it is clear that such important duties ought not to be left to this person, excepting in cases of absolute necessity, the Trustees wish to receive your explanation of this. I’m very sorry to hear from your last letter that the plague is increasing throughout the country. This will require every precaution on your part.”

27:42  JT

So here we meet an assistant. Until recently, we knew very little about him. Strahil, can you explain for us–who was this mysterious Mr. Mathewson? And how do we know about him?

27:56  SP

So the story around Matthewson so far as I can see it in the literature, so he got famous in [19]93 with an article from Sheila Evers. And she looked upon the British Museum Original Papers. And she noticed that a particular figure there, Mathewson, played a prominent role in the last journey of Smith. This was everything the world knew about him. By a coincidence, more than 10 years ago, I came upon an archive in a remote Bulgarian village in the Balkan Mountains. It turned out that it contained some cuneiform tablets. And it turned out that they were brought there by a person called Peter Mateev. Also in this local museum, there was unpublished autobiography of the same person. And when I went through the autobiography, it turned out that this person Peter Mateev was in fact Mathewson, the last dragoman or assistant of George Smith. It got pretty interesting, because there was a lot of unpublished data that nobody had looked upon it. So in the years after this discovery, whenever I was in the British Museum, I ordered letters. And a kind of interesting story started to appear when you connect the material from the Bulgarian documents that are kept in this local museum, but also in the national library in Sofia and the heritage of Smith in London. 

29:35  JT

What was Mathewson doing in the Middle East?

29:37  SP

This person Peter Mateev was born in this very small village right now called Kotel in Bulgaria. And he was born during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. His parents were wealthy persons. They had a lot of sheep and also land. They were landowners, so they could afford to send their biggest son–this is Peter Mateev–to study first in Malta, and later on to study in the famous Robert College in Istanbul, or Constantinople in those days. And after he finished his study in the famous college, he got a job at the British Post. And there starts the connection with the British Empire.

30:21  SP

In those days, the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, especially the educated subjects, were polyglots. So Peter Mateev knew Bulgarian, knew Turkish, knew Arabic, knew English, I guess also French. They were very cosmopolitan people. It seems that he did quite well in the British Post. A year before he met with Smith, in 1874, he was, so to say, chosen from the British society in Constantinople, to escort and support a British lady traveller. This lady, I still cannot find her real name. She’s also not mentioned in his autobiography. She wanted to go by horse from Constantinople to Baghdad. And this was quite an adventure. It seems that the journey was not quite successful, but Mateev could support her and bring her alive back. And he had a very good reputation in the British society.

31:29  JT

How did he come to be travelling with Smith?

31:32  SP

The next year, in 1875, George Smith arrived in Constantinople waiting for firman. And firman in the Turkish Empire is an official document that gives you a permission to do something. You know, the Turkish authorities in the Ottoman Empire can be quite slow. He was lingering in Constantinople. In fact, having fun in a ranch of a British person for several months. And he was waiting for the firman, but it seems that the firman took a bit longer. And finally he got introduced to Peter Mateev. The person that was important for this connection, so to say, was Sir Philip Francis, who was living and working in Constantinople in those days. And it seems that Peter Mateev and George Smith got along. Finally, they got the firman. Peter Mateev helped a lot in this situation, because he knew all the authorities in Constantinople, since working in the British Post in those days involved the close contact with other representatives. Both had to set off on their journey. But there was one problem. And this problem was that Peter Mateev was a subject of the Ottoman Empire. And he was from the minority; so he was Bulgarian. So in order to be able to deal with the authorities better, he had to receive British passport. So the same person, Philip Francis, managed to get him a British passport,  and his name was slightly changed from Mateev to Mathewson. And then the journey could start.

33:24  JT

So we have Smith in Istanbul, and he’s picked up an assistant in Peter Mateev. What actually happened on this third expedition?

33:34  SP

The thing is that in order to comprehend the whole quite complex picture, you have to go through all the documentation in Bulgarian, but also connect this to the documentation that you have in London.

33:47  GB

It was pretty much a disaster from the start. Smith finally obtained his excavation permit, and he departed Constantinople for Aleppo. But on his arrival was dismayed to find that his journey would be disrupted by an outbreak of plague in the region. And while in Aleppo, he wrote the following letter to his wife, “My Dear Mary, how are you and the chicks? I am capital. I arrived on the 14th at the port, pushed on. On the 16th arrived at Aleppo. And I’m here at the same house I always stay at. People are all very kind all inquire after you or little ones. Up to the present. I’ve travelled without guards, the country being safe and quiet, as I’ve known it, and the people old friends who are glad to see me again. There is however, a great misfortune. The plague is sweeping part of the district I ought to visit. Now do not be alarmed. You were not aware that the plague was in this country when I was here last, although then it was not spreading so fast. But as it is, I’m very cautious although there is normal changes. I’ve stopped my journey and remain for the presence at Aleppo just to see how it goes.” He then goes on to say: “I am now going on a pleasure excursion for eight days with a friend to visit some ruins and fill up the time while I stay here. Kiss all our little pets and tell them papa never goes to bed without thinking of you all. Your loving hubby, George.” So while at Aleppo, Smith and his companions are in the company of the British Consul at Aleppo, a Mr. Skene, who encouraged Smith to explore an area on the Euphrates River in the hope of finding Carchemish. So they went down to the suggested site.

35:20  SP

“When Mr. Smith went to have a look at them, he started to draw these reliefs, Luwian reliefs in Carchemish. I continued upwards to look for inscriptions is directed. There was a large flat area with small remains of pottery. A few Arabs from the nearby mill on the river had climbed up with us, curious to see what we were going to do. When asked if they had not seen an inscription on stone anywhere, they took me to a stone as large as a pillar. After overturning it the lower part turned out to be covered with script unknown to me. Of course, I called Mr. Smith. He came but obviously he did not feel well. And after he looked at the inscription dropped down on the ground. I rushed for some cognac, and when I gave him some, I brought him to himself. The Archimedes exclamation, ‘Eureka!’ came to his mind. inscriptions of that kind were supposed to belong to the Hittites, and only a few of them were known at that time.” He couldn’t read Luwian in those days, but found several Luwian inscriptions that he copied. And on one of the inscriptions he noted with cuneiform, GAR GA MISH. So he was quite certain that Jerablus or Hierapolis later on, is what was known in those early days as Carchemish.

36:51  GB

Of course, Smith’s primary objective was to continue his work in Nineveh. Yet on the sixth of April, he was informed by telegram that an antiquities dealer in Baghdad, Michael Marini, was offering to sell the Museum a collection of Akkadian tablets. So before heading north to Mosul, Smith was now instructed by the Museum to travel to Baghdad to inspect the tablets with a view to purchasing the collection.

37:14  SP

When they reached Baghdad, there were some complications in the Ottoman Empire. In those days, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire were changing in several months. There was also a rebellion in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so the Ottoman Empire was starting to falling apart. The British representatives in Baghdad were very worried. So the British representatives in Baghdad told Smith and Mateev ‘you cannot conduct excavations in Nineveh, because of these complications.’

37:52  GB

From Baghdad, Smith and Mathewson made a brief journey to Qurna to meet the British Consul General and confirm the planned excavations. However, Smith’s plans for Nineveh went into disarray. Following his return to Baghdad, Smith wrote to the Principal Librarian at the British Museum, to inform him of the bleak situation. It would appear that Smith had lost all hope of traveling to Mosul to excavate and proposed that he should return home. In a letter he writes: “The country I find is in such a disturbed state that I cannot go to Mosul to excavate. I therefore propose to give up the expedition and return to England at once. In my next I hope to give you a detailed account of my work since I left Aleppo. I am, as you will suppose, very much disappointed at the failure of my mission.” So his original mission now in tatters, Smith devoted his time in Baghdad to the intense study of his newly acquired tablets. A glimpse into Smith’s state of mind, and his so-called nervous attacks whilst in Baghdad is vividly recorded by Mateev:

38:54  SP

“In Baghdad, while proving over the tablets, making out the complete list of them, and making notes on the more interesting ones, he would get up–this is Smith–and walk about the room shaking all over. At this time, he would always take some brandy, which would steady his, I may say, already shattered nerves. Again, he would sit down, but only for a few minutes to get up and say that his head was anything but right. But that an hour’s walk in the garden would set him up again. We go into the garden, but scarcely have we walked for five minutes, when he would say, ‘I feel better. Let’s go in and give another trial at the tablets.’ We go in, and in a minute, he’s convinced that his head will not help him. This would happen a dozen times in a day. At times, he would feel better, especially in the morning, after a good night’s rest, then he would go over many tablets. The way he used to go to work was he would sort all the tablets into different reigns, and again in the number of years each reign contained. He will then say, there are so many days’ work for me, dividing them all so.” And so on and so on. So you can see how eager was he to study the tablets in Baghdad.

40:19  GB

Following a month studying the tablets in Baghdad, Smith and Mateev were instructed by the Museum to leave the country by boat from Basra.

40:27  SP

And so they set off on a journey from Baghdad to Qurna. They were heading for a ship from Basra that had to take them back to London. When they reached Qurna, there was a plague, and they were put under quarantine in Qurna. While waiting for the quarantine–it was 10 days–they were put on a ship. That’s in the middle of the summer. So you can imagine that the heat was unbearable. During the days on the steamer, the health of Smith was shaky. He couldn’t really deal with the heat, with the mosquitoes, with the insects, with the humidity. While waiting in Qurna for 10 days, they were constantly checking if the tablets that had to be exported to the British Museum from Baghdad arrived in Qurna in order to be shipped to London.

41:19  GB

However, as the political crisis in the Ottoman Empire intensified, the authorities then introduced a temporary ban on the export of antiquities, which then meant the tablets purchased by Smith could not pass through customs. And this was a disaster.

41:33  SP

Now comes the lucky coincidence that Smith and Mateev were traveling with one of the authorities from the customs from Aleppo to Baghdad. So basically what has happened is that Mateev and Smith, they set off with a steamer along the Euphrates. So they were traveling on the steamer with many other gentlemen until they reached Baghdad. So during that time on the same steamer was one of the major representatives of the customs in Baghdad. And they got pretty friendly with Mathewson, because on every stop they went hunting rabbits and birds. Mateev found his old friend and they could arrange that the antiquities are sent to London.

42:23  GB

Not wishing to leave without his precious cargo, Smith returned to Baghdad and purchased another large collection of tablets from Michael Marini. Whilst back in the city, Smith also wrote the following letter to his wife Mary, updating her on his situation: “My Dear Mary, you will be surprised to hear that I’ve returned to Baghdad. I might have been halfway home by now. But I tried to go south to India, and from there to Egypt and then home. There was a quarantine to keep out the most pestilential place in the whole country. I would not stand it and after a week took advantage of the offer of some more antiquities here to return and purchase them.”

42:58  SP

But Smith was hesitant to go again to Qurna, because the quarantine was so bad that he didn’t want to repeat the same thing again. So, Smith decided to return to Aleppo on horse. But the other reason–I think, more important reason–is that he had hidden desire anyway to try to excavate in Nineveh. This is supported by the autobiography of Mateev. So they both decided to buy horses and go back on land to Halab [= Aleppo].

