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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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2761141,007 (3.65)36
  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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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 |
Interesting book that follow many paths leading to or from the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh: archaeology, Middle Eastern history/geography (both modern and ancient), literary history, linquistics (including the decipherment of an unknown language - Cuneiform), even Saddam Hussein's love story/political allegory (with a nod to Gilgamesh).

The author was ambitious in tackling so many different aspects of this ancient story and I thought it was a novel approach. Even though his execution was only mediocre, it held my interest.

I'll share a section that made me laugh. The author was explaining the role of scribes in making copies of everything from routine business transactions, to status reports for the king, to literary works. First the backdrop:

"Akkadian was being displaced by the language that would one day be Hormuzd Rassam's native tongue, Aramaic, written in an easy-to-learn phonetic alphabet, precursor of the Phoenician, Greek, and Roman alphabets, Despite its convenience, the scholarly specialists clung to the Akkadian language and its cuneiform script, in which their traditions had developed over the centuries; the common language was not for them. Scribal training was arduous, all the more so as students were made to learn both Akkadian and the even more obscure Sumerian, originally spoken by the inventors of cuneiform."

So far, a dry subject, but then he snuck this in...

"one student lamented, in Sumerian, in a Babylonian school text:

The door monitor said, 'Why did you go out without my say-so?' and he beat me.
The water monitor said, 'Why did you help yourself to water without my say-so?' and he beat me.
The Sumerian monitor said, 'You spoke in Akkadian!' and he beat me.
My teacher said, 'Your handwriting is not at all good!' and he beat me.

In between beatings, the teachers tried to instill a love of learning in their unhappy pupils. This was a struggle throughout the ancient Near East.

'Your heart is denser than an obelisk,' one Egyptian instructor complained to his pupil. 'Though I beat you with every kind of stick, you do not listen.... Though I spend the day telling you 'Write,' it seems like a plague to you. Writing' -- the teacher sternly concluded -- 'is very pleasant!'"

My favorites: "In between beatings, the teachers tried to instill a love of learning" (good luck with that) and "Your heart is denser than an obelisk" . Who knew the ancients were so funny? ( )
  devone | Sep 23, 2012 |
It seems there wasn't really enough material to make a whole book about this subject, so the author went down some ratholes in order to do it. I got a lot of info about the British Museum's unfair practices, the stupidity of some eastern governments, how hard it was to be a non-white archaeologist, how little education Smith had and what an asshole Budge was. All well and good, but then I got fanciful tales about two ancient Assyrian rulers (both with the most awesome names though) and then a little bit about Gilgamesh himself. I would have liked to know more about how exactly Smith was able to "crack the code". Ancient writing, unspoken and not understood for centuries is so toweringly mysterious that I wouldn't have any idea how to approach it, but somehow with as little education as he had, Smith did. Must have been the name. : ) ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | May 11, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Damroschprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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 -

a book about exploration

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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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