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The buried book : the loss and rediscovery…

The buried book : the loss and rediscovery of the great Epic of Gilgamesh

by David Damrosch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3071355,248 (3.59)39
  1. 20
    Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon by Lesley Adkins (_Zoe_)
    _Zoe_: I enjoyed Empires of the Plain much more than The Buried Book. It focuses more on the story than on analyzing the statements of the British archaeologists for traces of prejudice.
  2. 11
    The Epic of Gilgamesh by Anonymous (timspalding)

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
A very entertaining and interesting book centered around the Gilgamesh epic. This is not another translation (although a few lines are translated), but a bipartite history: capsule biographies of the heroes of Mesopotamian archaeology with emphasis on events relating to the discovery and translation of Gilgamesh; and discussion of the influence of the epic on ancient and modern thought and literature.

Author David Damrosch elaborates considerably on the traditional discovery stories. British Museum worker George Smith translated the first tablets (which had been collected years previously by Henry Layard), and was supposedly so excited at reading an independent account of the Deluge that he took off his clothes (although Damrosch mentions that by Victorian standards this might have meant he loosened his tie). So far, so good – that’s the anecdote that appears in every account. However, Damrosch goes on to explore Smith’s antecedents – he apparently came from a lower class family (his parents are unknown); was apprenticed to an engraver; and learned Mesopotamian languages by spending his lunch hours in the British Museum. Smith’s subsequent history was a little tragic – he was sent on two expeditions to Mesopotamia, jobs for which he was singularly unsuited; he had no local languages, no archaeological field experience, and no diplomatic skills. The first trip was moderately successfully - he found a tablet originally believed to be a missing piece of the Epic (it later turned out to come from an unrelated story also describing the Deluge) but on the second he spent most of his time in futile attempts to get Ottoman officials to allow him to excavate and eventually died of cholera.

Hormuzd Rassam was another tragic hero involved in the Epic. An Assyrian Christian assistant to Layard he eventually became an archaeologist and diplomat in his own right. He married an Englishwoman, attended Oxford, and made every attempt to turn himself into a proper Englishman – which didn’t work. Henry Layard remained Rassam’s loyal friend, and said “ {Rassam} is one of the honestest and most straightforward fellows I ever knew, and one whose great services have never been acknowledged – because he is a ‘n****r’…” (single quotes in the original, asterisks mine). Unfortunately just about everybody else treated Rassam with condescension at best or outright contempt at worst. In the midst of his archaeological work, Rassam was sent off to Abyssinia where it was thought that as an “Oriental” he would be able to deal with mad King Theodore, who had taken some European missionaries hostage. Rassam and the missionaries spent three years chained in a hut, and it was all over Rassam was criticized as not being the “man for the job” and not forceful enough with Theodore. The missionaries got all the credit for putting up with captivity (which, to be fair, wasn’t fun; Theodore was in the habit of executing people he disliked by twisting their hands and feet off and leaving them to starve) and Rassam got nothing. To add insult to injury, when he got back to England he was accused by E. E. Wallis Budge of absconding with various museum antiquities. I’ve never really liked Budge, but I didn’t know of his treatment of Rassam before. Budge – who adopted the style of an upper class gentleman but who was in fact the illegitimate son of a Cornish waitress – not only accused Rassam of dishonesty behind his back, but went public with it in Museum lectures. Rassam then unadvisedly sued. He won – the judge said he had been treated “shabbily” by Budge – but was only awarded £50. Budge got revenge by systematically expurgating Rassam’s name everywhere he found it in Museum records and assigning credit for Rassam’s work to others in Museum publications. Although I’m reasonably well-versed in Mesopotamian archaeology, I’d never heard of Rassam until reading this book.

The final section of The Buried Book gives a description of the Epic, its evolution from the Sumerian Bilgames poems, and its eventual influence on subsequent civilization. The Deluge account in the Bible is the most obvious example, but subtle influences can be assigned elsewhere – including other sections of the Bible (David and Jonathan as parallels to Gilgamesh and Enkidu), and Homeric myth. The strangest effect came when Saddam Hussein adopted Gilgamesh as a Iraqi hero, to the extent of writing a romance novel (well, it’s got Saddam Hussein listed as the author anyway) vaguely related to the Epic (I’ve got to get a copy of this, but so far it’s only available in Arabic and German. I can read German very slowly with repeated dictionary consultation, but so far my Arabic is limited to la (no), la shukran (no thank you) and wallh ‘na la ‘ryd ‘n (by God, I do not want that)).