43:37  GB

“I am now going north to Mosul and from there home in that direction. There’s quarantine so I shall have to endure two weeks there before getting on. The weather is very hot. The plague is almost over. There was only one death from it two days ago. It has been bad. I’m in excellent health and show no sign of my many toils. My love to all our pets. Papa will be back among them. But I will write again and tell you when I shall reach England. Your loving hubby, George. P.S. Think of my own vice here. I smoked six cigars and drank three bottles of beer per day. Do not say anything to the Museum people of the presents I gave you. They’re very critical and rude in letters sent to me.

44:19  JT

Things were about to go very wrong. Could you tell us what happened next on the return journey?

44:25  GB

So once the tablets finally passed through customs, Smith departed Baghdad for Aleppo via Mosul. That evening, however, the party were again forced into quarantine for 15 days at the small town of Kifri in the Diyala region, where Smith’s health started to decline again. He would not leave the hut to do exercise. He would only pace up and down outside in the evenings. He could not bring himself to do any work or write his letters, and would apparently obsess over the number of stages left to reach Aleppo. As his assistant Mateev observed, that it was curious to watch the working of an overburdened mind, so powerful in one respect, so weak in another. Smith would often push onwards in a state of complete exhaustion, swigging from a flask of brandy to keep him going.

45:09  SP

The thing is, in order to be able to do such a journey in the middle of summer–these are the months July and August–the only possibility is to travel during the night and sleep during the day. But this is very tiring. They both started the journey, went to Erbil. Smith wanted to excavate there. It didn’t happen. Then went to Mosul to see if they can excavate there. It was impossible, although there are notes in the autobiography and also in some of the letters that the locals recognised Smith from the previous years, and they were quite willing to cooperate with him again. But again, the authorities didn’t allow this. So the only thing was to go back.

45:57  GB

On reaching Mosul, exhausted from the long night in the saddle, Smith wrote to the Principal Librarian outlining his progress: “My dear Sir, I arrived here two days ago. On my way back, I have obtained permission to export the purchases and pass them through the customs house. I must delay my report on my proceedings on them until my return. There is no chance of excavating. At present, the whole country is in a dangerous state. And here at Mosul, we narrowly escaped the slaughter of the whole Christian population. Guards are stationed at the French Consulate and Catholic Church and things look anything but comfortable. Plague and quarantine delayed my journey until now. And the heat is so great that travelling by day is impossible, so it will take some time to reach Aleppo.

46:41  GB

The very same day, he also wrote a letter to his wife, Mary: “My Dear Mary, here I am again in the old place, having travelled 300 miles since I last wrote. I’ve still nearly 600 miles before reaching the sea. The weather is so hot that we cannot go out in the day and having to travel at night progress is very slow, and I feel the fatigue very much. The country is in a bad state. They have had famine, plague, war, and murder, and is evidently tumbling to pieces. That is why I do not stop to dig.”

47:10  GB

From Mosul, they travel overland to Diyarbakir, where Smith sent a further report on to the Principal Librarian: “My dear Sir, I’ve been forced to come here as the direct route to Aleppo is closed. From here I wish to go to Eznun and thence to England, but he road is now unsafe. Bands of Turkish soldiers are broken loose and the plundering and murdering they’re about to try the road over and start a night. I’ve had a long and severe journey and I’ve suffered much on the road.” 

47:39  GB

From Diyarbakir the party travelled again by night towards Urfa, where the ever-weakening Smith was forced to stay for a day to recover his strength. On the approach to Berecik Smith’s condition continued to decline. He could not stay upright in the saddle and again he arrived in a state of exhaustion. After some sleep and sustenance, Smith declared himself better and anxious to continue the journey that night. They crossed the Euphrates by raft and were on the road for two hours before Smith could go no further. Smith managed two hours sleep before waking with a headache, and asked Mathewson for some brandy. Mateev noted that this was the first time Smith had complained about a headache, and that Smith was also shaking all over. To which Smith remarked: “A nervous attack and a very bad one accompanied with a headache. I should have stopped the night at Berecik.”

48:26  GB

After three hours rest they departed again. But Smith was soon forced to stop at the village of Ikisji declaring that he could go no further on horseback. The following day, Smith asked Mateev to ride ahead to the British consul at Aleppo, to request a tahtravan, which is a type of mule-drawn sedan chair, as well as a doctor, since he felt unable to travel without medication and medical attention. Mateev, who was actually also suffering from a fever, rode fast through the night and reached the consul at Aleppo at 10am in the morning. The British consul, Mr. Skene, sent for a tahtravan, while Mathewson went into the city to acquire provisions and consult a doctor. Unable to find a doctor he procured the services of an English dentist, John Parsons, who was visiting Aleppo whilst touring the Middle East.

49:10  GB

Mathewson had been exhausted from his journey and suffering another bout of fever, travelled back to Smith in the tahtravan, accompanied by the dentist Parsons, where they found Smith somewhat recovered and in good spirits. On the previous day, however, Smith was so unwell that he thought he was going to die. In a letter sent home to his wife, the dentist John Parsons wrote the following account of his encounter with Smith: “Immediately I saw him I had little hope. I could see that he was completely exhausted, and that his mind somewhat lost itself at times. He was lying in a miserable hut stretched on a blanket, but he was pleased much am I coming and said it did him good to see my face, although I had never met him before.”

