Stone age

By GREG COOK  |  September 16, 2008

More modest in their visual appeal but astonishing in their content are numerous small orange clay tablets densely inscribed with cuneiform: a marriage record, a house-sale contract, a spell to drive out a headache-causing demon, a letter advising a king that the sight of the moon at sunrise means the army should attack, a tablet from The Epic of Gilgamesh. Astronomical observations in the writing allow some to be precisely dated — like the letter of May 4, 670 BC, to the ailing king Esarhaddon recommending that he should eat again after three days of fasting. The precise date and the familiar concern grab you from across two and a half millennia.

Layard shipped the ancient relics to the British Museum, assembling the finest collection of Assyrian reliefs outside Iraq. Other institutions, among them Williams College, Amherst College, and Dartmouth College also received carvings. He wrote books about his adventures; these popularized his finds and sparked more than a century of Assyrian excavations. His discoveries seemed to corroborate the literal truth of the Bible, just as new discoveries in geology and biology (Darwin published his theory of “natural selection” in 1859) were beginning to challenge traditional Western understandings.

Then in 1851, at age 34, Layard was done, returning to England to become a politician and diplomat. “We have been fortunate enough to acquire the most convincing and lasting evidence of that magnificence and power, which made Nineveh the wonder of the ancient world, and her fall the theme of the prophets, as the most signal instance of Divine vengeance,” he wrote. “Without the evidence that these monuments afford, we might almost have doubted that the great city ever existed, so completely has she become a desolation and a waste.’”

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