Adventurers, explorers, kings, gods, and goddesses come to life in this "useful, entertaining and informative" story of the first great epic (The Washington Post)
Composed 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 to the world, buried beneath ashes and ruins.
David Damrosch begins with the rediscovery of the epic in 1872 and from there goes backward in time, all the way to Gilgamesh himself. The Buried Book is an illuminating tale of history as it was written, stolen, lost, andafter 2,000 years and countless battles, conspiracies, and revelationsfinally found.
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About the Author
David Damrosch is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the general editor of The Longman Anthology of World Literature and the founding general editor of The Longman Anthology of British Literature. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
THE BROKEN TABLETS
Forgotten for more than two thousand years, The Epic of Gilgamesh reentered history on a brisk November day in 1872. Its twelve broken tablets had been mixed in among the hundred thousand fragments that Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam had shipped back to London from Nineveh a quarter century before. For years the epic lay cradled in the crates and drawers of the British Museum's massive collection while scholars gradually deciphered the tablets' cuneiform script and began to read them. Slowly, an entire world was coming to light as the researchers worked through the huge jumble of materials before them: receipts for oxen, slaves, and casks of wine, petitions to the Assyrian kings, contracts, treaties, prayers, and reports of omens the gods had planted in sheep's livers. Much of this material was of interest to only a handful of specialists, but then an assistant curator named George Smith came upon an electrifying passage.
Smith was working at a long table piled with tablets, in a second-floor room overlooking the bare branches of the plane trees in Russell Square. He could read the tiny cuneiform markings only when enough light came through the tall windows. Fearful of fire, the museum's trustees had refused to allow gas lighting in the museum, and in 1872 Edison's incandescent bulb was still just a gleam in its inventor's eye. The museum did supply covered lanterns for a select number of senior staff, but Smith was too junior to enjoy the use of one. On days of dense London fog — frequent in the fall and winter — the museum would close and the entire staff would be sent home. So it must have been a fairly clear day when George Smith came upon a piece of tablet whose lines referred to a flood storm, a ship caught on a mountain, and a bird sent out in search of dry land.
Like many of his contemporaries, George Smith was obsessed with biblical history. How much of the Bible was true? Textual critics had begun dissecting the Bible's layers of composition, casting doubt on the accuracy of its historical accounts; the more advanced German scholars were even claiming that such major figures as Abraham and Moses had never really existed. And if the parting of the Red Sea was merely a legend, what of the Resurrection of Jesus? Advances in geology, meanwhile, were undercutting the foundational stories of Creation, Eden, and the Flood — had any of it really happened? Was earthly life truly God's sacred creation or was it just the product of blind chance, as Darwin's radical new theories implied? Contemplating a cliff studded with fossils of extinct species, the eminent poet Tennyson had a grim vision of Nature, "red in tooth and claw," proclaiming: "A thousand types are gone; / I care for nothing, all shall go."
While he worked on his tablets, George Smith was on the lookout for passages that might confirm information from the Bible; within his Assyrian sources he had already established solid dates for a couple of minor events in Israelite history. But now he was on to something truly sensational: the first independent confirmation of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia, complete with a Noah figure and an ark. Yet he could read only a few lines of the tablet, much of which was encrusted with a thick, lime-like deposit. He desperately needed to know what was written beneath this crust.
The British Museum had an expert restorer on contract, a former tobacconist named Robert Ready. Ready was hired by the hour on the days the museum was open to the public, but he had to supplement his income with outside work. He developed many innovative methods of restoration but treated them as trade secrets, revealing them only to his four sons. Ready alone could clean the tablet, but he was away on private business when Smith found the crucial fragment. As Smith's colleague E. A. Wallis Budge later recalled, "Smith was constitutionally a highly nervous, sensitive man; and his irritation at Ready's absence knew no bounds." Ready finally returned several excruciating days later and worked his magic, whereupon "Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines which Ready had brought to light; and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, 'I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.' Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself!" There is no way to know how far this disrobing actually went; Smith makes no mention of it in his own books, speaking only of methodical searching and careful decipherment. Perhaps he was embarrassed to reveal the full intensity of his excitement, or perhaps Budge's tale grew in the telling over the years before he recorded it; the surprising state of "undress" may have been little more than a loosened collar.