49:50  GB

So on the evening of the 13th of August, the party departed, Smith riding in the tahtravan. But after two hours, he could go no further. He was so weak by this point that Mateev had to carry him in and out of the tahtravan and into the local village. He could not sleep at night, suffering from fever, a bad headache, and the effects of two laxatives he had taken whilst Mateev was in Aleppo. The next morning, he decided that he could travel no further in the tahtravan, and requested a proper doctor. So while Mateev went ahead to Aleppo, the dentist John Parsons made some meat and broth and cutlets for Smith, which gave him the strength to continue to the village of Trabanli.

50:26  GB

Parsons recounts the journey as follows: “So at 6pm, I put him in the tahtravan and got him on to a village called Trabanli. About midnight we arrived. He was much exhausted, though, with this, and I thought he would have died. At the consulate in Aleppo, Mr. Skene procured the services of a doctor, and Mrs. Skene offered to return with Mateev to take care of the ailing Smith. The party left Aleppo on the 15th of August traveling overnight. Mateev and the doctor rode in advance of the party and past through Trabanli, where with some fortune they discovered that Smith and Parsons had arrived in the village during the night. The doctor examined Smith and found him with a very bad fever without strength and completely exhausted.

51:09  GB

Smith’s concern over his deteriorating health is in fact captured in the final pages of his notebook–his last written words in effect–where he accepts the possibility of his death, his concern for his family’s future, reflects on his legacy, as well as duty to the Museum. One passage reads as follows: “Night 12th Not so well. Purge brought low. If doctor present I should recover, but he has not come. Very doubtful. Case of fatal farewell to my dear Mary and all the little ones. My work has been entirely for the science I study. I hope the friends protect my family. I do not fear the change, but desire to live for my family. Perhaps all will be well yet.”

51:49  GB

Mrs. Skene then arrived and watched over Smith and made him as comfortable as she could. The party left Trabanli with Smith in the tahtravan, stopping for the night at a village nine miles out from Aleppo. At this point, Smith could not stand without assistance and was often carried by Mateev, who noted that Smith began to prove insensible to suffering, and his mind began to wander. Smith could not sleep properly that night due to his worsening fever, yet the party pushed on to Aleppo at daybreak and arrived at the consulate on the morning of the 18th, where he was immediately put to bed.

52:23  GB

In a letter to the Principal Librarian at the British Museum, Mateev describes Smith’s condition in Aleppo: “All day, his mind wandered talked of Carchemish and the Hittites and other places he had visited, but in a disjointed manner, spoke of his papers in England and several times persisted in saying that his family was downstairs.” On the 19th of August, the doctor gave Smith a sleeping medication, probably chlorohydrate or bromides. Smith was given half the medication at 10:30am. At 11 he fell asleep and according to Mateev’s account, never awoke to conscious again, four or six times opened his eyes, but never moved or gave away other signs. At 4pm Mateev notice that his jaw began to fall and went downstairs to fetch Mr. Skene, who informed the distraught Mateev that Smith was dying. 

53:11  GB

Smith’s passing is described in a letter from Mateev to the British Museum: “He breathed his last exactly at six o’clock pm on the 19th of August. He was unconscious to the last and but for the hard and quick breathing during his last hour, there was not the least sign of suffering. The last movement he made was when he was helped to take a sleeping draft at 10:30am. After he breathed his last, his features remained calm and composed, no pain depicted on them, but emaciated to the last degree. That night Smith’s body was prepared for burial and at 4pm the following day, Sunday, the 20th of August 1876, Smith was buried in the Protestant cemetery with Mr. Skene presiding over the service.” 

53:56  GB

So news of Smith’s death in Aleppo reach ed the Museum by a letter sent from Peter Mateev and from the British Consul in Aleppo, Mr. Skene. So Peter Mateev wrote to the Principal Librarian at the British Museum on the 26th of August in 1876, with the following: “Sir, should you still be ignorant of the sad event, I write to you the decease of Mr. George Smith of the British Museum. Mr. George Smith breathed his last at six o’clock a.m. on the 18th instant in the British Consulate in Aleppo in the presence of the English consul, Mr. Skene, and that of the doctor. I would have immediately telegraphed the sad intelligence but for Mr. Skene’s advice, which was that I should send it to you by post with all particulars. This now I do. My first intention was to come myself to England and give you a verbal report. This also the consul’s advice overruled. He said that I should only have to pay my passage back to Constantinople. And I should very well send you my report in writing, which I now do.

54:58  GB

On the 27th of August, the British consul in Aleppo Mr. Skene wrote the following to Samuel Birch, the keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities: “My dear Sir, I have just received your note of the 10th inquiring about poor Mr. Smith. Before this reaches you will have heard of his sad fate from Mr. Winter Jones, to whom I wrote to last mail. But also from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to whom I reported officially for the information of the Trustees of the British Museum. I never saw live sacrificed more unmistakably. If he had travelled like other people, Mr. Smith would have lived to render good service to science, I feel sure. But it would have required a stronger constitution than his to bear the fatigue and deprivation he endured. He would hurry on all day without food then throw himself on the earthen floor of a hut and when begged to take his supper undress and go to bed, he was too tired to move. In the morning he would ask for a piece of bread and mount up to go through the same ordeal, until he found himself unable to get up at a village 60 miles from Aleppo. I did all I could for him, but he was too far gone to recover. Believe me, dear Sir, yours faithfully, A.H. Skene.”

56:11  JT

What did Mathewson do after Smith’s death?

