Ancient History & Civilisation


About this Book

Time’s wheel runs back or stops:

Potter and clay endure

Robert Browning

In the year AD 1872 one George Smith (1840–76), a former banknote engraver turned assistant in the British Museum, astounded the world by discovering the story of the Flood – much the same as that in the Book of Genesis – inscribed on a cuneiform tabletmade of clay that had recently been excavated at far-distant Nineveh. Human behaviour, according to this new discovery, prompted the gods of Babylon to wipe out mankind through death by water, and, as in the Bible, the survival of all living things was effected at the last minute by a single man. He was to build an ark to house one male and one female of all species until the waters subsided and the world could go back to normal.

For George Smith himself the discovery was, quite plainly, staggering, and it propelled him from back-room cuneiform boffin to, eventually, worldwide fame. Much arduous scholarly labour had preceded Smith’s extraordinary triumph, mind you, for his beginnings were humble. Endless months of staring into the glass cases that housed the inscriptions in the gallery resulted in Smith being ‘noticed’, and eventually he was taken on as a ‘repairer’ in the British Museum in about 1863. The young George exhibited an outstanding flair for identifying joins among the broken fragments of tablets and a positive genius for understanding cuneiform inscriptions; there can be no doubt that he was one of Assyriology’s most gifted scholars. As his abilities increased he was made Assistant to the famous Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, and put to sorting the thousands of clay tablets and fragments that had by then entered the Museum. Sir Henry (1810–95) had played an important and adventurous role in the early days of Assyriology and by this time was in charge of the cuneiform publications put out by the Trustees of the British Museum. Smith called one of his working categories Mythological tablets and, as the pile of identified material grew, he was slowly able to join fragment to fragment and piece to larger piece, gradually gaining insight into their literary content. The Flood Story that he came upon in this way proved to be but one episode within the longer narrative of the life and times of the hero Gilgamesh, whose name Smith suggested (as a reluctant makeshift) might be pronounced ‘Izdubar’.

George Smith thus set under way the cosmic cuneiform jigsaw puzzle that is still in heroic progress today among those who work on the British Museum’s tablet collections. A problem that confronted him then – as it sometimes confronts others today – was that certain pieces of tablet were encrusted with a hard deposit that made reading the signs impossible. It so happened that one substantial piece which he knew was central to the ‘Izdubar’ story was partly covered with a thick, lime-like deposit that could not be removed without expert help. The Museum generally had Robert Ready standing by, a pioneer archaeological conservator who could usually work miracles, but he happened to be away for some weeks. One can only sympathise with the effect this had on George Smith, as recorded by E. A. Wallis Budge, later Keeper of Smith’s department at the Museum:

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. When he saw the large size of the patch of deposit, he said that he would do his best with it, was not, apparently, very sanguine as to results. A few days later, he took back the tablet, which he had succeeded in bringing into the state in which it now is, and gave it to Smith, who was then working with Rawlinson in the room above the Secretary’s Office. 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!

Smith’s dramatic reaction achieved mythological status in itself, to the point that probably all subsequent Assyriologists keep the tactic in reserve just in case they too find something spectacular, although I have often wondered whether Smith might not have suffered an epileptic response to his great shock, for this reaction could be a symptom.

George Smith in 1876 with a copy of his The Chaldean Account of Genesis.

Smith chose a very public platform from which to announce his discoveries: the December 3rd meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London, 1872. August dignitaries were present, including the Archbishop of Canterbury – since the topic had serious implications for church authority – and even the classically disposed Prime Minister, W. E. Gladstone. The meeting ended late and in unanimous enthusiasm.

For Smith’s audience, as it had been for the man himself, the news was electrifying. In 1872 everyone knew their Bible backwards, and the announcement that the iconic story of the Ark and the Flood existed on a barbaric-looking document of clay in the British Museum that had been dug up somewhere in the East was flatly indigestible. Overnight, the great discovery was in the public domain, and no doubt the Clapham omnibus buzzed with ‘Have you heard about the remarkable discovery at the British Museum?’

In 1873 the Daily Telegraph newspaper stumped up funds to send Smith back to Nineveh to find more pieces of the story. He succeeded in this rather more rapidly than might have been envisaged and, having sent a telegram to announce that he had discovered another missing Flood fragment, his expedition was brought to an expeditious end by the sponsors. It is worth quoting Smith’s account of this:

I telegraphed to the proprietors of the “Daily Telegraph” my success in finding the missing portion of the deluge tablet. This they published in the paper on the 21st of May, 1873; but from some error unknown to me, the telegram as published differs materially from the one I sent. In particular, in the published copy occurs the words “as the season is closing,” which led to the inference that I considered the proper season for excavating was coming to an end. My own feeling was the contrary of this, and I did not send this …

Smith 1875: 100

The ‘Daily Telegraph’ tablet DT 42 excavated by Smith at Nineveh.