George Smith certainly had good reason to be flushed with success: this discovery was the turning point of his life, and he knew it. He had just made one of the most sensational finds in the history of archaeology, and he became famous overnight. Yet this discovery was only one of many achievements in his meteoric career, for George Smith was a genius. He became the world's leading expert in the ancient Akkadian language and its fiendishly difficult script, wrote the first true history of the long-lost Assyrian Empire, and published path breaking translations of the major Babylonian literary texts, in between expeditions to find more tablets in Iraq. Though this would have been the lifework of an eminent scholar at Oxford or the Sorbonne, Smith's active career lasted barely ten years, from his mid-twenties to his mid-thirties. Far from holding a distinguished professorship, he had never been to high school, much less college. His formal education had ended at age fourteen.
If you were a genius, in the Victorian era, but through the luck of the draw you had found yourself born into a working-class family, your chances of achieving such scholarly success would have been vanishingly small. A brilliant scullery maid or coal miner would earn the same meager wages as a competent drudge, and would enjoy the same poor prospects for advancement. The twentieth century's major engines of upward mobility, higher education and the armed services' officer corps, were essentially closed to the children of the working classes, and if your genius lay in artistic or intellectual directions, you would likely achieve, at most, a local reputation as a rare hand at the fiddle or "a deep one" at the pub.
As a genius, of course, you wouldn't really need much formal instruction: you could find your way to books, dictionaries, and grammars, teach yourself ancient and modern languages, and enter the world of ideas on your own; it could even be an advantage to have escaped the limiting routines of everyday instruction. But what then? As late as 1895, the novelist Thomas Hardy portrayed with grim irony the reception accorded his stonemason hero in Jude the Obscure, who manages to teach himself Greek and then boldly applies for admission to "Biblioll College, Christminster" (clearly modeled on Balliol College, Oxford). The head of the college replies with a well-intentioned but heartless note:
Sir — I have read your letter with interest; and, judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course. That, therefore, is what I advise you to do. Yours faithfully,
To Mr. J. Fawley, Stone-mason.
Hardy's irony is hidden here in the professor's rather implausible name: "Tetuphenay" echoes the Greek verb , "to be shrouded in conceit and folly, to be silly, stupid, absurd." The world, however, was very much on Tetuphenay's side, and it was Jude who was destined to remain shrouded in obscurity.
George Smith's parents had no such academic illusions for their son, who was born in 1840 in the London district of Chelsea, at that time a seedy area of grimy tenements and high unemployment. They belonged to London's large, anonymous pool of unskilled labor — even after George became famous, no one ever bothered to record his parents' occupations, or even their names. When George turned fourteen, his father took the sensible route of apprenticing the boy to a skilled trade. Apparently George's literary and artistic interests were already becoming evident, and so his father did the best he could, articling his son to the printing firm of Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, where he was put to work learning to engrave banknotes. A modest step up from the father's own position, and as much as one could realistically expect — a good income, sufficient to marry and raise a family fairly comfortably, ideally enabling the next generation to take a step further, through high school perhaps and on to greater prosperity thereafter.
Working amid the clattering din of the printing presses and the smell of damp ink on paper stock, Smith took to his engraving with pleasure. He developed the patience, the keen eye, and the delicate hand that would later serve him well in his work with cuneiform tablets. His work also exposed him to a wider literary milieu, for Bradbury and Evans had branched out from printing into publishing; they owned the comic magazine Punch and published Dickens and Thackeray in lavishly illustrated editions. Smith was employed in the banknote division that had been started by Henry Bradbury, a son of the firm's senior partner. Henry Bradbury was deeply interested in the problem of producing paper money that would be difficult to forge, and he wrote several studies on this topic, culminating in 1860 with an encyclopedic volume soberly titled Specimens of Bank Note Engraving, on which Smith likely worked.
