Ancient History & Civilisation

2. The Discovery of the Tablets

The discovery of the tablets belongs to the heroic age of excavation in the mid nineteenth century, when, although methods were not always so scrupulous nor aims so strictly scientific as today, the difficulties and even dangers were greater, and results had an impact which profoundly altered the intellectual perspective of the age. In 1839 a young Englishman, Austen Henry Layard, set off with a friend on an overland journey to Ceylon; but in Mesopotamia he was delayed by a reconnaissance of Assyrian mounds. The delay of weeks was lengthened into years, but in time Nineveh and Nimrud were excavated; and it was from these excavations that Layard brought back to the British Museum a great part of the collection of Assyrian sculptures, along with thousands of broken tablets from the palace of Nineveh.

When Layard began excavating at Nineveh he hoped to find inscriptions, but the reality, a buried library and a lost literature, was more than he could have expected. In fact the extent and value of the discovery was not realized till later when the clay tablets with wedge-shaped characters were deciphered. Some, inevitably, were lost; but over twenty-five thousand broken tablets, a huge number, were brought back to the British Museum. The work of decipherment was begun by Henry Rawlinson, at the residency in Baghdad, where he was stationed as political agent. Before going to Baghdad, Rawlinson, then an army officer in the employ of the East India Company, had discovered what was to prove a principal key to the decipherment of cuneiform in the great inscription, the ‘Record of Darius’, on the rock of Behistun near Kermanshah in Persia, which is written with cuneiform (wedge-shaped) characters in the Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian languages. The work begun by Rawlinson in Baghdad was continued in the British Museum when he returned to England in 1855; and soon after his return he started publishing the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. In 1866 he was joined, as an assistant in the work on the tablets, by George Smith.

Meanwhile Rassam, Layard’s collaborator and successor at Nineveh, had excavated in 1853 that part of the library in which were the tablets of the Assyrian collation of the Gilgamesh Epic. A realization of the importance of the discovery did not come till twenty years later, when in December of 1872, at a meeting of the newly founded Society of Biblical Archaeology, George Smith announced that ‘A short time back I discovered among the Assyrian tablets in the British Museum an account of the flood.’ This was the eleventh tablet of the Assyrian recension of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Soon after this first announcement Smith published the Chaldean Account of the Deluge, and with it the outline of the Gilgamesh narrative. Interest was immediate and widespread; but the Deluge tablet itself was incomplete, so the search for more tablets was renewed. The Daily Telegraph contributed 1,000guineas towards further excavation at Nineveh, which George Smith was to undertake for the British Museum. Quite soon after his arrival at Nineveh, Smith found the missing lines from the description of the flood, which was then, as it still is today, the most complete and best preserved part of the whole Epic. Many more tablets were found in this and the following year, and Smith was able to fill in the broad outline of the Assyrian version before, in 1876, he succumbed to sickness and hunger, and died near Aleppo at the age of thirty-six; but already he had opened up a new field in Biblical studies and in ancient history.

When publishing the Assyrian ‘Deluge’ Smith had stated that this was evidently a copy from a much older version made at Uruk, the biblical Erech, known today as Warka. Some years earlier, between 1849 and 1852, W. K. Loftus, a member of the Turko-Persian Frontier Commission, had spent two short seasons digging at Warka, where he found puzzling remains, including what are now known to be third-millennium mosaic walls, and also tablets. But Warka had to wait for further attention till the twenties and thirties of this century, when the Germans carried out massive excavations which have revealed a long series of buildings, as well as sculptures and tablets. Thanks to this work a great deal is now known about early Uruk, its temples, and the life of its inhabitants.

Even more important for the history of the Gilgamesh Epic were the activities of an American expedition from the University of Pennsylvania, led by John Punnet Peters, which at the end of the nineteenth century started work on the mound of Niffar, ancient Nippur, in Southern Iraq. By this time considerably more experience had been gained of the problems connected with excavating ancient cities: but there were still many hazards. The first season at Nippur in 1888—9 began light-heartedly with the arrival of Peters and his party at the site in a wild gallop through the canebrakes on rearing stallions; but their last view of the mound at the end of the season was of hostile Arabs performing a war-dance on the ruins of the camp. Nevertheless the work continued the following year, and a total of from thirty to forty thousand tablets was found and distributed between museums in Philadelphia and Istanbul. These tablets include a small group on which are found the oldest versions of the Gilgamesh cycle in the Sumerian language. Work proceeds in the field and among museum archives. Recent additions have been made by the publication of tablets from Ur in the British Museum, and tablets have been identified in Baghdad and elsewhere, some historical, and some directly connected with the text. Division of the material has complicated the work of decipherment, for in some cases one half of an important tablet has been stored in America and the other in Istanbul, and copies of both must be brought together before the contents are understood.

The majority of ancient texts are commercial and administrative documents, business archives, lists, and inventories which though profoundly interesting to the historian, are not for general reading. The recent decipherment of the so-called ‘linear B’ script of Bronze Age Mycenae and Crete has revealed no literature. A huge library discovered at Kültepe in Central Anatolia is entirely made up of records of business transactions; and apart from a solitary text, and that a curse, there is not one of a literary kind. The importance of the excavations at Nippur, Nineveh, and other great centres of early civilization in Mesopotamia is that they have restored a literature of high quality and of unique character.

The Gilgamesh Epic must have been widely known in the second millennium B.C., for a version has been found in the archives of the Hittite imperial capital at Boghazköy in Anatolia, written in Semitic Akkadian; and it was also translated into the Indo-European Hittite, and the Hurrian languages. In southern Turkey parts have been found at Sultantepe; while a small but important fragment from Megiddo in Pales-tine points to the existence of a Canaanite or later Palestinian version, and so to the possibility that early Biblical authors were familiar with the story. The Palestinian fragment comes from the tablet which describes the death of Enkidu and is closest to the account already known from Boghazköy. Excavation at Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit, on the Syrian coast has brought to life an independent epic literature of which the written versions mostly date from the later part of the second millennium, and which was also known in the Hittite capital; it includes a fragment from a flood narrative that probably stems from a version of the Gilgamesh flood. At this period therefore there was considerable overlapping and some mingling of the various literary traditions, including those of the Hittites themselves; and recently a case has been made out for the probable existence of a rather similar Aegean Mycenaean poetic tradition, elements from which would have survived the dark age, and reappeared in Homeric and later Greek poetry. The whole question of the date and nature of this undoubted Asiatic element in Greek myth and early poetry is still debatable and clouded with uncertainty.

Whether or not the fame of Gilgamesh of Uruk had reached the Aegean - and the idea is attractive - there can be no doubt that it was as great as that of any later hero. In time his name became so much a household word that jokes and forgeries were fathered on to it, as in a popular fraud that survives on eighth-century B.C. tablets which perhaps themselves copy an older text. This is a letter supposed to be written by Gilgamesh to some other king, with commands that he should send improbable quantities of livestock and metals, along with gold and precious stones for an amulet for Enkidu, which would weigh no less than thirty pounds. The joke must have been well received, for it survives in four copies, all from Sultantepe. The text has been translated and published recently by Dr Oliver Gurney.

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