56:14  SP

He returned to Constantinople. And as I told you, in those days, the Ottoman Empire was in chaos. So he lost his work at the British Post, but found another work. And several years afterwards was the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. Mateev was very well educated and knew a lot of people from Constantinople. And it turned out that he established the Bulgarian post after the liberation. He also served as chief administrator of a province in Bulgaria. In the years after the liberation, he was also trade agent in Edirne, in Odrin, but also a diplomat in Atin and so on. He was also the chief commissar of the first international Bulgarian exposition in St. Louis in the United States. So he was a diplomat. He was a director of the post and so on. Played a considerable role in the formative years of the Bulgarian society after the liberation.

57:24  JT

What was the Museum’s reaction to Smith’s death?

57:27  GB

In terms of the Museum’s reaction, it’s quite difficult to understand it from the available correspondence. Beyond the fact that it was recorded somewhat matter of factly in the Trustee minutes. It would seem that the Museum and any following correspondence is more concerned with the administration of Smith’s personal effects and its transfer from Aleppo to London.

57:50  JT

Smith was still a young man when he died, and he left behind a family. What happened to them?

57:56  GB

Yes, George Smith was only 36 when he died, although his wife Mary was either 41 or 42 at the time. He did leave behind six children: Charles, Frederick, Elizabeth, George, Arthur, and Ethel. And the eldest, Charles, was probably 12 at the time of Smith’s death. Following Smith’s passing, Louise Parson, the wife of John Parson, the dentist who attended Smith in his final days, actually wrote a letter to Mary Smith, which begins as follows: “Although a perfect stranger to you, I cannot help feeling deeply interested in you and your dear little ones, in as much as I am the wife of Mr. John Parson, who tended your dear departed husband in his dying illness. I know not whether the letter inserted in the Times September 9, written by my husband has been seen or read by you. In case it is not, I feel sure closer details of his illness would be valued by you, and therefore I have not hesitated to address you. And I sincerely trust in doing so I shall not intrude on your deep grief and distress, but rather alleviate by the way of knowledge and assurance that your dear husband was cared for so soon as his illness was made known in Aleppo.”

59:07  GB

Following George Smith’s death we know from the census records that Mary Smith and her children survived on a civil list pension, which was granted by the government following Smith’s passing. However, Mary Smith also negotiated the sale of Smith’s personal notebooks to the Museum. So around eight of Smith’s notebooks were sent from Aleppo to the Museum, two of which were private notebooks and returned immediately to Mary Smith, along with Smith’s other personal possessions. Despite this, Mary Smith wrote to Birch with her concerns about the arrangement and made a formal request that “nothing of my husband’s papers or notes be made public until I have had the opportunity of agreeing upon what is the property of his family and what the Museum. Then according to the Trustee minutes of 1887, Mary Smith then offered to sell the Museum 22 notebooks that George Smith had kept at home. The Trustees offered to purchase the notebooks for 60 pounds, a sum which Mary Smith thought to be too low and the offer was refused. However, in July 1877, Mary Smith finally negotiated the sale of 29 notebooks for the sum of 150 guineas.

1:00:14  GB

In the census records for 1881 only four of the Smith children are listed: Charles, Elizabeth, Ethel, and Arthur. Frederick and George presumably died at some point between 1871 and the 1881 census. Charles, the eldest son at 17, was employed as a dockyard clerk. Arthur eventually became a compositor, a profession somewhat similar to that undertaken by the young George Smith. Mary Smith died in 1883, at the age of 48, only seven years after her husband George passed away.

1:00:47  JT

I can add a small update here about George’s son, Arthur. He turns up in Chicago, where he was working for the South Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly.

1:00:59  JT

What happened to his belongings and the objects collected by him?

1:01:03  GB

So following Smith’s tragic death in Aleppo, the Museum arranged his personal belongings, papers and any objects he carried to be transferred to London. We know that three cases of tablets that he acquired in Baghdad were sent directly by Smith to the Museum from Basra. Whereas Smith’s papers, personal effects, miscellaneous antiquities were sent in five packages from Aleppo to London by the British Consul in Aleppo. It was received by the British Museum in November 1876.

1:01:29  GB

The transfer of Smith’s belongings to the British Museum are also recording in a series of reports to the Principal Librarian and to the Trustees made by William Boscawen and Samuel Birch. Notably a report by Boscawen describes the collection of objects carried by Smith on his fateful journey to Aleppo: “There are also among the objects of the collection some tablets and inscribed bricks bearing inscriptions of early Babylonian kings, and two curious bronze statues of divinities bearing inscribed cones. These last are of great importance as with the exception of a statue now in the Louvre, they are the only remains of early Babylonian bronze statuary in existence.”

1:02:05  GB

The report made by Samuel Birch also lists Smith’s possessions which included, “the hand of a statue of a stone and two Babylonian bronze figures.” These objects can now be correlated with two foundation figurines of Gudea from Tello that are now in the British Museum collections, and the hands of a colossal stone statue of Gudea that was later deaccessioned and transferred to the Louvre. As for the notebooks, the Museum purchased 29 notebooks from Mary Smith, including the eight that Smith carried with him on his fateful mission of 1876. They are now held in the British Library. Smith’s letter of instruction from the Museum, official travel documents and permits and letters to his wife and children are all held in the Middle East department archive at the British Museum.

1:02:48  JT

It was perhaps inevitable that Smith would continue to exert a presence even after his death. Budge tells the story that: “all the students (i.e. scholars), who came to copy (that is, study) in the museum in the ’80s and ’90s, were convinced that the collections of tablets contained a number of important texts belonging to the Gilgamesh legend. And they employed much guile and flattery in trying to persuade the officials to let them have these hypothetical documents to copy. When asked if, supposing the collections contained such texts, they would be kept locked up in cupboards and not published by the museum, each would answer almost in the same words, ‘yes, because you have no-one here who can read them, for George Smith is dead'”. Nothing would persuade them that such tablets did not exist, and some of them spent much time in peering through the glass doors of the presses to try and read the tablets in them.

