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People bring all sorts of unexpected objects to the British Museum to have them identified.

In 1985 a cuneiform tablet was brought in by a member of the public already known to me, for he had been in with Babylonian objects before. Gruff, non-communicative and to me largely unfathomable, he had a conspicuously large head housing a large measure of intelligence.

In the year 1872 one George Smith, a bank­note engraver turned assistant in the British Museum, astounded the world by discovering the story of the Flood – much the same as that in the Book of Genesis – inscribed on a cuneiform tablet made of clay that had recently been excavated at far-distant Nineveh (in present-day Iraq).

Human behaviour, according to this new discovery, prompted the gods of Babylon to wipe out mankind through death by water, and, as in the Bible, the survival of all living things was effected at the last minute by a single man.

I explained that it would take many hours to ­wrestle meaning from the broken signs, but Douglas would not leave his tablet with me.

He blithely repacked his Flood tablet and more or less bade me good day.

The bewitching cuneiform tablets strewn around the exhibition must have had a good effect because he promised to bring his tablet in again for me to examine. Decipherment proceeded in fits and starts, with groans and expletives, and in mounting – but fully dressed – excitement.

The trouble was that, as one read down the inscribed surface of the unbaked tablet, things got harder; turning it over to confront the reverse for the first time was a cause for despair.

People have long been concerned with the question of whether there really was a flood, and been on the lookout for evidence to support the story, and I imagine all Mesopotamian archaeologists have kept the Flood at the back of their mind.

In the years 19 important discoveries were made on sites in Iraq that were taken to be evidence of the biblical Flood itself.

A contemporary observer reported what happened next: “Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines which…

had [been] brought to light; and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, 'I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.’ “Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself!

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