Many an archaeologist will have profited from this learning experience, the rule being that if you find something spectacular right at the outset of a season in the field tell no one, least of all your sponsor, until the last week of the funding.

Although Smith was never to learn the fact that this new piece, which he accurately described as ‘relating the command to build and fill the ark, and nearly filling up the most considerable blank in the story’ (Smith 1876: 7), turned out to belong not to the Gilgamesh series at all, but to a similar, earlier mythological composition concerning the Flood, called after its hero, Atra-hasīs (whom Smith called ‘Atar-pi’), as we will see later.

Smith’s fame is visible in a charming postage stamp journal called The Philatelist that dates to this very period. The 1874 edition contains an oblique tribute to Smith’s reputation, in the form of a note under the heading ‘The Latest Post-Office Puzzle’:

The number of foreigners resident in London brings a large quantity of letters from abroad, and the forms which Leicester Square or Soho assume in the addresses of these missives might even cause Mr. George Smith of the British Museum, the interpreter of Assyrian tablets, to tear his locks in despair. But the most curious letter as regards the unintelligibility of the address ever received at the General Post-office, arrived by the last mail from India. The officials and experts could make nothing of the blots, crooks, and fantastic sprawling lines on the envelope, which looked like microscopic photographs of queer insects. Eminent linguists in the British Museum were applied to without avail. The authorities at the India Office were consulted and were equally at fault. Malagasy, Pali and Canarese scholars, and the most learned linguists resident in the metropolis, were as nonplussed as the Oriental pundits by the mystic hand-writing on the wall in the palace of Sennacherib. At last, however, this Chubb-lock of letters was picked by two learned gentlemen residing in Bayswater, who discovered that the address was in the Telugu character, and that the contents were intended for the Ranee, by whom was meant her Majesty the Queen.

George Smith died young, fairly romantically and, it must be said, probably quite unnecessarily. He expired at Aleppo of shigellosis (or dysentery), traditionally put down to his own stubbornness but probably partly due to neglect by others; his long-suffering and newly bereaved widow Mary, left with their five children, was to struggle with a modest state pension. His ghost is reputed to have called aloud to the German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch at the very hour of his demise while the latter was passing the London street where he had lived. Mary Smith could scarcely have anticipated that her husband’s name would remain vibrant today, but it has been indissolubly wedded to the Babylonian Flood Story ever since, and rightly so.

George Smith’s discoveries led to unease in more than one quarter. It was simply bizarre that a close relative of Holy Writ should emanate from such a primitive, barbaric world through so improbable a medium, to thrust itself uncompromisingly into public consciousness. How could Noah and his Ark possibly have been known and important to the Assyrians of noble Asnapper and the Babylonians of mad, dread Nebuchadnezzar? Worried people over garden fences and in church pews clamoured to have important questions answered. Smith, writing soberly in 1875, ducked none of them, unanswerable though they then were. Two questions that presented themselves at the outset have echoed ever since:

Which flood tradition was older? and When and how did the transmission of the flood tradition take place?

The first has long since been answered: cuneiform flood literature is by a millennium the older of the two, however one dates the biblical text – still a difficult problem. As for the second question, this book offers a new answer.

A hundred and thirteen years after Smith’s breakthrough, and with far less drama, a British-Museum-curator-meets-amazing-cuneiform-flood-story similar episode befell the author of this book. In 1985 a cuneiform tablet was brought in to the British Museum by a member of the public for identification and explanation. This in itself was nothing out of the ordinary, as answering public enquiries has always been a standard curatorial responsibility, and an exciting one to boot, for a curator never knows what might come through the door (especially where cuneiform tablets are involved).

On this occasion the member of the public was already known to me, for he had been in with Babylonian objects several times before. His name was Douglas Simmonds, and he owned a collection of miscellaneous objects and antiquities that he had inherited from his father, Leonard Simmonds. Leonard had a lifelong eye open for curiosities, and, as a member of the RAF, was stationed in the Near East around the end of the Second World War, acquiring interesting bits and pieces of tablets at the same time. His collection included items from Egypt and China as well as from ancient Mesopotamia, among which were included cylinder seals – Douglas’s personal favourite – and a handful of clay tablets. It was just such a selection of artefacts that he brought to show me on that particular afternoon.

I was more taken aback than I can say to discover that one of his cuneiform tablets was a copy of the Babylonian Flood Story.

