I’m far from being a historical scholar; I’ve only read Gilgamesh once, and that was years ago. In fact, my interest in history lies more in the development of Northern and Western Europe (linguistics, primarily). Still and all, when I read the premise of this book, I was compelled to give it a try. There are, I imagine, a lot of interesting things that can be said about the discovery, translation, and impact of one of the oldest narratives that we know of.
With some regret, though, I must admit that Damrosch’s book left me cold. Ostensibly about the tale of Gilgamesh itself, the book actually makes very little mention of Gilgamesh, beginning with a broad overview of its rediscovery by British and French archaeologists excavating at Ninevah, but the entire middle of a book is a rambling hash of biographies of important figures like George Smith. These people are undoubtedly critical in the rediscovery of the tablets upon which Gilgamesh was written, but I don’t care about their time spent as ambassadors in Abyssinia. If The Buried Book had managed to accomplish it’s stated goal, I would not be so perturbed by the excess of this tangential trivia, but it seems like Damrosch spent much more time with silly speculation about the state of mind of Assyrian kings and much less time bothering to draw connections between the meaning of this historical epic.
One fact which I did find fascinating was that Gilgamesh, insofar as it contains references to a great “Deluge” which destroyed most of the earth, was thought to be a confirmation of the story of Genesis and the great flood which Noah survived. There are other biblical references in the book, too. When it was first discovered, and when the cuneiform was finally deciphered, the impetus to prove the Bible correct1 was responsible for much of the initial funding to continue excavations in what is now Iraq. This stuff is food for thought, but there was sadly very little of it.
Writing a conversational sort of book about a “dry” subject takes not just impeccable research, but a lot of stylistic flair. I always point to Bill Byron as someone who gets this sort of thing right: there is a target mix of tabloid and textbook. I appreciate Damrosch’s work on this book, but he needs to brush up on his skills a bit before I’d bother to read anything else by him.
- Funnily enough, there were two camps in this regard: one believed that a second account of the flood would prove the event’s veracity; the other believed that it was proof that the flood was a mere narrative trope used by many different cultures[↩]