How looting in Iraq unearthed the treasures of GilgameshBreaking News
tags: Iraq, ISIS, ISIL, Ancient Artifacts, Gilgamesh
Andrew George is professor of Babylonian at SOAS, University of London, and the translator of the Epic of Gilgamesh for Penguin Classics.
In 2011, Farouk Al-Rawi, an Iraqi Assyriologist now living in Britain, was shown a group of cuneiform tablets by an antiquities dealer in the Kurdish part of Iraq. He spotted among them a large, unusually shaped fragment and urged the Sulaymaniyah Museum to acquire the whole group. Sitting down to clean the strange piece and embark on deciphering its text, he realised that he was looking at a piece of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In November 2012, he and I spent four days establishing a definitive decipherment, and the results were published in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies two years later.
Assyriology customarily hides its light under a bushel, and there was no press release. It was a further 10 months, in October last year, before the media realised what we had done and signalled the discovery to non-specialists and the general public. Downloads of the academic paper climbed briefly from a handful per month to 150 per day: not exactly big-league, but impressive for an obscure article in a learned journal of tiny circulation.
The newly discovered fragment comes from an episode in which Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu invade the distant Cedar Forest to kill the ogre who guards it for the gods, and to plunder its timber. The text of the epic is quite stable – meaning that different manuscripts hold pretty much the same text – but some lines are beset by damage and others are missing altogether. The new piece fills a large gap in the poem at the beginning of the episode, when the two heroes approach the Cedar Forest and stand awestruck in its deepening shade. There is a lively description of the deafening noise that filled the forest canopy: the squawks of birds, buzz of insects and yells of monkeys form a cacophonous symphony to entertain the forest’s guardian.