Laura Miller: How an ancient epic (Gilgamesh) full of sex, violence and a pre-biblical flood got lost and found, and how its legacy lives on in "Lethal Weapon."





There's no better illustration of the fragility and the power of literature than the history of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," the oldest known literary work, composed in Babylonia more than 3,000 years ago. About 400 years later, after one of the ruthless, bloody sieges typical of that time, the epic was buried in the ruins of a Mesopotamian palace. There it lay, utterly forgotten along with the name of the king who once reigned in that palace, until a British archaeologist and his Iraqi assistant unearthed it not far from the modern city of Mosul <http://dir.salon.com/topics/mosul/>; in 1840.

David Damrosch's artful, engrossing new history, "The Buried Book," relates how "The Epic of Gilgamesh" was lost and found -- or rather how it was found and lost, since he tells the story backward, from the present to the past, in an archaeological fashion. It's a risky narrative gambit, and Damrosch is gifted enough to pull it off, no small feat. Think of it: He asks you to be excited about what the characters in his story are discovering even before you know quite how important it is. But that, after all, is the nature of archaeology and what gives the discipline its distinctive thrill. What you're excavating is probably just another empty Egyptian tomb, stripped clean by grave robbers hundreds of years ago. Or you could be Howard Carter on the best day of his life in 1922, prying open that tiny breach in the left-hand corner of a doorway, catching a whiff of air unbreathed for thousands of years, shining in a light and telling your companions that you see, "Yes, wonderful things!"

The recovery of the "The Epic of Gilgamesh" was less dramatic, mostly because it was drawn out over decades, but the prize was even more fabulous than the treasures of King Tut's tomb: the oldest story ever told -- or, at least, the oldest one told in writing. It is the tale of a king, and full of sex, violence, love, thievery, defiance, grief and divine retribution. It's the first buddy picture, the first depiction of the Underworld, the precursor to the legend of Noah and his ark. If it were like hundreds of other great and ancient stories -- the death and resurrection of Osirus, the quest of Orpheus, Sigurd's slaying of the dragon Fafnir -- it would have reached us through countless retellings, gradually morphing and splitting and fusing with other stories over the years. Those stories come to us like the DNA <http://dir.salon.com/topics/dna/>; of our ancestors, still present within us, but reshaped by generations of mutations and ultimately as familiar as our own faces. ...


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