September 27, 2004

The Story

by Nick Montfort · , 9:00 pm

of him who knew the most of all men know
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;
open the copper chest with the iron locks;
the tablet of lapis lazuli tells the story.
(tr. David Ferry)

Apropos of only a few things digital, today I held and examined, illiterately, several 4,000-year-old Sumerian texts and one that was slightly more recent: one of the surviving tablets of clay upon which is written, in cuneiform Akkadian, part of the first known epic, Gilgamesh.

4 Responses to “The Story”

  1. Jill Says:

    You held some of the epos of Gilgamesh! I’ve stood outside a glass case in the British Museum and looked in awe, and I’ve read a translation, but I didn’t think anyone got to hold bits of it!

    *awestruck wonder*

  2. nick Says:

    Yes, apparently they get taken to seminars and handed around once in a while; I heard Sumerologist Steve Tinney speak about Sumerian writing and Gilgamesh, and he brought a carefully padded briefcase with several tablets in it, including Penn’s Gilgamesh ones, in Sumerian and Akkadian. Most of these tablets were only fired in modern times, interestingly, but they’re fairly durable once that’s been done.

    I could appreciate the sometimes very small size of the writing when holding these tablets, and understand how tablets of different sorts might have been held in the hand as scribes wrote upon them. (Although we don’t know exactly how writing was done, there are good guesses.) Pieces of some of the larger tablets are in different countries now, and it’s useful to compare dozens or hundreds of similar tablets when trying to understand the writing system and the literature. That’s one reason why a project to provide good “virtual texts” may significantly help in understanding Sumerian writing, by allowing these to be virtually pieced together.

    These aren’t the semi-sacred tablets of lapis lazuli mentioned in the first tablet of Gilgamesh, though. They’re thought, instead, to be discards from schoolrooms that somehow didn’t make it back into the pot to be re-used the next day, perhaps because they were used as a doorstop or to level up the floor.

  3. greglas Says:

    Kind of weird to see this — last week I bought a used copy of the John Gardner translation of the Sin-Leqi-Unninni version on Amazon, and was explaining to my son how the characters are like the alphabet he’s learning (they have photos of the tablets in the book). I picked it up in part to look into the assertion (that I’ve read a few times here and there in relatively unreliable places) that Sin-Leqi-Unninni was the first recorded author. But I’ve since realized that Enheduanna actually holds that honor. Right?

    Btw, you may not know this, but the Akkadians were actually a tribe of deadly assassins…

  4. nick Says:

    Another transformation of Gilgamesh, into comic form. Originally published in Bookslut #33 (February, 2005).

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