The Flood Tablet, containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. From Nineveh, 7th century B.C.E. The British Museum, London.
This fragment, barely six inches high, is a clay tablet from the ancient city of Nineveh. In the 1860s, George Smith, a regular lunchtime visitor to the British Museum, taught himself to read the then-untranslated text, which is in the oldest known form of writing, cuneiform. As Smith translated the fragment, he realized that it was an ancient flood story, which scholars have since identified as the 11th tablet of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first great epics of world literature. The fact that this flood story was approximately four hundred years older than the oldest surviving text of the biblical flood story was used by proponents on both sides of the controversy about whether the biblical stories were historically accurate. Its greatest importance, however, is the place of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the transformation of writing from a utilitarian and economic to a literary and cultural format.