Assyriologist Irving Finkel is peering at a tablet inscribed with an ancient and mysterious script. He is one of the few people on the planet who can read this text, but even for him it is difficult and laborious work. Even so, he is astonished by what he’s seeing; this may be the answer to a mystery that has exercised scholars for centuries.
The writing on the tablet is in a format known as cuneiform. Thousands of years ago, a scribe stamped a message onto clay that later hardened. And the story that the man wrote on this small slab is one that goes back to the dawn of civilization: the tale of the great flood and the boat built to escape it.
Some of the details that are slowly revealed as Finkel deciphers the tablet surprise and delight him. It seems incredible; however, this curious piece of clay doesn’t just tell the story of a man escaping from a long-past deluge. It also looks very similar to another story that Finkel – raised as an orthodox Jew – knows well: the tale of Noah’s Ark.
The story of Noah’s Ark has intrigued people since it was included in Jewish writings thousands of years ago, and some even used it as a basis for research. For instance, in the 1600s Bishop Ussher of the Church of Ireland figured the date of the flood to be in 2349 B.C. And even to this day, people go to Mount Ararat, trying to find the ark’s remains.
In the story, Noah leads the animals into the ark two by two so that they can escape the flood and repopulate the Earth once it has subsided. That’s what they teach you at Sunday school, anyway. But the Bible, for its part, has a whole other story about the animals.
Elsewhere in the Bible, Noah is said to have taken two of each kind of “unclean” animal and seven couples of the “clean” ones. This is just as well since Noah had to make sacrifices straight after his ark landed, which meant that he needed spares. And this contradiction helped scholars to figure out that Genesis includes two different flood stories.
That’s not the only difference to be found, and others can easily be seen on careful reading. In one story, the flood goes on for 40 days, but in the other it continues for 150. And at the end of his journey, does Noah send out a dove? In one version, he does so three times; but in the other story, it’s a raven that discovers land for him.
The story of Noah’s Ark is far from the only flood myth that people have believed. The concept can be found across the world’s mythologies: from ancient Greece, through India, China and the Americas to Scandinavia. In many, a man is directed to save mankind with a boat. But the first of these stories seems to be the versions from Mesopotamia – in modern-day Iraq.
Eighteen centuries before Christ, people told the story of Atra-Hasis, who featured in the first flood myth that we know of. He morphed into various characters in different traditions. The flood is used a way of dividing history between kings in Sumeria who lived long lives before the deluge, and those who lived after – who had shorter lifespans.
In Sumeria, the tale was told of Ziusudra, who learned of the gods’ scheme to end the human race. Consequently, he built himself a boat to stay safe. In later stories – including that of Atra-Hasis – top god Enlil becomes fed up with how noisy humans are and decides to flood the world. Forewarned and with instructions for building a vessel, the hero escapes drowning.
There is some chance that the Sumerian flood story might be based on real events. Sediment levels indicate that the city of Shuruppak suffered heavy flooding in roughly 2900 B.C. However, this deluge seems only to have affected a fairly localized area, far from Israel, so it could not be the direct source of the Bible story.
In 1928 when he was digging up Ur, one of the world’s oldest cities, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley found a thick band of silt that had been deposited by the river Euphrates. This ten-foot layer of ancient mud must surely have been laid down by a massive flood; and Woolley’s mind immediately turned to the story of Noah.
Research continues into the silt layers in southern Iraq, where the ruins of Ur can be found. For her part, Jennifer Pournelle from the University of South Carolina examined samples of the sediment. And she concluded that it showed clear evidence of cycles of flooding, which she believed were crucial to life in the area, powering the local flood myth.
That myth interested Finkel, who works as an assistant keeper in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum. Finkel has a doctorate in Assyriology – the study of Mesopotamia – that he gained through the University of Birmingham in the U.K. Interestingly, he earned that degree with a thesis on Babylonian spells used to exorcise demons.
Finkel’s specialty is reading cuneiform, the script that encodes the ancient languages of Sumerian and Babylonian. When he’s not doing that, he writes children’s books and also studies board games – in particular, their history. That pursuit combined with Assyriology to lead him to decipher the rules of the Royal Game of Ur, a popular board game in the ancient world.
The writing that Finkel studies – cuneiform – is an invention of the Sumerian people, who lived in southern Iraq. They made impressions with a reed on clay, which represented their language. And it would later be used to encode languages across the Middle East, until the Phoenecian alphabet replaced it. Once it was no longer used, it became untranslatable until 19th century efforts began to unravel its secrets.
Finkel gushes over cuneiform in his 2014 book The Ark Before Noah. He writes, “Cuneiform! The world’s oldest and hardest writing older by far than any alphabet, written by long-dead Sumerians and Babylonians over more than 3,000 years, and as extinct by the time of the Romans as any dinosaur. What a challenge! What an adventure!”
The British Museum holds about 130,000 of the existing cuneiform tablets – the world’s biggest collection. Altogether at least half a million and maybe as many as two million of them have been dug up. However, only at most 100,000 have been deciphered. This low number is an outcome of the ability to read cuneiform being limited to a few hundred people.
Among those tablets that have been deciphered is one that was first read by George Smith in 1872. It shared the story of a great flood. Smith was extremely excited to find this – apparently so much so that he did an impromptu striptease. Others shared his excitement, although it does seem that they kept their clothes on.
However, excitement did not lead to any further progress in understanding the Mesopotamian flood myth until in 1948 a British airman found a tablet in the Middle East. That man, Leonard Simmonds, had been shopping in a market when he picked up a piece of clay. He had no idea what the strange markings were, though, and the tablet simply gathered dust in his home until his son thought to take it to the British Museum.