At any rate, this is recommended for anybody with casual or greater interest in Gilgamesh and/or Mesopotamian archaeology. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 10, 2017 |
The Buried Book is the second book in my Summer 2016 Babylonia Reading List. This volume mainly covers the discovery of the ancient ruins of the Babylonian cities, such as Nineveh, Uruk, and Babylon. To be fair, there locations were already known but no excavations had really taken place until the mid 1800's. Most of chapters have to do with the drama between the different colonial powers racing to uncover new clues in the clay tablet quest. Furthermore, there is even more drama between various British archeologists vying for credit on different discoveries and finds. it's all very colonial with very colorful characters bumbling about in the desert. There is a nice summary chapter on the Babylonian Kingdoms that came right before the Persian take over. It was surprising to see just how complex these cities were. Uruk was just huge. The city walls went on for miles. Whole date orchards were encompassed by these walls. Every merchant you could imagine hawked there wares and services in the cities. According to the Sumerian (pre-Babylonian) poem The Death of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is planning his own tomb and listing out all of his favorite people he is going to bring into the netherworld with him. This list includes Gilgamesh's favorite barber. I guess it's not too surprising but I just love the idea that there have been cities with barbers for 4000 years. I can't imagine this particular barber was too thrilled to be "honored" in this way, but there you go.
In that mundane vein, another delightful part of The Buried Book involves all the various subjects that these uncovered cuneiform tablets contain. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a grand standard tale that was used to teach new scribes how to write cuneiform (which is why we have so many varying pieces of it). But there are far more day-to-day tablets tabulating all manner of things like inventory lists, missives from workshop masters to his apprentices on how to carry out assignments, and complaint tablets. Which leads me to my favorite tablet: a merchant complaining to the king about how one of the king's sons was driving his chariot too fast through the city of Nineveh and knocked over some barrels and didn't stop to make amends. I can just imagine King Shugli having one of his eunuchs coming into the court room going "Uh, your highness, there is a delicate matter I need to discuss with you regarding Prince Ashabanapli" and the king is just all face-in-palm, groaning. Now remember, this is before Homer and before the first versions of the Old Testament were even being inked out on a scroll. It's just hilarious to me that there is actual literal evidence that teenagers and moving vehicles have been a pain in the ass since the dawn of civilization.

Lastly, there is a curious little epilogue regarding Saddam Hussein's interest in Gilgamesh. In his last years in power, Hussein wrote a bizarre romance novel casting himself as a weird version of Gilgamesh. I was also randomly reminded that Hussein was a trained assassin in his youth which led to some equally bizarre misadventures. Also "Dic-Lit" is apparently a thing: literature written by dictators. It's mostly all pretty bad writing. Surprise, surprise.

Anyway, next up on the Babylonian Reading List is Gods, Graves, and Scholars by G.W. Ceram. I really liked reading about the competition between the Victorian archaeologists and I read somewhere that Indiana Jones' character was partly inspired by the archaeologists outlined in Ceram's volume. For instance, that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indi finds out that the Nazi's are digging in the wrong spot for the Ark of the Covenant and he gets a bunch of laborers to dig in the middle of the night so that the Nazis wouldn't find out till the morning. Yeah, that sort of actually happened but it was just outside Mosul and it was the British/Arab Hormuzd Rassam digging on French archaeologist Victor Place's turf for the lost Archives of Ashurbanipal (which Rassam totally found in one night by the way). Can't wait to "dig" into that book (see what I did there). But, firstly, I need to read Stephen King's The Gunslinger for book club. It might be awhile before you hear back from me regarding anymore juicy archeologist stories. ( )
  BenjaminHahn | May 31, 2016 |
This is an interesting study of the discovery of the tablets that comprise the most complete sections of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It starts with a discussion about the archaeologists involved in discovering the tablets - what trials they underwent while digging, politics behind their dig, and even quarrels between archaeologists. (Sounds like Wallis E Budge was a jerk despite his fame.) The most interesting story was that of George Smith. He came from a working class background, but he had a brilliant ability to learn languages so he moved up to a classier job as apprentice in a printing shop. He spent all of his free time in the British Library learning languages and looking at ancient documents. Eventually he was hired on, first as a volunteer, and then as a full-fledged member of the team to research ancient Babylonian tablets. He was the one to discover the flood story within The Epic of Gilgamesh and he got so excited that he ran around the library in a "state of undress." (How much undressed he was remains a mystery. But I don't imagine he ran naked through the library yelling Eureka! or anything. He probably took off his jacket and loosened his tie.)

