This paper, which was read before the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London on Decmber 3rd, 1872, caused a sensation. George Smith (1840-76), an engraver by trade, was self-educated in Biblical and Near Eastern archeaology, mostly by studying the exhibits at the British Museum. He joined the museum as a 'repairer', piecing together fragments of tablets from Ninevah, a job which he excelled at. In 1886 he was appointed Assistant, and in 1871 he published The Phonetic Values of the Cuneiform Characters, a key reference work for reading Assyrian.
Smith started to find bits and pieces which suggested an account of a flood. In 1872, Smith found a large fragment covered with a thick deposit which, when removed, revealed a large part of the flood narrative. Reportedly, he exclaimed, "I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion," put the tablet on a table, and ran around the room manaically, taking off his clothes!
The tablet had the story of a deluge, which resembled the account in Genesis, but which was obviously older than the Bible. Today, we know this as the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. As a result of this discovery, Smith got funding to go into the field in 1873, funded by a London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. Smith uncovered more tablets with fragments of the Deluge story. In 1874 and 1876 he returned to the Middle East, under the Aegis of the British Museum. He tragically died at the age of 36 of dysentery in Aleppo, Syria, on August 19, 1876.