The Story of Mesopotamian Archeology

by Esteban

“Although official attentions were now turned elsewhere, strong popular interest in Mesopotamian antiquities continued, fueling a flourishing trade in material looted by local merchants from the ancient cities of Assyria. Scholarly plundering had already caused considerable destruction. Now the situation reached its nadir, with the retrieval of saleable pieces being the only aim, very much at the expense of the ancient remains.

Scholarly activity had not ceased, however, although it was no longer concentrated in the field. By the end of the 1850s the successful decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform meant that inscriptions and texts recovered from Nineveh and elsewhere could now yield a vast amount of information on the ancient Mesopotamian world.

One of the most surprising discoveries was the great time depth of the civilization. Biblical and Classical sources had painted a picture of the wealth and grandeur of Assyria in the first millennium B.C.E., and this had been confirmed by the excavations at Nineveh and adjacent cities.

The library uncovered in Ashurbanipal’s palace included texts written in the second millennium B.C.E., shedding light on the period of the Old Babylonian Empire and the early history of the Assyrians, the time of the biblical patriarch Abraham, native of the Mesopotamian city of Ur.

But there were also copies of even more ancient texts that revealed the existence in the third millennium B.C.E. of the southern Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer and Akkad.

The later nineteenth century was a time of great intellectual upheaval. The developing science of geology was revealing the immense age and gradual formation of the earth, while Charles Darwin was showing how life had evolved in all its diversity. This new knowledge undermined the certainties of the Bible, according to which the world was created in immutable form at a date calculated by biblical scholars as 4004 B.C.E.

In this epoch of challenge to established traditional views, many found it reassuring that archaeological research in the Near East was uncovering cities and records of individuals familiar from the Bible, thus confirming and buttressing its authenticity.

It was therefore electrifying news when George Smith, who had spent many years quietly studying cuneiform texts, announced in December 1872 that he had found part of a tablet recounting the story of the Flood. A serious-minded man, he amazed his colleagues at the moment of discovery by leaping to his feet, rushing round the room, and beginning to tear off his clothes.

In less than two months he found himself en route to Mosul to look for the missing pieces of the tablet, lavishly sponsored by the Daily Telegraph of London—a measure of the immense popular excitement that his discovery had generated.

Once Smith had accomplished the tedious and time-consuming task of extracting a permit from the Ottoman authorities, he achieved his objective in just five days of digging, finding among the debris left by previous excavators a piece of tablet that accounted for the major part of the missing section.

Smith later returned to excavate further at Nineveh, but in 1876 he contracted a fatal illness. As his replacement, the British Museum appointed Hormuzd Rassam, veteran of the 1850s excavations.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 29-30.