History : Jan-Feb 2018
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 91 antiquities department re- alized how well Smith could interpret it. They informed Sir Henry Rawlinson, the foremost cu- neiform scholar of the time, of their talented lunchtime visitor. Rawlinson, who had worked with Layard at Nineveh, met Smith and was impressed by his abil- ities. Smith proved particu- larly adept at spotting which fragment fitted where when faced with a table strewn with shattered clay tablets. In 1861 Rawlinson con- vinced the museum to hire Smith, initially on a part- time basis, to organize the vast number of tablets in its collection. Numbering in the thousands, many originated from Nineveh’s library, built by the Assyr- ian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century b.c. Creat- ed when the Neo-Assyrian Empire stretched from Egypt to Turkey, the tab- lets were discovered in the 1850s by Hormuzd Ras- sam, a protégé of Layard. As experts in Akkadian writ- ing were rare, most of the artifacts were simply left in storage at the museum. Over the next decade, Smith pored over them, perfect- ing his understanding of ancient languages, and soon became an expert. The Naked Truth Long days working with the ancient puzzle were relieved by moments of revelation. In his first decade work- ing at the museum, Smith managed to establish dates for events in the history of the Israelites, helping to straighten out parts of the biblical chronology. Smith hoped to travel to the Mid- dle East to seek out more tablets, but the museum TAKING TABLETS BRIDGEMAN/ACI THE GREAT LIBRARY of the seventh- century b.c. Assyrian king Ashur- banipal was unearthed in Nin- eveh in the 1850s, and thou- sands of tablets found there were transferred to the British Museum. Among these was the Flood Tablet, deciphe- red by George Smith in 1872, which alerted him to the existence of the an- cient Epic of Gilgamesh.