1:03:50  JT

In another anecdote, Smith is not just a metaphorical ghost, but a real one. This story involves the eminent German assyriologist, Friedrich Delitzsch, who at this time had recently earned his PhD: “On another occasion, Dr. Delitzsch afforded his great amusement. One morning, soon after the lamented death of Smith, a gentleman from the Principal Librarian’s office came in to discuss with Birch the choice of a successor and all present in the room could hear their conversation. In the afternoon, when Dr. Delitzsch returned from his lunch, he walked over to Birch, who was standing by the fire, and told him that in passing through Russell Square [the green space adjacent to the museum], he had seen the ghost of George Smith, and that it told him he was to succeed him in the British Museum. Whether Birch did not believe in the wisdom of Smith’s ghost or in the story is not clear. But he did not recommend the Trustees to make his assistant, a young man who had never edited a single text of his own copying in all his life!”

1:05:02  JT

These stories are probably more about Budge poking fun at his rivals than about Smith. We can see that in an anecdote about Smith’s old rival, Jules Oppert: “Once, when discussing Smith’s work with Birch, he said, ‘Smith is a great excavator,’ and then with scathing emphasis added, ‘and he writes like one!'”

1:05:27  JT

That was not an opinion Budge himself shared. He did criticise Smith’s curatorial work severely: “He took no part in the routine work of the department. He had not even attempted to make available for examination and study by the public the bricks, tablets, etc, from which he had derived his information about Assyria. And I never heard of his writing labels for the objects exhibited in the cases. … He could easily find almost any tablet that was asked for, because he carried the arrangement of the collections, such that there was, in his mind, but at that time, no-one else could. His want of system in dealing with the mass of cuneiform material under his charge, seriously delayed the progress of assyriology.”

1:06:14  JT

But his opinion of Smith’s cuneiform skills was very different: “Smith was the greatest copyist and the readiest decipher of cuneiform that the Trustees ever had in their service. And the instinct which enabled him to divine the meaning of unknown words, and obscure passages was almost uncanny.”

1:06:37  JT

Gareth mentioned that Smith’s notebooks were bought by the British Museum. They’re now in the British Library. You’ve been working with them. Could you tell us more about Smith’s notebooks, please, Enrique?

1:06:49  EJ

So there is a total of 31 notebooks in the British Library, and they are very miscellaneous. Some of them contain the notes George Smith made as he was teaching himself Akkadian or cuneiform. And some of them contain the beginnings of large projects that he never completed. There is a sign list, or a book of names, and a Babylonian calendar, an Assyrian dictionary, and also a chronological list. Some of the notebooks contain very attractive drawings, for instance of Mosul or of Ctesiphon, or Erbil. Some of them are diaries, in which he tells about his travels in the Middle East. But for assyriologist, the most interesting notebooks are those that contain copies of cuneiform tablets.

1:07:33  JT

What’s in them that’s still interesting after so many years?

1:07:38  EJ

Two parts of them are interesting. On the one hand, the notes that he made while working in the British Museum. He classified the collection in the British Museum very early on. And he established his own system of classification. So for instance, he will classify tablets that contain historical text as “H” mythology as “M”, bilinguals as “B”, and so on and so forth. What is even more interesting that the notebooks in which he copied tablets from his excavation in Assyria, especially those that have to do with the Daily Telegraph expedition. Unfortunately, the excavation methods back then were too primitive to allow us to reconstruct the archaeological context just with notebooks. But we do have Smith’s copies of many of the tablets as they came out of the ground. The interesting thing is that many of them were back then in better shape than they were when they arrived in the British Museum.

1:08:31  EJ

In one of his notebooks a couple of days before he died. He says: “I intended to work it out”–to work out all these dictionaries and texts that he had been discovered–but desire now that my antiquities and notes may be thrown open to all students. I have done my duty thoroughly.” We have digitised several notebooks in the British Library, particularly those that contain copies of cuneiform tablets, and we have catalogued them. Cataloguing them is a challenging thing, because, well, at the time when Smith made his copies of his transliterations, there weren’t any museum numbers. So each copy has to be identified with the tablet at the moment.

1:09:15  JT

Over his three trips to Iraq, Smith excavated many tablets, and bought many more from the merchants in Baghdad. How significant are these texts?

1:09:26  EJ

The tablets that Smith excavated or bought are very significant. First, of course, the tablets that he found himself in Nineveh, and it’s almost miraculous, he should have found a piece of the Flood story in the very first stage of this campaign. But there are many other spectacular tablets that he found with this expedition. They are now part of the so-called DT collection in the British Museum. Some of these tablets are very important. For instance, DT 1 is the so-called Advice to a Prince, which is a series of instructions that tell a prince how he should behave. And in particular, it tells him to respect the special status of some Babylonian cities. Another tablet that comes from the DT collection is a very large manuscript of a lexical series called Idu, which is basically known only in this manuscript. In addition to the tablets that he excavated himself, he also acquired many tablets from antiquities dealers. In particular, he bought from the French consul a small collection of very late tablets from around the second century BC, which are still among the latest tablets that we know today.

1:10:34  JT

Smith is a fascinating character, who became famous. How important really was his brief assyriological career in the history of the field?

