Ancient tablet found in Iraq describes round Noah's ark
LONDON — It was a vast boat that saved two of each animal and a handful of humans from a catastrophic flood.
But forget all those images of a long vessel with a pointy bow — the original Noah's ark, new research suggests, was round.
A recently deciphered 4,000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — reveals striking new details about the roots of the Old Testament tale of Noah. It tells a similar story, complete with detailed instructions for building a giant round vessel known as a coracle — as well as the key instruction that animals should enter “two by two.”
The tablet went on display in the British Museum on Friday, and soon engineers will follow the ancient instructions to see whether the vessel could possibly have sailed.
It's the subject of a new book, “The Ark Before Noah,” by Irving Finkel, the museum's assistant keeper of the Middle East and the man who translated the tablet.
Finkel got hold of it a few years ago, when a man brought in a damaged tablet his father had acquired in the Middle East at the end of World War II. It was light brown, about the size of a mobile phone and covered in the jagged cuneiform script of the ancient Mesopotamians.
It turned out, Finkel said, to be “one of the most important human documents ever discovered.”
“It was really a heart-stopping moment — the discovery that the boat was to be a round boat,” said Finkel. “That was a real surprise.”
And yet, Finkel said, a round boat makes sense. Coracles were widely used as river taxis in ancient Iraq and are perfectly designed to bob along on raging floodwaters.
The tablet records a Mesopotamian god's instructions for building a giant vessel — two-thirds the size of a soccer field in area — made of rope, reinforced with wooden ribs and coated in bitumen.
Finkel said that on paper (or stone) the boat-building orders appear sound, but he doesn't yet know whether it would have floated. A television documentary to be broadcast later this year will follow attempts to build the ark according to the ancient manual.
The flood story recurs in later Mesopotamian writings including “Epic of Gilgamesh.” These versions lack the technical instructions — cut out, Finkel believes, because they got in the way of the storytelling.
Finkel is aware his discovery may cause consternation among believers in the biblical story. When 19th-century British Museum scholars first learned from cuneiform tablets that the Babylonians had a flood myth, they were disturbed by its striking similarities to the story of Noah.
“Already in 1872 people were writing about it in a worried way — what does it mean that holy writ appears on this piece of Weetabix?” he joked, referring to a cereal similar in shape to the tablet.
Finkel has no doubts.
“I'm sure the story of the flood and a boat to rescue life is a Babylonian invention,” he said.
He believes the tale was likely passed on to the Jews during their exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.
And he doesn't think the tablet provides evidence the ark described in the Bible existed. He said it's more likely that a devastating real flood made its way into folk memory, and has remained there ever since.
“I don't think the ark existed — but a lot of people do,” he said. “It doesn't really matter. The Biblical version is a thing of itself and it has a vitality forever.
“The idea that floods are caused by sin is happily still alive among us,” he added, pointing out a local councilor in England who made headlines recently for saying Britain's recent storms were caused by the legalization of gay marriage.
“Had I known it, it would have gone in the preface of the book,” Finkel said.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Dissension cracks Taliban leadership
- Experimental Ebola vaccine could stop virus in West Africa
- WikiLeaks says U.S. spied on another ally: Japan
- Extremist strikes again in attack on gay parade in Jerusalem
- Israelis remember how summer conflict affected beach ritual
- China says U.S. trying to militarize South China Sea
- Nigeria celebrates year without polio
- Former Chilean officers charged
- Defense secretary touts success of Kurdish fighters in war on ISIS
- India hangs man who raised funds in support of 1993’s deadly Mumbai bombings