The book then jumps back to the time of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE), a historical king of Nineveh who collected rare literature from around the world (at least the world within reach of himself). It was inside this buried library, which was destroyed in the fall of Nineveh, that the most complete set of tablets for Gilgamesh was discovered. Buried Book tells of Ashurbanipal's father, who was severely depressed and paranoid. He couldn't read and was terrified that his assistants were hiding things from him when they read correspondences. Historians believe that this may be why Ashurbanipal was encouraged to learn to read at a young age. I found this section quite interesting and wished that there were more to it than there was. Though I suppose you can't say THAT much about a historical figure about whom only fragments of records exist.

The Buried Book then retreats farther into a short analysis of Gilgamesh with historical perspective. It discusses how the trip to tame Humbaba in the forest may have represented Gilgamesh's famed war to retrieve wood in other parts of Persia.

Finally, The Buried Book jumped back to how Gilgamesh has affected modern readers - including a longish section on Saddam Hussein. Apparently, Hussein could see Gilgamesh in himself and this impacted his philosophy on ruling. I was pretty interested to hear that Hussein had written a decent novel - I had no clue! Of course, chances are someone else wrote it from Hussein's notes, but still. Very interesting. ( )
  The_Hibernator | Jan 25, 2016 |
This book is an interesting mess. It's really four different segments of varying lengths that all have something to do with the Gilgamesh epic:
* how the epic was rediscovered in the 1800s by British archeologists in the Middle East;
* the plot of the final version of the epic (from around the 7th century BC), its parallels with Biblical and classical Greek mythology, and its relationship to earlier Sumerian versions of the epic;
* what the earliest versions of the epic suggest about the historical Gilgamesh;
* in an odd epilogue, how the universality of the epic's theme and tropes shows that we are not (as of 2006, when the book was published) experiencing a clash of civilizations between the Arab world and the West.

The rediscovery of the manuscripts fills roughly half the book, and includes much original research by the author. As Damrosch tells it, this is really a story of how the ethnically Chaldean archeologist Hormuzd Rassam advanced the field of Assyrian studies only to be denied his place in the record by racist British competitors. The spirit of the late scholar Edward Said and his critique of Western 'Orientalism' permeates this section of the book (and also the epilogue). This part isn't why I picked up the book, but it was interesting, and would be valuable to anyone focused on British imperial archeology.

This is a history book, but in the first section, Damrosch does something most narrative historians do not: weave in an account of how he discovered some of his raw materials (for example, Rassam's correspondence with his mentor, or the records of a court case). It pulls the curtain back to expose contingencies in the author's historical research, and it echoes the book's overall interest in the ancient and modern contingencies that determined how the Gilgamesh epic has reached us.

About ancient Assyria, the book is illuminating, but much briefer. Before reading this, I did not have a sense of the sheer length of time the epic was a part of popular culture - over a thousand years - before it disappeared. Damrosch is at his best spotlighting the ways the late Assyrian scribe Sin-leqe-unninni changed or adjusted aspects of the original Sumerian story to emphasize certain themes and create a true work of art.

What's notably missing from the book is an adequate discussion of how the rediscovered Gilgamesh epic has shaped modern cultures. Damrosch provides a hint of the way the rediscovery contributed, along with debates over evolution and natural selection, to a decline in Biblical literalism among British and American scholars, but there's a much larger story to tell there, and it could have helped shore up the author's case against the clash of civilizations. The gap is initially obscured by the book's structure - it starts in the mid-1800s and moves backward -- but it is a gap, and it explains why the epilogue, jumping to the present day, feels so random to so many readers. ( )
1 vote bezoar44 | Jan 30, 2013 |
Six-word review: Lost ancient epic comes to light.

Extended review:

If you've read with eager attention the story of how Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics and how Howard Carter found King Tut's tomb, this book will feed those same appetites for ancient mystery and grand discovery. Literature's oldest epic poem, the story of Gilgamesh, lay buried in a series of broken clay tablets in the Middle East for 2500 years.

