In 1866, George Smith, a British bank-note engraver, wrote a letter to the famed Assyriologist Sir Henry Rawlinson, asking if he might have a look at the fragments and casts of Assyrian inscriptions in the back rooms of the British Museum. Rawlinson agreed—thus initiating what would become an unusually fruitful friendship between an eager amateur and the man who had deciphered cuneiform.

Smith so impressed Rawlinson that the latter hired him in 1867 to help catalogue the museum’s cuneiform inscriptions, including those excavated by Austen Henry Layard at Kyunjik (ancient Nineveh) in the 1840s and 1850s.

In the accompanying article, Victor Hurowitz describes one of Smith’s most significant discoveries: the Babylonian poem Enūma Eliš. But Smith’s most famous “find” in the British Museum store rooms was undoubtedly the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its dramatic account of a Great Deluge that threatened to wipe out humankind.

In his popular book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, Smith described the discovery: “I soon found half of a curious tablet which had evidently contained originally six columns of text; two of these (the third and fourth) were still nearly perfect; two others (the second and fifth) were imperfect, about half remaining, while the remaining columns (the first and sixth) were entirely lost. On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean [Babylonian] account of the Deluge.”

According to a later source, Smith then “jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.” The British Museum has dubbed Smith’s Tablet 11, shown, “the most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.”

After he calmed down, Smith scoured the museum’s holdings for further fragments, and soon found that his Flood tablet was the 11th tablet in a 12-tablet epic poem. On December 3, 1872, he presented his findings to the newly founded British Society of Biblical Archaeology and speculated that more of these tablet fragments remained buried in the sands of Nineveh.

Soon after, Edwin Arnold, owner of London’s Daily Telegraph, proposed that his paper sponsor renewed excavations at Nineveh, with Smith at the helm. Smith, and the museum, agreed.

Smith later wrote, “Soon after I commenced excavating at Kouyunjik, on the site of the palace of Assurbanipal, I found a new fragment of the Chaldean account of the Deluge belonging to the first column of the tablet, relating the command to build and fill an ark, and nearly filling up the most considerable blank in the story.”

The copies of the Gilgamesh Epic discovered by Layard and Smith came from the world-class library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.). The tales of Gilgamesh, the bold warrior-king of Uruk, are much older, however; many of them date back to the Sumerian period (third millennium B.C.E.). In the Old Babylonian Period (early second millennium B.C.E.), the various adventures of Gilgamesh were strung together in a cohesive narrative, which was rewritten many times. By the 12th century B.C.E., an 11-tablet version of the epic had emerged. In the eighth century B.C.E., a 12th tablet describing the death of Gilgamesh was added to the series.

The Flood story does not number among the original Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh. Rather, it was inserted into the narrative in about the 12th century, and thus appears only in the 11- and 12-tablet versions of the tale (called the Standard Babylonian versions).

According to the tale, after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, a disconsolate Gilgamesh searches for ways to live forever. His quest leads him, on Tablet 11, to the immortal Utnapishtim—often referred to as the Mesopotamian Noah, because he saved his family from a devastating worldwide Flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he, too, was once a mere a mortal and a king, of Shuruppak-on-the-Euphrates. In his day, five of the gods plotted to send a Flood to destroy humankind. One of the gods, Ea, surreptitiously informed the king, whispering, “Quickly, quickly tear down your house and build a great ship, leave your possessions, save your life … Then gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.” Utnapishtim finishes the ship and loads his family and animals just in time: “Ninurta opened the floodgates of heaven, the infernal gods blazed and set the whole land on fire. A deadly silence spread through the sky and what had been bright now turned to darkness. The land was shattered like a clay pot. All day, ceaselessly, the storm winds blew, the rain fell, then the flood burst forth, overwhelming the people like war … For six days and seven nights, the storm demolished the earth. On the seventh day, the downpour stopped. The ocean grew calm. The land could be seen, just water on all sides, as flat as a roof. There was no life at all.” The boat runs aground on Mount Nimush. Utnapishtim sends out a dove, which flies right back, having failed to find land; he sends a swallow with similar results. Finally, he sends a raven, which never returns. The waters have begun to recede.

The gods convene and offer Utnapishtim and his family immortality. Having heard this tale, Gilgamesh recognizes he has little chance of being offered the same, and he returns home to Uruk to die.—M.D.M

Passages from Gilgamesh come from Stephen Mitchell’s new translation Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Free Press, 2004).