The young and innovative Bradbury would have been a natural mentor for his talented assistant. According to Wallis Budge, the firm's partners considered Smith a rising star, destined to become one of England's leading engravers, and they "regarded Smith's abandonment of a well-paid trade and regular employment, in order to follow his literary bent, as an act of pure folly." Yet it may have been a tragedy within the firm that shook Smith out of his expected trajectory: after publishing his magnum opus on banknotes, Henry Bradbury committed suicide in September 1860, at the age of twenty-nine. That fall, the twenty-year-old Smith began to haunt the Near Eastern collections at the British Museum.
Biblical studies drew George Smith to the museum, as a long-standing hobby turned into his passion. Like Hardy's Jude the Obscure, he had developed an early fascination with the Bible (one of the few books, if not the only book, that would have been in his household as he grew up). Yet unlike Jude, who got nowhere by learning the Greek language that many high school graduates knew better, Smith found his way into the brand-new field of Assyriology — the study of ancient Mesopotamia, so called because the first excavations in Iraq had focused on the ruins of Nineveh and other ancient Assyrian cities north of Baghdad. Assyriology was hardly an established field at all, with just a few researchers scattered about in British and Continental universities and museums. They had only recently succeeded in cracking the code to the region's history: the complex cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script in which most of the ancient Mesopotamian texts were written. Much of the ongoing work in deciphering the cuneiform inscriptions was still being carried on by amateurs — army officers posted to Persia or Iraq who fell under the spell of the antiquities there, or rural parish priests with time on their hands; a leading early decipherer was Edward Hincks, who served for fifty-five years as rector of the Irish town of Killyleagh.
Assyriology was, in short, a field in need of workers, with few established protocols or vested interests: a rare chink in the armor of the British class structure. An inquiring mind with a fresh perspective could be welcomed into the enterprise, without needing a single credential, letter of introduction, or family connection. Resources were still pitifully slim, and full-time employment in the field was almost unattainable, so it would be an exaggeration to speak of this as a window of opportunity; it was more of a mouse hole of opportunity at most, but it was just the route George Smith took into the British Museum.
More precisely, he began spending many of his lunch hours walking down Fleet Street and then up to the museum at Great Russell Street, roughly a mile from his workplace, threading his way among the dense press of carriages, horse-drawn streetcars, window-shopping pedestrians, and hand-drawn carts full of cabbages and potatoes. It was natural for Bradbury and Evans to have located their printing firm just off Fleet Street, the center of the London newspaper industry, and this location made all the difference in Smith's life. If Bradbury and Evans had situated themselves another mile away from the museum, then Smith wouldn't have had the time to get to it during business hours, and he never would have made the discoveries that led to his new career. But from the firm's offices at 11 Bouverie Street, a young man in a hurry (as Smith certainly was) could walk to the museum in twenty minutes, probably eating as he walked, with half of a ninety-minute lunch break left to pore over the enigmatic tablets in the museum's collection.
Smith may have gone to work early in order to buy more time for his lunch hour. In a letter to his fiancée, Mary Clifton (away on a seaside holiday), he warned her lovingly that "unless things alter you may often have to breakfast alone after we are married and I do not regret this so much, not because I do not enjoy your company but because in earning more I am doing good to us both. Today if I work as I anticipate I shall earn 11 shillings." Of course, this letter may simply suggest that even at an early age Smith was a workaholic, a trait encouraged by the fact that his income would rise with his output of engravings.
* * *
For several years, Smith had been reading everything he could find about Mesopotamia, but now he was determined to take an active part in studying the primary materials. What he encountered when he made his way to the museum's cuneiform collection was a kind of barely controlled chaos. Thanks to Layard and Rassam's efforts, the museum possessed the world's largest cuneiform collection by far, over a hundred thousand tablets and fragments in all, together with many paper "squeezes" — impressions made of immovable inscriptions by pressing damp paper onto their surfaces.
