There's Noah, the Ark, animals 2-by-2, the flood. Famous biblical story.
But….long before the bible, the same plot shows up in the eleventh tablet of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (which we all read in class long ago, right? Sure we did. Gilgamesh has a big quest, fights monsters and there’s a big flood. Remember?It's basically the oldest novel in the world). The ceramic version of this story (a clay tablet) was found amid the ruins of the Library of Ashurbanibal, King of Assyria.
The tablet inscribed with the story (the Flood Tablet) is only about 6” x 5”, and it’s covered in cuneiform writing. It’s a small scruffy-looking thing. In the 1870’s, it caused a huge uproar, and here’s that story:
Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was the archetypical British Major General who studied the inscriptions at Behistun, in Iran, and figured out how to translate cuneiform. He was rich, well-connected, and smart. He made quite a name for himself. Meanwhile, George Smith was poor, unknown but very smart and obsessively interested in Assyria. He would come to the British Museum whenever he could, and taught himself how to read cuneiform.
Eventually, the museum hired George, and he was the guy who first realized that this scrap of ceramic was a game-changer. He wrote a paper, presented it to the Society of Biblical Archaeology and (in a very religiously strict society where people believed their bibles) caused quite the ruckus. How could this biblical tale be a re-make of an old stone? All this, just a quarter century after Darwin published that business about evolution.
George did achieve some fame, not much fortune, and died at age 36. I have great empathy for George: simple name, no titles, just addicted to all things Assyrian, needing another fix of translation, please, just a little more. There's a story (probably apocryphal) that when he first realized what the tablet held, he was so excited that he tore off his clothes. There's another story (probably true) that the delay on his final expedition led to his death from dysentery....a delay that he was forced to make due to financial constraints.
Writing as someone whose grandmother was born in a thatched hut, and who can never stop sewing, I understand, George. And you'll have a place in my tablet.