These last weeks a paper/grant maelstrom have prevented me from devoting much time to the blog, so this post has taken me quite a while. I have tried to distract myself reading some old archaeology books, among which there was a classic on archaeological divulgation: History begins at Sumer, by Samuel Noah Kramer. A renowned expert on Sumerian language and epigraphy active on the mid- 20th c., this book reminds us of a time when divulgation was considered to be an important part of the life of the scholar, before indexed journals and points for tenure deprived us of general books by foremost scholars.
Do not get me wrong, it was not an easy book, and it took me a little while to read it. Although this kind of books was destined for the general public, the scholars who wrote them tried constantly to remind the reader of their great intellectual capabilities by writing them in the most convoluted manner possible; this makes sometimes difficult to get engaged with them. This is also true in the case of Kramer’s work, although in all fairness the intrinsic difficult of the Sumerian texts does not help either.
So why do I consider this such an important work in the history of public outreach in archaeology? Because Kramer appealed to the reader not with golden masks and lost cities, but relying on the shared human experience that characterise all cultures, past and present. Although keywords such a “first” or “oldest” are used by the fringe, and some scholars too, to artificially boost the importance of their finds, Kramer lists here 27 “first” into man’s history (note the gender bias, repeated along the book) as an example of the similar experiences, desires, concerns and fears that characterised the life of the Sumerians that are present in our times too.
The book offers no conclusion; it just finishes with the last item of the list. This, with the convoluted language already mentioned, is perhaps the main problem of the book: it does not offer a closed story. But Kramer realized that the power of the everyday, the ability to make the reader relate his/her own daily life experience with that of fellow human beings that lived 5000 years ago is indeed powerful and, in my experience, there is nothing more appealing to the public when they visit today site to realize that “they were like us”.
So, if you have some time and enough patience with it, I suggest you give the book a chance. It is not going to be the most appealing or easiest reading, but it deserves the effort. As Kramer describes about the different episodes of the Epic of Gilgamesh, all lives:
“They revolve about forces and problems common to man everywhere through the ages- the need for friendship, the instinct for loyalty, the impelling urge for fame and name, the love of adventure ans achievement, the all absorbing fear of death, and the all compelling langing for immortality.” (184)