The Buried Book

The Buried Book (2006) by David Damrosch. Henry Holt and Company, 315 Pages.

An entertaining investigation into the discovery and mythology of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known literary work in the world.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the prototype for many tales that have been written over the last five thousand years. In the eleven clay tablets upon which the epic is written, we find the first written story of a world-wide deluge, the rise and fall of a powerful king, a mother’s love and protection for her son, and the deep and abiding friendship between men that we refer to nowadays as “male bonding”. And that’s just touching upon a few aspects of the tale. In substantially reworked form, elements from Gilgamesh can be found in the works of Homer as well as in many books of the Bible.

The Buried Book takes us through the history of how the epic was discovered in the mid-1800s. This book is about evenly divided into two parts: The first part tells the story of the men who discovered and translated the clay tablets of Gilgamesh, and the second part is a lengthy analysis of the details of Gilgamesh, the real-life rulers of Assyria who stored it away, and its impact upon many subsequent works of literature.

I found the first part of the book to be much more interesting. Damrosch spent a great deal of time and effort researching the lives of the men who brought the epic back to life from its burial place. First we learn about George Smith, the genius who rose through a life of poverty to become the first man to translate the ancient cuneiform tablets comprising Gilgamesh in 1872. Rather than the normal dry history lesson, we find out all about Smith’s personality quirks, his wife and children, and even his intimate fears. Drawing upon a wealth of archival materials such as letters and notebooks, Damrosch details the life of a man that the world has long since forgotten. I found this fascinating and highly entertaining.

Next, we read about Hormuzd Rassam, the archeologist who actually unearthed the tablets themselves, along with a great deal of other ancient Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts. Rassam’s career spanned from the 1840’s to the end of the century, when his reputation was ruined by an ill-chosen lawsuit. In learning all about Rassam and how he discovered the Library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, we also learn a great deal about the history and culture of Babylon, Assyria, and the country we now call “Iraq”. Once again, this history lesson is fascinating.

Personalities like Smith and Rassam simply do not exist any more. Can you imagine that in 1872 George Smith was a national hero — and a headline-making news celebrity — because he translated some 3000 year old clay tablets while working for the British Museum? Can you imagine such a thing making news headlines today? Nowadays, the discoveries of historians and scientists are buried deep in the newspaper in tiny print — if they are mentioned at all — while the news about celebutard Paris Hilton being sentenced to a month in jail makes the headlines. The world, and society, really was very different back then.

After I finished this book, it occurred to me that as a people, we seem to be trying very hard to forget everything we’ve learned about human culture and society over the past 150 years. Instead of learning from our mistakes, we’re repeating them, with even worse consequences than the first time around.

I doubt The Buried Book will make any bestseller lists — but it should. This well-written and compelling tale of history, mythology, and psychology deserves to be read by many. I submit to you that a story written down in clay tablets by a scribe, a story that lay buried for nearly 3000 years, still has an awful lot to tell us today, right here and now. Give it a try and see if I’m right… go unearth a copy of The Buried Book and see for yourself. Hey! Maybe Paris can read it while she’s in jail!

This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink.