The story so far: George Smith, the son of a Chelsea carpenter and a father of six, was a man of modest means but "he spent what spare time and money he had pursuing his interests of Assyriology and biblical archaeology". He discovered part of the Epic of Gilgamesh in some cuneiform fragments lying around in the British Museum. The Daily Telegraph gave a sneak preview of his findings in the newspaper.
"December 3 1872 was a cold and showery day. At 9 Conduit Street in Mayfair (now the double-Michelin-starred restaurant Sketch) Smith stepped up to begin his lecture to the Society [of Biblical Archaeology]. Because The Daily Telegraph had previewed Smith’s discovery, the room was thick with reporters and members of the public – even the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was in attendance."
It seems to have gone well. "To loud applause, Gladstone rose to respond with enthusiasm to the paper, but also to quash Smith’s appeal for a publicly funded excavation to find more parts of the poem. Gladstone celebrated the “individual effort” which was “the pride of this country”, and joked about “the vulgar expedient” of applying for public funds. In the days that followed, the story was reported widely on both sides of the Atlantic. But it was not until January 1873 that the Telegraph stepped in to offer the British Museum £1,000 for Smith to conduct further excavations. Taking travel advice from Arnold, Smith departed for Ottoman Iraq later that month."
What is most striking about all this? It's a close call. Is it:
- a national newspaper covering recent developments in Assyriology in glowing terms and funding expensive new research in the field?
- recent developments in Assyriology producing lecture halls thick with reporters?
- carpenters in Chelsea and lectures where we now find Sketch? (This is the "Lecture Room and Library" at Sketch. It's a fun place to eat and "The extensive and acclaimed wine list was awarded ‘Best Award for Excellence’ by the Wine Spectator and AA Guide’s ‘Best UK Wine List'", which is more than the Society of Biblical Archaeology ever got for its wine list.)
- a Prime Minister turning up to a lecture on recent developments in Assyriology?
- a left-wing Prime Minister casually brushing aside a claim for public funding for a popular cause by saying that was a "vulgar expedient"?
Let's just go back to the Prime Minister point. In 1872, Gladstone was not just the David Cameron of his day, he was the Barack Obama. He stood at the head of a Government that controlled what was the most powerful country and empire on earth - and would remain so for a generation. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India four years later - and that wasn't one of those empty titles handed out by the poor old exiled King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa of Rwanda, living in social housing in Oakton, Virginia. That was a title reflecting reality. And the head of that Government turned up to a public lecture on a translation of a cuneiform fragment. Mark Steyn often makes fun of how much personal protection the American President gets (e.g. here), but there is a serious point here. Did Gladstone turn up to this lecture with several hardened carriages filled with a gang of heavily-armed constables?
Mourn the fact that we have lost so much of Gilgamesh; loss of all the other epics, the ones that pre-date Gilgamesh; mourn the Library of Alexandria too; but don't forget to mourn Prime Ministers who talk to the sons of carpenters about cuneiform tablets too.