The author treats us to a series of narratives of relevant history, from the finding of the tablets in the 19th century and the decoding of the cuneiform script back to the time when they were buried, when the kingdom of Assyria fell to its Babylonian enemies in 612 BCE and the great library of King Ashurbanipal collapsed into rubble. At that time the texts themselves were already ancient and harked back to a still more ancient time. These dramas played out in and around the region that is enclosed by the borders of present-day Iraq. The author's account incidentally affords some insights into the lands and peoples that Western forces have lately engaged in war.

This book is not especially compelling literature in its own right, nor does it pretend to be, although it is readable enough and recounts the various crisscross narratives of recent and ancient history in an engaging manner. What I liked is the blend of scholarship and storytelling. I found it fascinating from first to last, the last of it being a surprising discussion of a novel called Zabibah and the King, written by Saddam Hussein and published in Arabic in 2000. The novel allegedly shows the influence of the ancient Akkadian verse account of the life, death, and afterlife of the hero Gilgamesh, whose story also has its echoes in the epics of Homer, in the Arabian Nights, and in the Hebrew Bible.

A great irony of the discovery of these and other inscribed clay tablets of 2500 and more years ago is that, like the artifacts of Pompeii, they owe their preservation to a single catastrophe--in this case, the destruction of Ashurbanipal's palace in Nineveh. The burning and collapse of the library meant that the tablets, though broken and crumbling, were gathered and covered over in an abandoned heap rather than being tossed out like rubbish over the centuries or recycled into building materials as in other cities of ancient origins. Their discovery and eventual decipherment opened the door to a view of past civilizations far remote in time, language, and culture and yet as near to our sensibilities as the human emotions they record. ( )
  Meredy | Jan 26, 2013 |
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Levavi, Meryl SussmanDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Gilgamesh is stupendous! ... I consider it to be the greatest thing that can happen to a person.
-Rainer Maria Rilke (1916)

Hopes, long cherished, were now to be realized, or were to end in disappointment. Visions of palaces underground, of gigantic monsters, of sculptured figures, and endless inscriptions, floated before me. After forming plan after plan for removing the earth, and extricating these treasures, I fancied myself wandering in a maze of chambers from which I could find no outlet.
-Austen Henry Layard,
Nineveh and Its Remains (1849)

He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
and set all his labors on a tablet of stone....
See the cedar tablet-box,
release its clasp of bronze!
Lift the lid of its secret,
take out the tablet of lapis lazuli, and read
the struggles of Gilgamesh and all he endured.
-The Epic of Gilgamesh
For Diana, Eva, and Peter -

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805080295, Hardcover)

Adventurers, explorers, kings, gods, and goddesses come to life in this riveting story of the first great epic--lost to the world for 2,000 years, and rediscovered in the nineteenth century

Composed by a poet and priest in Middle Babylonia around 1200 bce, The Epic of Gilgamesh foreshadowed later stories that would become as fundamental as any in human history, The Odyssey and the Bible. But in 600 bce, the clay tablets that bore the story were lost--buried beneath ashes and ruins when the library of the wild king Ashurbanipal was sacked in a raid.

The Buried Book begins with the rediscovery of the epic and its deciphering in 1872 by George Smith, a brilliant self-taught linguist who created a sensation when he discovered Gilgamesh among the thousands of tablets in the British Museum's collection. From there the story goes backward in time, all the way to Gilgamesh himself. Damrosch reveals the story as a literary bridge between East and West: a document lost in Babylonia, discovered by an Iraqi, decoded by an Englishman, and appropriated in novels by both Philip Roth and Saddam Hussein. This is an illuminating, fast-paced tale of history as it was written, stolen, lost, and--after 2,000 years, countless battles, fevered digs, conspiracies, and revelations--finally found.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:58 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Composed by a poet and priest in Middle Babylonia around 1200 BCE, the Epic of Gilgamesh foreshadowed later stories that would become as fundamental as any in human history, the Odyssey and the Bible. But in 600 BCE, the clay tablets that bore the story were lost--buried beneath ashes and ruins when the library of King Ashurbanipal was sacked in a raid. This book begins with the rediscovery of the epic and its decipherment in 1872 by George Smith, a brilliant self-taught linguist, who created a sensation when he discovered Gilgamesh among thousands of undistinguished tablets in the British Museum. From there the story goes backward in time, all the way to Gilgamesh himself.--From publisher description.… (more)

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