The men who rediscovered Assyria

An Assyrian lamassu being removed under the direction of Austen Henry Layard
An Assyrian lamassu being removed under the direction of Austen Henry Layard

Daniel Silas Adamson has an outstanding longread which lays out the 19th century history of the three figures who were largely responsible for rediscovering Assyrian civiliztion: George Smith, Hormuzd Rassam, and Austen Henry Layard. He also puts the current destruction of art by the so-called Islamic State in context. Here’s a terrific account of the emergence of the epic of Gilgamesh:

A month or so later, on 3 December, Smith read out his translation of the tablet to the Society for Biblical Archaeology in London. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was among those who came to listen. It was the first time an audience had heard the Epic of Gilgamesh for more than 2,000 years.

Smith’s reading caused a sensation. There were some who seized on the poem with pious satisfaction, taking it to corroborate the essential truth of the Bible. But there were others who found it more troubling. As the New York Times put it in a front page article the following day, the Flood Tablet had exposed “various traditions of the deluge apart from the Biblical one, which is perhaps legendary like the rest”.

Coming less than 15 years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the Epic of Gilgamesh felt to many like another great crack in the edifice of Victorian Christianity.

The story of how the Flood Tablet emerged from the mud of northern Iraq begins in a place called Kouyunjik – one of the archaeological sites now being mined for Assyrian antiquities by IS. It’s a story told by Prof David Damrosch of Columbia University in The Buried Book: the Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh.

The story of the loss and rediscovery of the Gilgamesh epic is outlined in the excellent “The Buried Book”, by David Damrosch.

Daniel Silas Adamson, The Men Who Uncovered Assyria, BBC News (Mar. 22, 2015).

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