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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Part of its text was covered in hard salts. But the Museum’s conservator, Robert Ready, was away for a couple of weeks. Smith became increasingly agitated, until at last Ready returned and took the tablet for cleaning. “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 contain the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there. He said, ‘I am the first man to read that after more than 2000 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”. Smith had just found a story about a great flood, the details of which were astonishingly similar to the biblical story of Noah. It was decided that he should share his amazing discovery with the world.
Smith presents his findings at the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3 1872. 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. 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.
Why was Smith’s discovery so important that even the Prime Minister turned up to hear an academic lecture?
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 actually this was a challenge to the historicity of the Bible. Because the biblical account could be seen as dependent on the Babylonian sources.
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 it’s something of the same sense of wonder and excitement, but also confusion that I read in these reports. 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, which we don’t think about so much today.
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. 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.
The flood story was interesting for all sorts of different reasons, then?
I think there are a number of reasons why Gilgamesh does provoke the 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.
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 so on so forth. People at the time had two different notions of history. There was the short history that had been inherited from the Bible. And then there was this deep geological time. 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.
How well did Smith actually understand the story?
I’m actually quite impressed by how well he understands that. 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. The signs that make up the name of Gilgamesh–GISH TUN GIL MASH–it’s not obvious that those should be read Gilgamesh. 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.
Smith isn’t just hoping for an appreciative audience is he? He’s hoping for something else too.
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.
So who was this young man who just caused such a sensation? Smith was born in 1840, in Chelsea, which was then a working-class neighborhood. 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.
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.”
In 1866, he was rewarded with a promotion to assistant. He yearned to excavate at 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. Smith set out for Nineveh just a month later. And within just a week of starting work, 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.
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.”
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. 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.
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.
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?
Yes, I mean, in his publication, Smith complains a lot about his second journey. But despite these complaints, like you say Smith ends his book about his mission with what appears to be a plea for £5000 to continue to work for a further three years. However, Smith does not put himself forward to lead any future work. 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 a third expedition to Iraq at the end of 1875. And the objective was to continue excavations at Nineveh in the hope to recover more tablets for the British museum collections.
What did Smith think about this third mission?
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. “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. 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.”
In a letter now lost, Smith actually wrote to the principal librarian regarding his plan, to which received the following response. “Dear Sir, 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 are not to be left to this person, excepting in cases of absolute necessity.”
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?
So he got famous in 93 with an article from Sheila Evers. And she noticed that a particular figure there, Mathewson, played a prominent role in the last journey of Smith. By a coincidence, more than 10 years ago, I came upon an archive in 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. It turned out that this person Peter Mateev was in fact Mathewson. 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 of Sofia, and the heritage of Smith in London.
How did he come to be travelling with Smith?
This person Peter Mateev was born in this very small village right now called Kotel in Bulgaria. 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. It seems that he did quite well in the British Post. In 1874, he was, so to say, chosen to escort and support a British lady traveler. This lady, she wanted to go by horse from Constantinople to Baghdad. 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.
The next year, George Smith arrived in Constantinople waiting for firman–this is an official document that gives you permission to do something. 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. 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 involve the close contact with other representatives. But there was one problem. And this problem was that Peter Mateev was a subject of the Ottoman Empire. So in order to be able to deal with the authorities better, he had to receive British passport. And his name was slightly changed from Mateev to Mathewson.
So we have Smith in Istanbul, and he’s picked up an assistant in Peter Mateev. What actually happened on this third expedition?
The thing is that in order to comprehend the whole complex picture, you have to go through all the documentation in Bulgarian, but also connect this to the documentation that you have in London.
It was pretty much a disaster from the start. While in Aleppo, he wrote the following letter to his wife, “My Dear Mary, how are you and the chicks? I am capital. 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.” 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. And while Smith was drawing some of the exposed reliefs, Peter Mateev asked the local Arabs, whether they knew of any inscriptions in stone.
“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 reached 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 was supposed to belong to the Hittites, and only a few of them were known at that time.”
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. However, Smith’s plans for Nineveh went into disarray.
When they reached Baghdad, there were some complications in the Ottoman Empire.
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. “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:
“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.”
Following a month studying the tablets in Baghdad, Smith and Mateev were instructed by the Museum to leave the country by boat from Basra.
And so they set off on a journey from Baghdad to Qurna. Qurna is a town north of Basra on the Persian Gulf. When they reached Qurna, there was a plague, and they were put under quarantine in Qurna. While waiting for the quarantine, they were put on a ship. That’s in the middle of the summer of 76. 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.
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.
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 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. Mateev found his old friend and they could arrange that the antiquities are sent to London.
Smith returned to Baghdad and purchased another large collection of tablets from Michael Marini.
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.
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.
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 recognided 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.
Things were about to go very wrong.
On reaching Mosul, exhausted from the long night in the saddle, Smith wrote to the Principal Librarian outlining his progress. 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 traveled 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 progres 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.”
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. Hands 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.”
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.”
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.
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 from 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 remain 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.”
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.
What did Mathewson do after Smith’s death?
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.
Smith was still a young man when he died, and he left behind a family. What happened to them?
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 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. 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.
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.'”
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.”
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.”
Gareth mentioned that Smith’s notebooks were bought by the British Museum. They’re now in the British Library.
Yeah, so there’s a total of 31 notebooks in the British Library, and they are very miscellaneous. Some of them contain the notes that 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 signlist, or a book of names, and a Babylonian calendar, an Assyrian dictionary, and also a chronological list. Some of the local contain very attractive drawings, for instance of Mosul or of Ctesiphon or Erbil. But for the assyriologist, the most interesting notebooks are those that contain copies of cuneiform tablets. The interesting thing is that many of them were back then in better shape than they were when they arrived in the British Museum.
Over his three trips to Iraq, Smith excavated many tablets and bought many more from the merchants in Baghdad. How significant are these texts?
The tablets that Smith excavated or bought are very significant. First, of course, the tablets that he found himself in Nineveh, but there are many other spectacular tablets that he found with this expedition. 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. 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.
Smith is a fascinating character, who became famous. How important really was his brief assyriological career in the history of the field?
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. 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. Of course, one wonders what he could have done had he lived longer.
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. Those tablets Smith purchased and spent time sorting in Baghdad, they are the so-called “Egibi tablets”. They form the largest Neo-Babylonian archive ever found. They document the business activities of multiple generations of a family in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They provided important chronological information in particular.
But Smith’s legacy was not confined to just cuneiform. Smith’s intuition that the inscription on the statue found at Carchemish should contain the name of that city was correct. But the decipherment of Luwian hieroglyphs still proved to be a long, slow process. Smith also contributed an important step in the decipherment of the Cypriot syllabary. He was a man of many talents.
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.
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