Making this identification was not such a great achievement, because the opening lines (‘Wall, wall! Reed wall, Reed wall! Atra-hasīs …’) were about as famous as they could possibly be: other copies of the Flood Story in cuneiform had been found since Smith’s time, and even a first-year student of Assyriology would have identified it on the spot. The trouble was that as one read down the inscribed surface of the unbaked tablet things got harder, and turning it over to confront the reverse for the first time was a cause for despair. I explained that it would take many hours to wrestle meaning from the broken signs, but Douglas would not by any means leave his tablet with me. As a matter of fact, he did not even seem to be especially excited at the announcement that his tablet was a Highly Important Document of the Highest Possible Interest and he quite failed to observe that I was wobbly with desire to get on with deciphering it. He blithely repacked his flood tablet and the two or three round school tablets that accompanied them and more or less bade me good day.

This Douglas Simmonds was an unusual person. Gruff, non-communicative and to me largely unfathomable, he had a conspicuously large head housing a large measure of intelligence. It was only afterwards that I learned he had been a famous child actor in a British television series entitled Here Come the Double Deckers, and that he was a more than able mathematician and a man of many other parts. The above programme was entirely new to me, as I grew to manhood in a house without a television, but it must be recorded that when I gave my first lecture on the findings from this tablet and mentioned the Double Decker series a lady jumped out of her chair with excitement and wanted to know all about Douglas rather than the tablet. Many of the original cast became well known; all the episodes of the series have been reprinted.

All I knew then was that this new and unread flood tablet was leaving the precincts and that it was going to require a masterstroke to get it back into my hands so I could read the thing. Douglas appeared periodically in the Department thereafter with other small bags of objects. I never saw him myself, because he only wanted to consult my then-colleague Dominique Collon, who knows everything there is to know about cylinder seals, and who even managed to acquire a few interesting specimens from the Douglas Simmonds Collection for the Museum in 1996. Nothing happened about ‘my’ tablet until much later, when I spotted Douglas staring at Nebuchadnezzar’s East India House inscription in our Babylon, Myth and Reality exhibition in the British Museum early in 2009. I picked my way carefully through the crowds of eager visitors and asked him straight out about it. The seductive quantities of bewitching cuneiform tablets strewn around the exhibition must have had a good effect because he promised to bring his tablet in again for me to examine. And he did.

I discovered that in the meantime Douglas had had the tablet fired in a kiln by someone who knew about such things, and it was now housed in a customised box, so its importance had not really been lost on him. He agreed to leave the tablet on deposit with me, in its box, so that I could work on it properly for as long as I needed to.

Finally alone with the tablet, armed with lamp, lens and freshly sharpened pencil, I got to work on reading it. Decipherment proceeded in fits and starts, with groans and expletives, and in mounting – but fully dressed – excitement. Weeks later, it seemed, I looked up, blinking in the sudden light …


I discovered that the Simmonds cuneiform tablet (henceforth known as the Ark Tablet) was virtually a detailed instruction manual for building an ark. I worked very industriously on that inscription, wedge by cuneiform wedge. Gradually the meaning could be teased out, and I reported in to Douglas now and again what was emerging. Most importantly, he was enthusiastic for me to use the tablet in collaborating on a major new documentary with Blink Films, currently under production, entitled Rebuilding Noah’s Ark, and, finally, to write this, the present book. Sadly Douglas died in March 2011.

Writing this book has called upon philology, archaeology, psychology, ethnography, boat-building, mathematics, theology, textual exegesis and art history. All this will lead us into an adventurous expedition of our own. What is this ancient cuneiform script? And can we sense what these Babylonians who wrote in it were really like? I will clarify exactly what the Simmonds tablet has to say and how it compares with the flood story texts that are already known, and then look at how, after all, the story of the flood passed from Babylonian cuneiform to alphabetic Hebrew and came to be incorporated within the text of the Book of Genesis.

This is a book strongly dependent on ancient inscriptions and what they have to tell us. Most of them are written in the said cuneiform, the world’s oldest – and most interesting – kind of writing. It has seemed important not only to say what we know but to explain how we know it, and also to make it clear when some word or line is persistently obscure, or open to more than one interpretation. I have tried to keep Assyriological philology to a minimum; some has perforce crept in, but not to the point, I hope, that the true Flood Story detective will be put off. For this is certainly a detective story. I had no idea when I started reading that tablet and writing this book where it was all going to lead me, but it has certainly been an adventure. I found myself facing many unanticipated questions that now had to be answered. To a cuneiform scholar the Ark Tablet, if not breathtakingly beautiful, will always be a thing of wonder. I hope that anybody else who reads this book will reach the same verdict.

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