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Surprise archaeological discovery updates 4000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh

Twenty new lines have been added to what is considered to be one of the earliest literary narratives in human history

Ahram Online , Wednesday 2 Mar 2016
Epic of Gilgamesh
This is a newly discovered partially broken tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The tablet dates back to the old Babylonian period, 2003-1595 BCE. From Mesopotamia, Iraq. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin)
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A clay tablet has been discovered in Iraq, adding 20 new lines to the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a work of poetry widely regarded as one of the earliest literary narratives in the world.

Dating back to the Neo-Babylonian period (2000-1500 BC), the tablet was identified along with 90 other pieces back in 2011 by Farouk El-Rawi, a professorial research associate at the department of Languages and Cultures of Near and Middle East at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and Abdallah Hashim, a museum official.

It was found in possession of a smuggler, who sold it to El-Rawi for USD 800, and it now belongs to the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, where it is on public display.

The new piece fits in the left half of a six-column tablet, which is 11 cm high, 9.5 cm wide, and 3 cm thick.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is about the king of Uruk’s journey to find eternal life. After an initial fight with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people, the two become close friends.

Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain and defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian, and the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh.

As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death, leaving Gilgmesh with much to learn about life in the second half of the epic.

The newly discovered tablet is part of chapter five of the epic written in Neo-Babylonian, and sheds light on some events in the story, while adding context and detail.

El-Rawi published a paper about the new find, co-authored by fellow SOAS professor Andrew George, which includes the original tablet text transliterated and translated into English.

The paper states that among the new additions the tablet provides is “the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest, one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape.”

Another added perspective is on the character of Humbaba.

“Humbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. Ḫumbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre but as a foreign ruler entertained by music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians.”

New motives were also discovered in those 20 additional lines, namely the guilt of Gilgamesh and Enkidu after they killed Humbaba, something that was not previously made clear in the story, and now sheds light on their actions afterwards.

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