It was in the late 1980s that Simmonds’ son brought the tablet to Finkel’s notice. And he only needed a glance to realize its significance. It had come from Babylon, and it told that city’s version of the flood story. Finkel told PBS in 2015, “Once in a while manna from heaven falls just when you need it.”
The source of the tablet, Babylon, had once been a huge, bustling metropolis. Built from a small Akkadian town by the king Hammurabi, it had grown to be the center of a powerful empire. And for a period, it was the world’s most populous city, possibly home to more than 200,000 people.
For his part, Finkel immediately recognized the significance of the Simmonds tablet. That’s because it told the same story as the Bible – yet it was far older than the Holy Book. Finkel told the Catholic Herald in 2014, “With its pinched corners the tablet looks like the classic example of a Babylonian letter. But when I started reading I knew straight away that it was the start of the flood story, with warning coming from heaven to build this huge boat and save lives.”
But Finkel didn’t just accept the story as it stood. He went to England’s Warwick University to have a model made of the tablet in three dimensions. This was so that he could get up close to the text without risking damage. On its face, the tablet didn’t seem to be anything special; but what it contained was quite astonishing.
The tablet’s writing opens with a description of a god of Babylon. And the deity is ordering the hero of the story, Atra-Hasis, to rip his house apart to provide building materials for his boat. It continues with guidelines in detail for Atra-Hasis to build an ark. But there was something weird about the boat: it was round.
Finkel told the Catholic Herald, “It sounds bizarre to begin with, this idea of a round boat. But, of course, coracles are used on the rivers of many European countries and on the rivers of India, and the ancient Mesopotamians had coracles too. When you put the two things together you realise that an unsinkable, light and easy-to-use waterproof boat that they used to transport animals up and down the river made perfect sense as the kind of craft described in the story.”
What is more, there’s another detail on the tablet that is strongly suggestive of the Noah’s Ark tale. The animals are supposed to have arrived on to the boat “two by two.” And Finkel described this find as “electrifying.” He said, “In the other tablets that have come to light, the expression had never been found in cuneiform and it is an iconic thing in people’s minds.”
But does a round boat make any sense? Well, a seal from 2500 B.C. from Mesopotamia shows a round boat, and later images in the British Museum also show round vessels. And Finkel explained that the tablet’s instructions are rich in detail, leaving no doubt of its intention. The question he was left with, though, was how did this round boat turn into the Bible’s ark?
Finkel told PBS that these were originally oral stories, and it wasn’t until about 2000 B.C. that anyone wrote them down. From then on, the story had a settled form that could be copied over and over. However, copyists do make mistakes, and one of these saw the circular boat surrounded by a square, misleading the next round of copyists.
Amazingly, the tablets that Finkel had seen could explain the confusion over the vessel’s shape. In the tablet found by Simmonds, the boat is round, but in the Smith version it is square. By the time that it has entered the Bible it’s the familiar rectangle. The upshot is that when the Atra-Hasis story was copied by scribes telling the Gilgamesh flood myth, they garbled the original – making the boat a different shape.
Over the 2,000 years between the first writing of the flood story and the Bible, the ark gradually shifted away from the reality of a vessel that might have floated on the Euphrates to Noah’s vessel. And there may be an explanation for this story making its way from Mesopotamia to Israel, where people gave it the moral dimension that the Genesis story displays.
Famously, the rulers of Babylon forced thousands of Jews to march the long route to Babylon. They had an immense need for people to work in their huge city. And at first, the Judean people found Babylon an oppressive, forbidding place. But before too long they had become integral in its culture – and some had started to thrive.
Finkel believes that the Jewish exiles gained an education from the Babylonians. Taught to read and write cuneiform, they learned the myths and legends of the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia. Themselves lacking written culture, they adopted the stories that they came across. As a result, they brought them into their own religion, giving them a spin that worked within the frame of Judaism.
So Finkel had a satisfactory explanation of how a Babylonian coracle might have been the origin of Noah’s Ark. But he now had to consider whether a big enough boat could ever have been built. The tablet describes a huge vessel, easily more than 200 feet wide. Consequently, the only realistic way to find out if such a boat was possible would be to go ahead and try to build it.
Finkel enlisted Tom Vosmer, a maritime archaeologist, who specializes in building boats from antiquity according to the outlines of the written evidence. The former also teamed up with boat specialist Eric Staples and boat technology expert Alessandro Ghidoni. But it didn’t take long for them to realize that this vessel would be too heavy for its own structure.
Naturally, the tablet doesn’t give much help on how the materials that it lists should be used. However, Iraqi boats, called quffas, were well documented in the 1930s, and they are made from the same things. So the boat-building team had a general idea of how to proceed, but they needed something a lot more practical.
However, improvements in technology and infrastructure meant that the quffa had been superseded. It turned out, though, that there was one man in Iraq who had a quffa that they could study. Azzam Alwash showed the team his boat, and they could see straight away that it had been built from precisely the right materials.
The boat proved to be a good sailing vessel, but the question remained whether it could be built on a much bigger scale. After all, the biggest on record was only 18 feet wide, far short of the 222 feet on the tablet. In the end, the team settled for a vessel that had a diameter of about 40 feet – not quite Noah’s Ark size but still very large.
Six months later, the team had a boat so massive that it was impossible even to drag. Doing so would strip off the bitumen that kept the “ark” afloat. The team guessed that most likely you’d just have had to wait for the flood to lift the boat, just as Atra-Hasis does in the Babylonian myth.
The experts did eventually get the boat into the water, where their design proved close to acceptable. The vessel shipped quite a bit of water, making the loading of animals too perilous, but in principle it would keep Noah dry in a flood. Finkel himself took a ride in the “ark,” proclaiming it to CBS as “wonderful… absolutely wonderful!” And perhaps he really had unveiled the true origins of Noah’s Ark.