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Ancient Mesopotamia

The Discovery of Gilgamesh's Tomb

Edited from BBC News, 29 April 2003

Archaeologists in Iraq in 2003 were reportedly of the belief that they may have discovered the lost tomb of Gilgamesh, ruler of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk and the subject of the oldest recorded story in history.

That story, The Epic Of Gilgamesh, was recorded on Sumerian clay tablets in the third millennium BC. The story commemorated the life of the ruler of the city of Uruk at that time, around the middle of the twenty-seventh century BC. Uruk was one of the most powerful of the region's ancient cities and one of its longest-lasting. Modern Iraq may have gained its own name from this very city, although that claim is disputed.

In 2003 a German-led expedition reported that it had discovered what was thought to be the entire city of Uruk, including the last resting place of its famous king where it would have been surrounded by the waters of the Euphrates before the river changed its course.

'I don't want to say definitely that it was the grave of Gilgamesh, but it looks very similar to that described in the epic,' said Jorg Fassbinder, of the Bavarian department of Historical Monuments in Munich.


In the story, which is recorded on a set of inscribed clay tablets, Gilgamesh is described as having been buried under the Euphrates, in a tomb which was apparently constructed when the waters of the ancient river parted following his death.

'We found just outside the city an area in the middle of the former Euphrates river the remains of such a building which could be interpreted as a burial,' Mr Fassbinder said.

He said the amazing discovery of the ancient city under the Iraqi desert had been made possible by modern technology.

'By reading differences in the magnetisation in the soil, you can look into the ground,' Mr Fassbinder added. 'The difference between mud bricks and sediments in the Euphrates provides a very detailed structure.'

This creates a magnetogram, which is then digitally mapped, effectively supplying a town plan of Uruk.

'Venice in the desert'

'The most surprising thing was that we found structures which had already been described in the Gilgamesh epic,' Mr Fassbinder stated. 'We covered more than a hundred hectares. We have found garden structures and field structures as described in the epic, and we found Babylonian houses.'

But he added that the most astonishing find was an incredibly sophisticated system of canals.

'Very clearly, we can see in the canals some structures showing that flooding destroyed some of the houses, which means that a highly developed system existed here. It was like a Venice in the desert.'



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