This was an extraordinary trove, if only it could be read, but the problems were not only linguistic. The squeezes deteriorated upon handling, and were further damaged when mice got into the storage area through some literal mouse hole and nibbled away at them for nesting material. Unbaked clay tablets could crumble. Many tablets had been baked, giving them the heft and durability of terra-cotta roofing tiles, but most of them had been broken amid the ruins of Nineveh, so the collection consisted of a myriad of fragments. Even the largely intact tablets were often encrusted with dirt and calcified deposits and had to be cleaned with great care before they could be read. Today the tablets reside in their own spacious, well-lit reading room with an ornate arched ceiling, its walls lined with fifteen-foot-high oak cabinets holding ranks of wool-lined drawers of tablets, but in Smith's day conditions were haphazard. The tablets were stored loose in boxes and sometimes damaged each other; items under active consideration were laid out on planks set on trestles in a dimly lit room.
At any given time, there might be two or three researchers visiting from the provinces or the Continent, trying either to help or to compete against the two professional staff members who ran the Department of Oriental Antiquities (Oriental meaning Middle Eastern, in common Victorian usage). Everyone sensed that there were exciting discoveries to be made in the chaotic mass of tablets, and papers like the Illustrated London News published dramatic reports of every new confirmation of a biblical name or establishment of a date in Israelite history. Yet the museum's professional staff were not particularly well qualified to make these discoveries themselves. The head, or "Keeper," of the department was a learned Egyptologist, Dr. Samuel Birch, D.C.L., L.L.D. Birch had no direct expertise in Mesopotamian studies and left the supervision of the cuneiform collection to his sole assistant. This was a young classical scholar named William Henry Coxe, whose prizewinning undergraduate career at Oxford had earned him the lasting nickname "Coxe of Balliol" — the real-life version of the college that rejects Jude in Hardy's novel.
Excerpted from "The Buried Book"
Copyright © 2006 David Damrosch.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: When Histories Collide 1
The Broken Tablets 9
Early Fame and Sudden Death 51
The Lost Library 81
The Fortress and the Museum 115
After Ashurbanipal, the Deluge 151
At the Limits of Culture 198
The Vanishing Point 236
Epilogue: Saddam's Gilgamesh 254
Illustration Credits 303
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story is interesting¿engrossing even¿but I'm not convinced the book does it justice.
Odd book. Part archaeolocigal adventure story, revisionist biography, literary criticism, cultural survey and topical essay. Works best when dealing with archaeology/biography. The other parts are a bit much. Read it with an open mind, but critical mind.
The Buried Book is really two books. The first half (or a little more) is a popular history of Assyriology as it relates the finding of the Library of Assurbanipal in general and the Epic of Gilgamesh in particular. The second half (or a little less) is Damrosch's world-lit tinged reading of Gilgamesh. The first half is fascinating, the second dull and turgid.
The story begins in 19th century Iraq with the accidental discovery of the until then unknown Epic of Gilgamesh, and unlike most history books, works backwards in time slowly revealing the mystery of its origins and meaning - this chronology works well, not unlike an archaeological dig. The first half of the book is devoted to two unlikely and largely unsung heroes of the Victorian era who first found and deciphered the tablets, George Smith and Horzmud Rassam. Rassam is probably the most important and unique revelation of the book, as Damrosch restores an unfairly maligned scholar to his rightful place in history and perhaps some immortality. The second half of the book jumps backwards from the 19th century to when the Epic was written, discussing the history of the Assyrian kingdom, and the library where the tablets were buried. The tablets were buried around 700 BC when the city was sacked, and thus the Epic lain forgotten from that time until the 19th century. Had the city not been sacked and the tablets not buried, it is likely the Epic would have been lost forever, as most tablets from that period did not survive otherwise.This is a fun tale, both Smith and Rassam encompass dramatic lives as underdogs who rose from obscurity, overcoming Victorian prejudices of class and race. If nothing else the first half of the book is worth the price of admission, in particular Rassam's side adventure to Ethiopia. Damrosch's literary interpretation of the Epic (Ch. 6) provides valuable insights, such as the importance of cedar trees, making it less "foreign" (both in time and culture) and more universally human. I certainly came away with a new appreciation of the tales message of the quest for immortality.The Sources and Notes section includes an up to date guide of recent translations of the Epic, recommended reading before deciding which translation(s) to pursue.