1:10:44  EJ

In my view, the main contribution that Smith made to the field were the many texts that he discovered; that he read for the first time. And they include not only the Flood story, but include many of the texts that he discovered for the first time. For instance, the Gilgamesh Epic or this Advice to a Prince or the Descent of Ishtar. All these texts are now household names, but they were all discovered and deciphered and translated for the first time by Smith. Of course, many of these texts we now have in a much better shape. We have a much more complete reconstruction, but many of them are still essentially in the same form as Smith discovered them. The Descent of Ishtar is essentially the same text. The Advice to a Prince is essentially the same text, and several others. For instance, this dialogue between Ox and Horse is essentially the same text Smith discovered and translated for the first time. Of course, one wonders what he could have done had he lived longer.

1:11:46  JT

I should add here that Smith also identified the eclipse of 763 BC, which provided an anchor point to establish an absolute chronology for the first millennium BC. Smith’s contribution to cuneiform extends beyond his own publications. As noted in a backhanded compliment from Budge, “Thanks to the large amount of work helpful to students that Smith had done. his untimely death at the age of 36 did not greatly delay the progress of assyriology, for several young men in England and began to work at the subject.” One such person referred to here is someone whose story was more tragic even than Smith. You can read it in detail through the work of Ruth Horry. See the show notes for details.

1:12:37  JT

Budge tells us that the immediate result of Smith’s paper, which marks an epoch in the annals of assyriology, was a rush to the British Museum by the public to see the baked clay tablets from Nineveh, from which the legend had been recovered. To assist Budge in coping with the stream of visitors and the mass of letters which were addressed to the department after the publication of the deluge tablet, the Trustees during Smith’s absence in the East appointed as assistant a very capable and rising assyriologist Mr. W. St. Chad Boscawen. After Smith’s death, young Boscawen was given responsibility for publishing the tablets bought in Baghdad, as Cornelia explains,

1:13:24  CW

When Boscawen got hold of this, he started then to work out Smith’s ideas. He realised that Smith had already done an enormous amount of work during the time he was in Iraq and Syria. And he had already sorted these tablets, according to kings, and according to events in the family of this family archive. What is not apparent today anymore is the fact that we didn’t have a proper chronology of the neo-Babylonian empire back then. There was still the discussion how the kings fitted one after the other. And there was a problem of co-reigning of some of the kings. What George Smith had done was that he sorted out the chronology not by kings, but rather with the help of the family documents because he realised that one of the kings was associated with a certain family member. And luckily, the break was exactly to the next generation when the next king came in. So he was able to establish on the basis of these tablets, a chronology which was much safer and founder than before.

1:14:39  CW

And apart from that, of course, he also recognised the potential in terms of the contents of these tablets. Smith luckily was self-assured about the fact that these records were important. Despite that they are small, repeat the verbal forms, and only differ in the date and a few transactions, but within a very short time, they became very much studied. The studies included not only assyriologists or Old Testament people, but also legal historians. Boscawen apparently saw the chance to use Smith’s investigations and studies in order to present them at the British Museum and to a wider audience. In a way, it’s a great pity that one of these first pioneers had such a short lifespan when he would have been able and willing and determined to do this work on the Egibi tablets. Instead, Strassmeier came to the Museum and started studying these tablets. So in the end, these tablets got published by someone else, and helped enormously to trigger these new Babylonian studies by the turn of the century.

1:16:00  JT

But Smith’s legacy was not confined to just cuneiform. In 1876, en route for Nineveh, he had visited Carchemish. What happened at Carchemish, Mark?

1:16:13  MW

Carchemish was known from Assyrian annals and various other types of texts, as somewhere that must have been very important for the Hittite empire. But then also the states that were around after the Hittite empire came to an end, at the end of the Bronze Age. No one knew where it was, this place. This site must be so big, and in such a promising location that it should be this place, Carchemish. They asked local people if there were any inscriptions, and local people said, yeah, there is this big statue. And Smith was able to recognise immediately that the script that was written on the back of this statue was what was referred to then as the Hittite hieroglyphic script.

1:17:03  MW

So this script was only known from a few stones from Hama. And then there was the Karabel inscription as well in Turkey that had been brought into connection with it. So only really at that time, there were three or four inscriptions that were known. Smith made a drawing of the inscription on the back of this statue. And he wrote on the top of the drawing in cuneiform GAR GA MIS, which shows that he had obviously identified the place as Carchemish, on the basis of this inscription, and its similarity to other so-called Hittite hieroglyphic monuments. So this was really, really early in the process of the identification of the Hittites in the first place, because the Hittite civilisation had been lost to historical knowledge for 1000s of years. Smith apparently was convinced that he would be able to decipher the script on the basis of this inscription, because it must be from the city of Carchemish, he thought. And the name of Carchemish would have to be on the inscription.

1:18:09  MW

He was right. It was only a few years later, in 1894, that someone was able to identify–Jensen it was–was able to identify the writing of the place name Carchemish on that very statue. That was a big step forward with the decipherment. It wasn’t a step forward that Smith was actually able to make himself, but he was able to lay the groundwork through his incredibly intuitive approach for other people to make it after he’d gone. Decipherment of the script was a very, very long drawn out process. It was certainly a important stepping stone in the process of decipherment. But this process of decipherment really went on and is still going on today. And it wasn’t until the 1970s, for example, that we actually recognised that this hieroglyphic script was writing a language called Luwian.

