Trading Up With Gilgamesh

I had begun with a flourish, emphasizing the excitement created when a young curator at the British Museum first deciphered the Gilgamesh epic, with its seeming confirmation of the biblical story of the Flood: “When George Smith discovered the Flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh in the fall of 1872, he made one of the most dramatic discoveries in the history of archaeology.” Sterling ran his pen along these lines, but instead of praising this bold beginning, he tapped the page and asked, “Couldn’t you make this opening just a bit more dramatic?”

He was right. I had told the reader that George Smith had made a dramatic discovery, but I had failed to dramatize the scene at all. Rewriting my opening, I placed Smith at the long trestle tables where he worked amid the watery sunlight coming in through the museum’s windows. I went on to detail his awkward social position: Never having gone even to high school, he had been apprenticed as a bank-note engraver. Brilliant and ambitious, he had taught himself Akkadian and begun to haunt the museum’s Near Eastern collections during his lunch hours, making his way up from Fleet Street through the press of carriages, pedestrians, and hand-drawn carts full of cabbages and potatoes.

With the scene now set, Smith was on his way, and so was my book. —Trading Up With Gilgamesh (Chronicle of Higher Education)

A great illustration of the message show, don’t (just) tell.