The Buried Book gives the history of the Epic of Gilgamesh from rediscovery in the British Museum to the earliest days of Sumerian epic poetry. Yep, that sentence is correct. Damrosch tells the story backwards, peeling back the layers of history like an archaeologist would study a site. He starts with George Smith, who found the tablets among the hundred thousand or so items in the British Museum's Assyrian collection in the late 1800's. He follows with the discovery of the Ninevah library by Hormuzd Rassam, a Mosul native raised by a British sister-in-law to be very British and shut out of upper British society, whose work was purposefully buried by some of the bigger names in British archaeology of the era. Then Damrosch moves to the Epic itself, along with the story of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian King who built the library and collected the tablets, among which were those that became the "standard" Epic of Gilgamesh. Finally, the book concludes with older stories collected and edited to become the Epic, reaching back to the earliest records of Sumerian civilization to get glimpses of a possible historical Gilgamesh.In each chapter detailing a piece of the story, Damrosch focuses on a person at the center of that part of the story, bringing to life these little known corners of archaeology - both British and Assyrian, for Ashurbanipal was in his own way, an archaeologist restoring even older Sumerian and Chaldean works. But he also pays attention to the societal aspects of the work. For instance, George Smith was interested in finding external evidence to support the history in the Bible, and much of his translation and interpretation of the Gilgamesh story was colored by this motivation. These pictures open up the periods he discusses and really makes the times come to life.Recommended!
I was disappointed by this book, though it's not necessarily the author's fault. Looking at the cover and reading the back, I was somehow led to believe that it would be about history and archaeology, when it's actually more like literary criticism. This isn't bad in itself, it's just not what I was looking for.From a historical viewpoint, I thought the author took a few too many liberties to create a vivid image of the past. At one point, he instructs the reader to "Imagine the king thinking things through after receiving this alarming letter, perhaps reclining at night on a lion-footed couch in his harem, having dismissed his wives so he could think in peace, torches flickering as he pondered the clay tablet in his hand, the broken halves of its clay casing littering the floor." It's only fifteen pages later that he reveals a critical detail: "the king faced one difficulty in studying these reports: he couldn't read. If he pondered Kudurru's alarming letter in his darkened palace at night, the tablet in his hand would have been frustratingly opaque to him." Without this much later clarification, the earlier passage is misleading at best. At worst, it's intentionally so; there's no real reason to think that the tablet itself would have been in the king's possession rather than that of his scribes, since the physical object was useless to him.Another historical issue that I felt was treated unsatisfactorily was the king's decision about succession. Damrosch tells us that he "made a compromise decision" and that it "proved disastrous. [He] tried to... give the kingdom to his preferred son Ashurbanipal and yet pacify Shamash-shumu-ukin by making him a subsidiary king in Babylon. Sending him south would keep him away from his half brother and ease tensions between them, and giving Babylonia its own king might soften the resentment the southerns continued to feel". While Damrosch goes on to say that the decision was "problematic" and "unheard-of" and "must have seemed dubious", he never manages to show the reader what was so disastrous about it. He says that Ashurbanipal ruled without problem for sixteen years, after which his half-brother did rebel, but that Ashurbanipal "finally subdued Babylon" after about five years, went on in the next two years to destroy the other nation that had participated in the rebellion, and then continued to rule for many more years: his reign lasted forty years in all. That's not quite what I would consider a disaster. It was only after Ashurbanipal's death that the "seriously overextended" Assyrian empire collapsed, which suggests that it was the sheer size of the empire, rather than the specific succession decision, that was the problem. Even before Ashurbanipal's reign, after all, there was resentment in Babylonia.Those historical problems, combined with the fact that I'm just not particularly interested in literary criticism, left me dissatisfied with this book. For the reader who's more interested in literature than in history, though, I can imagine that it would be an enjoyable read.