1:19:08  MW

There’s an interesting coda to the story. So this statue, it was a statue of the goddess Kubaba, and it was headless. Now Smith wanted to have it cut up into pieces, because it was very heavy and transported back to the British Museum immediately. Luckily, he didn’t manage to do that. And it was transported later on. But very recently, during the renewed Turkish and Italian excavations at Carchemish, the head of this statue was actually found. It wasn’t found at Carchemish. It was actually found several 100 kilometers away in Avshin. For some reason it had been transported to an electricity station where it was being used as an ornament in the garden, I think. The Carchemish team were alerted to this fact and particularly Carchemish philologist, Hasan Pekker, was able to identify that this was the head of the Kubaba statue. And that was only in 2016.

1:20:09  MW

This was really extremely important from a historical perspective, because the inscription on the back of the Kubaba statue belongs to a king called Kamani. We can reconstruct his genealogy all the way back to the ninth century BC. He lived in the eighth century BC. And a figure particularly Sangara, who is mentioned in Assyrian annals. So George Smith’s clues about Carchemish started with Assyrian annals. Then the finding of the head of Kubaba has meant that we’re back again where we started with the Assyrian annals and this character Sangara, who is now attested as one of the ancestors of Kamani, the king who commissioned the Kubaba statue. Clearly the head was missing when George Smith found it, but it closes the circle very nicely.

1:21:04  JT

Smith also made an impact on Cypriot studies. What was his contribution to that field, Pippa?

1:21:11  PS

Although it’s not what he was most famous for, George Smith made a significant breakthrough in the decipherment of Cypriot syllabic writing. So Cyprus is unusual amongst Mediterranean islands. It’s situated very close to the Levantine and Anatolian coast and rather a long way from the majority of the Greek islands. By the early part of the late bronze age, a syllabic writing system was developed there. It was adapted probably directly from Linear A. We now call this system Cypro-Minoan, harking back to some Minoan origin. Although Cypro-Minoan is closely related to Linear A and B, it has relatively few attestations. There are only around 250. And we don’t understand the underlying language or languages. But by the beginning of the first millennium BC, we start to get Greek attested on Cyprus, and it’s written in an adapted form of the Cypro-Minoan script, usually referred to by modern scholars as the Cypriot syllabary or Cypriot syllabic writing. So the Cypriot syllabary was used to write the Cypriot dialect of Greek for hundreds of years during the first millennium BC, and it didn’t die out until the Hellenistic period.

1:22:32  PS

Now, the 18th and 19th centuries were a fruitful time for deciphering ancient writing systems. And the Cypriot syllabary was one more mystery to be cracked. Most crucially, there are a few surviving bilingual inscriptions, of which the Idalion bilingual from the site that is now Dali in Cyprus, that’s most famous precisely because this was a very inscription that George Smith studied and based his initial decipherment on. So this stone has text in both Phoenician and Cypriot syllabic Greek. Phoenician itself had only been read relatively recently at this time. By Smith’s time, it was relatively well understood. So when the Idalion bilingual was discovered in 1869, actually, its discoverer Robert Hamilton Lang already recognised that it might just be the key to cracking the Cypriot script.

1:23:34  PS

Now, George Smith was the first person to take up this task. In 1871, he published a paper on the reading of the Cypriot inscriptions in the Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology. Smith already knew that the Phoenician part of the inscription referred to the fourth year of the reign of Milkyaton or Melekiathon, a Phoenician king of Kition in the southeast of Cyprus. He could find the king’s name in both parts of the inscription, meaning that he could begin to identify some of the syllabic signs. And he used other known inscriptions such as coins and a well-known bronze tablet from Idalion to help him fill in some gaps. There was some damage to the Idalion bilingual, so sometimes a word was frustratingly missing in one half, but not the other, for example.

1:24:28  PS

Although Smith’s decipherment was only partial, he revealed some crucial details of the Cypriot syllabic script, counting 54 separate signs–nearly the whole repertoire–and commenting in his own words, that “each consonant sign represents the sound of its particular consonant in connection with a vowel following it.” So he had recognised importantly, that this was a syllabic writing system. So every sign stands either for a vowel on its own or for a combination of consonant plus vowel. Strangely, he was reluctant to conclude that the language written in Cypriot syllabic was Greek despite historical evidence that Cyprus was home to Greek-speaking kingdoms at this time, and despite recognising occasional Greek words such as basileus for “king”. He observed some inflectional endings, and concluded that the language was allied to, although not the same as, Greek. We now know that it was Greek, albeit a dialect with some slightly odd features in comparison with other known varieties.

1:25:37  PS

Although Smith is often credited with deciphering the Cypriot syllabary, he was not the only person to contribute to our understanding of this writing system. Several others took the decipherment further shortly after his work on it, and further discoveries in the 20th century have helped us to understand the script better. And also to recognise that as well as the many Greek inscriptions, there are also some non-Greek inscriptions written in it as well. But it was George Smith, who laid that important first groundwork.

1:26:09  JT

And so ends our story of a man who was perhaps both the luckiest and unluckiest assyriologist in history. He was clearly a loving family man, with an unusual talent for reading cuneiform. Despite the brevity of his career, he has left a lasting impact on the field and fostered an interest in ancient Iraq that endures today. So on the third of December, why not take a moment to remember the remarkable man who was George Smith.

1:26:42  JT

It just remains to say thank you to all of my guests. I’d also like to thank our patrons: Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Michael Katsevman, Mend Mariwany, Kathryn Topper, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Jonathan Stökl, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Heather Baker, Laura Battini, Jonathan Blanchard Smith, Kliment Ohr, Christina Tsouparopoulou, Melanie Gross, Adam, Claire Weir, Marc Veldman, Bruno Biermann, Faimon Roberts, Kim Benzel, Maggie Justice, Maggie, Jason Moser, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous.

1:27:50  JT

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1:28:28  JT

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