Smith, George (1840-1876) (DNB00)

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SMITH, GEORGE (1840–1876), Assyriologist, was born at Chelsea of parents in a humble station of life on 26 March 1840, and was apprenticed in 1854 to Bradbury & Evans to learn bank-note engraving. His imagination had been fired from an early age by the accounts which he had read of the oriental explorations of Layard and Rawlinson, and he frequently spent the greater portion of his dinner hour at the British Museum, while his spare earnings were devoted to the purchase of books on Assyrian subjects. Sir Henry Rawlinson was struck by his intelligence and enthusiasm, and in 1866 gave him permission to study the paper casts in his workroom at the museum. Concentrating his attention at first upon the annals of Tiglath Pileser, Smith achieved his first success by the discovery of a new and confirmatory text which enabled him to assign a precise date to the tribute paid by Jehu, the son of Omri, to Shalmaneser II. A short account of this discovery was published by Smith in the ‘Athenæum’ (1866, ii. 410); and, being encouraged by Rawlinson and Dr. Birch, he next set to work upon the cylinders containing the history of Assurbanipal (Sardanapalus), and was gradually enabled to introduce some order into the confusion which had reigned among those documents. His remarkable success led Rawlinson to propose to the museum trustees that Smith should be associated with himself in preparing a new volume of the ‘Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia.’ The suggestion was adopted, and in January 1867 Smith entered upon his official life at the museum, and definitely devoted himself to the study of the Assyrian monuments. The first fruits of his labours were the discovery of two inscriptions—one fixing a date of the total eclipse of the sun in the month Sivan in B.C. 763, and the other the date of an invasion of Babylonia by the Elamites in B.C. 2280; while, in a series of articles in the ‘Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache,’ he threw a flood of light upon later Assyrian history and the political relations between Assyria and Egypt. In 1870 Smith was appointed senior assistant to Dr. Birch, the keeper of oriental antiquities, and during 1871 he published his invaluable ‘Annals of Assur-bani-pal,’ transliterated and translated, an expensive and laborious work, issued at the cost of J. W. Bosanquet and H. Fox Talbot. On 6 June in this same year Smith read before the newly founded Society of Biblical Archæology a valuable introductory paper on the ‘Early History of Babylonia’ (Transactions, I. i. 28–92), and this was followed, on 7 Nov., by a paper on ‘The Reading of the Cypriote Inscriptions,’ the Cypriote syllabary, as determined by him, proving a solid basis for the subsequent studies of Birch, Brandis, and others. It was in 1872, however, that Smith made the discovery which caused his name to be almost a household word in Great Britain—his discovery, namely, among the tablets sent home by Layard, of the ‘Chaldean Account of the Deluge,’ his translation of which was read before a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archæology held on 3 Dec. 1872, at which Mr. Gladstone was present (ib. II. i. 213–34). The interest of the discovery was accentuated by the modest way in which it was announced. In consequence of the wide interest taken in Smith's discoveries, the proprietors of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ newspaper came forward and offered to advance one thousand guineas for fresh researches at Nineveh, on condition that Smith should conduct the expedition. The offer was accepted by the trustees of the British Museum, and Smith started for the east on 20 Jan. 1873, on six months' leave of absence. He reached the ruins of Nineveh on 2 March, and entered upon the field of active research which had been inaugurated by Botta in 1842, and by his own fellow-countrymen, Layard and Rawlinson. With great expedition he unearthed the missing fragments of the Deluge story from the so-called ‘library’ at Kouyunjik, and returned to England with an important collection of objects and inscriptions. The proprietors of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ now presented the firman (necessary for the prosecution of the research) and the excavating plant to the trustees of the British Museum, who determined to take advantage of the time remaining before the expiry of the firman by despatching Smith once more to the scene of the excavations. In spite of vexatious difficulties thrown in his way by Ottoman officials, he succeeded in bringing home a large number of fragmentary tablets, many of them belonging to the great Solar Epic in twelve books, of which the episode of the Deluge forms the eleventh lay. He reached home (by way of Aleppo and Alexandria) on 9 June 1874, and early next year published an account of his travels and researches in ‘Assyrian Discoveries’ (London, 8vo, with maps and illustrations), which he dedicated to his chief, Dr. Birch. The remainder of 1875 was occupied in piecing together and translating a number of fragments of the highest importance, relating to the Creation, the Fall, the Tower of Babel, and similar myths held in common by the Chaldeans and the people of the Pentateuch. The results of these labours were embodied in his ‘Chaldean Account of Genesis’ (London, 1876 [1875], 8vo; again ed. Sayce, 1880, 8vo; German version, Leipzig, 1876, 8vo).

The value of these discoveries induced the trustees of the British Museum to send Smith on yet another expedition to excavate the remainder of Assur-bani-pal's library at Kouyunjik, and so complete the collection of tablets in the museum. He accordingly started for Constantinople in October 1875, and, after much trouble, succeeded in getting the necessary firman. In March 1876 he left for Mosul and Nineveh, in company with Dr. Eneberg, a Finnish Assyriologist. While detained at Aleppo on account of the plague, he explored the banks of the Euphrates from the Balis northwards, and at Jerabolus discovered the ancient Hittite capital Carchemish. After visiting Deri (or Thapsacus) and other places, he made his way to Bagdad, where he procured between two thousand and three thousand tablets, discovered by some Arabs in an ancient Babylonian library near Hillah. From Bagdad he went to Kouyunjik, and found, to his intense disappointment, that it was impossible to excavate on account of the troubled state of the country. Meanwhile Eneberg had died, and Smith, worn out by fatigue and anxiety, broke down at Ikisji, a small village sixty miles north-west of Aleppo. He was brought to Aleppo through the agency of the British consul, James Henry Skene, from whose wife he received every possible attention, but after a short rally he died at the consulate on the evening of 19 Aug. He left a widow and family, for whose benefit a public subscription was set on foot by Professor Sayce, and in October 1876 a civil list pension of 150l. was settled upon Mrs. Smith, in consideration of her husband's eminent services to biblical research.

In addition to the works mentioned, Smith published:

  1. ‘The Phonetic Values of Cuneiform Characters,’ 1871, 8vo.
  2. ‘History of Assurbanipal,’ 1871, 8vo.
  3. ‘Notes on the Early History of Assyria and Babylonia,’ 1872, 8vo.
  4. ‘Ancient History from the Monuments: Assyria,’ 1875.
  5. ‘The Assyrian Eponym Canon,’ London, 1875, 8vo; an invaluable pioneer work on Assyrian chronology.
  6. ‘Ancient History from the Monuments: Babylonia’ (posthumous), London, 1877, 8vo; 2nd edit., revised by Sayce, 1895.
  7. ‘The History of Sennacherib’ (for the benefit of Mrs. Smith), 1878, 4to.
[Memoir by Professor Sayce in Nature, 14 Sept. 1876; Smith's Assyrian Discoveries; Transactions of the Soc. of Biblical Archæology, vols. i.–v.; Times, 4 Dec. 1875, 5, 7, 10 and 13 Sept. 1876; Daily Telegraph, 11 Sept. 1876; Levant Herald, 4 Sept. 1876; Ménant's Bibliothèque du Palais de Ninive, 1880, p. 17; Ragozin's Chaldea, pp. 42 seq.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.