The Epic of Gilgamesh and class discrimination

I was very interested (but also saddened) to read how the discoverer of the Epic of Gilgamesh was denied at least some of the respect and recognition that was his due – almost certainly because he was from the lower class, in a society that was class-conscious to a fault.  The Telegraph reports:

[George] Smith, an unlikely scholar, was the man for the task. Born of modest parents in Chelsea (his father was a carpenter), he left school at 14. He married young, moved to Crogsland Road in Camden, and had six children. Unsatisfied, he spent what spare time and money he had pursuing his interests of Assyriology and biblical archaeology. He was so often seen at the British Museum that Sir Henry Rawlinson (the discoverer of the Behistun monument, a “Rosetta Stone of cuneiform languages”) eventually employed him as a classifier. But even for such highly skilled and specialist work, he was paid little more than the cleaning staff.

On the evening he came across Layard’s fragment, Smith is said to have become so animated that, mute with excitement, he began to tear his clothes off. (Though much repeated, there is only a single source for this story, E A  W Budge’s Rise and Progress of Assyriology – published 50 years after Smith’s death.) Smith quickly prepared a paper to present to the Society of Biblical Archaeology.

. . .

… it was not until January 1873 that the Telegraph stepped in to offer the British Museum £1,000 for Smith to conduct further excavations. Taking travel advice from Arnold, Smith departed for Ottoman Iraq later that month.

His journey was not an easy one. Smith had never travelled before, and his letters home (illustrated for his children) demonstrate that he suffered chronic seasickness. On his arrival, Smith found himself beset by officialdom. His permissions were not valid, the papers had not been signed by the right people. He was delayed for months.

Digging began on May 7, and within three days he believed he had discovered more broken fragments of the “Deluge”. In fact, he had discovered another long-lost poem: The Epic of Atrahasis. In Smith’s own words, “The proprietors of The Daily Telegraph, however, considered that the discovery of the missing fragment of the deluge text accomplished the object they had in view, and they declined to prosecute the excavations further… desiring to see it carried on by the nation.” The brief excavation was over. The question of future funding would depend on Gladstone.

Permission was granted and on a second dig (in 1874) Smith discovered Babylonian accounts of the creation, the fall of man, the pestilence, the Tower of Babel, and fragments of many other legends. But it was on the third excavation in 1876 that Smith ran into difficulties.

He left England in 1875, and was so delayed by Ottoman officials that he did not arrive at Nineveh until July 1876. By then, with temperatures already in the mid-40s, it was too late to dig. He fell ill.

Smith’s notebooks in the British Library recount his descent into delirium, and the final pages make for heartbreaking reading. He set off for England, but died before he got as far as Aleppo. He was 36, only four years into his career as an Assyriologist. The newspapers mourned Smith’s early passing. They explained that he had died exercising a heroic commitment to the science. The dedications and obituaries, though, masked a slightly darker story; one where Smith may have been subject to coercion in his decision to delay.

Smith had previously written to request curtailment of the dig because “plague” was sweeping the lowlands of Syria and Iraq. Permission was refused. He was told by the museum secretary that the trustees would consider it to be “very objectionable” if he were to terminate the excavation early. It is impossible to imagine the same being said to Rawlinson or Layard.

There’s more at the link.

How sad that a mind of such quality could be judged, not by its intellectual capabilities or accomplishments, but by the social class into which its owner had been born.  As the article notes, if Smith had been a member of the upper classes, he’d never have been pushed around as he was – and he’d probably have been allowed to leave the area of his excavations sooner, thereby avoiding contracting the disease that killed him.

If you’re interested, you can download an e-book version of Smith’s translation of ‘The Chaldean Account of Genesis’ in several formats, or read it online in HTML format (click each chapter title to read it).  Recommended.


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