First lines of oldest epic poem found

THE BEGINNING of the world's first truly great work of literature - the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the poem on which the story of Noah and the Flood was probably based - has been discovered in a British Museum storeroom.

Most of the opening two stanzas have been lost for the past 2,000 years, but research in the museum has recovered vital elements of the first lines of the epic. Scholars have been able to reconstruct the first four lines as follows:

"He who saw all, who was the foundation of the land,

"Who knew (everything), was wise in all matters.

"Gilgamesh, who saw all, who was the foundation of the land,

"Who knew (everything), was wise in all matters."

The discovery, made by Theodore Kwasman, an American expert on Mesopotamian language and script, is a key step towards a complete understanding of the 15,000-word work.

First written out as a set of clay tablets by at least the 18th century BC, it was re-copied many times over the following two millennia.

Hundreds of fragments of various editions of this set of tablets have been identified and fitted together like a giant jigsaw. But almost 20 per cent of the epic is still missing and a further 25 per cent is so fragmentary that it is only partially legible. Nevertheless, archaeologists are confident that the entire jigsaw will be completed, and that the work - known originally as Surpassing All Other Kings and later as The One Who Saw All, will once again be available in its entirety.

Missing lines are being discovered in museum collections world-wide and in excavations in the Middle East at the rate of several dozen words a year.

The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of an early 3rd-millennium BC Sumerian (southern Mesopotamian) king who went in search of the secret of everlasting life - a secret held by the survivor of the great flood, the proto-Noah, who had become immortal.

The newly identified Gilgamesh "first-lines" fragment is from an edition of the epic copied between 600BC and 100BC. The fragment was initially found in 1878, probably in the ruins of ancient Babylon either by commercial treasure hunters or by the British Museum's agent in Baghdad, Hormuzd Rassam, who 25 years earlier had helped the museum to excavate in what is now northern Iraq.

At that stage nobody realised what it was, and it (with many other tablet fragments) was shipped to the British Museum, where it was stored as a resource for scholars.

The material will be included in a new translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh due to be published in February by Penguin Books.

Discoveries Made in the Museum's Back Room

IDENTIFICATION of the Gilgamesh fragment is only one of dozens of archaeological discoveries made every year - inside the British Museum.

Most people probably think of it as simply a vast collection of display cases filled with antiquities, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Only 1 per cent of the objects are on view. The rest - 7 million objects - are kept in store rooms and constitute the world's largest archaeological research collection.

Every year more than 10,000 scholars carry out vital research on this vast stored collection. They examine up to 250,000 items, while British Museum staff carry out research into thousands more.

Recent breakthroughs at the museum have included:

The discovery of the earliest sword blade made of "crucible" extra- hard steel. Dating from the 7th century, it was identified using a metallographic microscope in the museum's research laboratory;

Identification of early coin forgeries and an understanding as to how they were forged;

The discovery that the red enamel used for decorating treasures in Dark Age Britain was made from metallurgical waste products;

Finding that a large fragment of ancient Egyptian manuscript was in fact the missing part of a papyrus in a French museum;

And the discovery that Romano-Egyptian portraits were painted after death.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam