Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

An Old Story

The Epic of Gligamesh is an ancient epic continuing to generate great interest because of its similarities in story and content to other ancient texts such as The Odyssey, portions of the Old Testament (especially the Flood story), and The Thousand and One Nights. Its rediscovery in mid-nineteenth century excavations at the palace of Ashurbanipal in ancient Assyria (now Iraq), and its subsequent translation and publication, as re-told by literary scholar David Damrosch in his The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006), at times seems to rival the adventures of that celluloid hero Indiana Jones.

Damrosch recounts the epic’s story amidst its “imperial conflict” and “cross-cultural cooperation” (including battles over ownership of the artifacts and their removal to European nations) in a manner showing how the text “links East and West, antiquity and modernity, poetry and history” (p. 3). Of interest to those concerned with archives, Damrosch comments on the decipherment of the tablets, ancient scribal traditions and practices, and ancient libraries and archives. His focus is, however, more on the literary elements of the epic, tracking it from its origins in the ancient world up to Saddam Hussein’s rather strange use of it in a piece of fiction.

More intriguing, Damrosch also provides interesting insights into his own archival research experiences. For example, he notes how the major figures in the discovery and translation of the epic “wrote voluminous books about their adventures, but they rarely told the whole story in print” (p. 5). As a result, Damrosch searches for other sources. The author describes how he found many archival sources (letters and journals) at the British Museum and the British Library, especially noting the poor organization at the British Museum: “The museum’s curators have the most precise knowledge of every artistic artifact in their care, but departmental records can be stored in rather haphazard ways” (p. 6). Now there’s a commentary on institutional recordkeeping.