Translations of an ancient Assyrian clay tablet prove Noah’s Ark looked nothing like we thought.
Dr Irving Finkel with the 4000-year-old cuneiform clay tablet telling the story of Noah and the Ark. Photo: AP
Four thousand years ago, a millennium-and-a-half before the first Jewish scholars put pen to parchment on the Book of Genesis, a scribe in what is now Iraq carved the story of a great flood on to a clay tablet, in the strange and beautiful script known as cuneiform. The story told of how a god came and warned a great man to build a boat, and to take his family on that boat, and two animals of every kind, because the world was to be cleansed with a flood.
About 30 years ago, one Douglas Simmonds wandered in to the British Museum and handed the tablet to a man called Dr Irving Finkel, who immediately recognised it as one of the most important archaeological finds of recent years. Finkel, an Assyriologist, or student of the civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia, begged Simmonds to leave the tablet with him, but he would do no such thing. It took Finkel until 2009 to convince Simmonds to let him have it; when he did, what he discovered was a piece of the flood story – the Assyrian story of the Ark, centuries before Noah.
”Lots of people used to bring things in,” says Finkel, ”people whose fathers or grandfathers had fought in Iraq in the First World War. Usually it’s some administrative paperwork, but sometimes it’s a gem, like this one: one of the most important tablets ever discovered.” Four years later, he has turned his painstaking translation of this chipped lump of clay into a book: The Ark Before Noah.
Finkel is exactly how you’d want a curator of ancient writings at the British Museum to look: grandfatherly eyes, magnificent snowy beard, a mane of white hair ostensibly tied into a ponytail but really free to do what it likes. We’re talking in his office, in the back rooms of the museum, and it too is a splendid cliche: not a surface that doesn’t have books and papers teetering on it in great piles; clay tablets here and there, desk drawers overflowing.
He has spent his life digging around in the museum and elsewhere, looking for tablets like the Simmonds one, an obsession since his first days at university in 1969. ”It’s my life’s work,” he says. ”I am entirely devoted to it.” His arrival at the British Museum a decade later was a transformative moment: downstairs, in Victorian glass-topped boxes in the museum’s library, there are 130,000 cuneiform tablets, in varying states of repair. ”It’s impossible to explain what it was like. I was like a chocolate fetishist locked in a sweet shop. If you’re one of these mad people who cares about these things, takes the oath of allegiance, learns to read the script, it opens up a whole world.”
The discovery that tablets from these ancient civilisations – Assyria, Babylonia and Sumeria – told the story of the flood associated with the later Hebrews shook the Victorian world when it was announced in 1872. A man called George Smith was the first to find and translate a tablet which told the story of the cleansing flood; to Victorian Christianity, still coming to terms with other blows to the literal truth of the Bible, the idea that the story of Noah was simply a garbled form of an older pagan myth was shattering.
But it made great headlines, so the proprietors of The Daily Telegraph in London sent Smith back to the banks of the Tigris, one of the two rivers that give Mesopotamia its Greek name (”between river”; the other is the Euphrates). In the long-dead city of Nineveh, he found more tablets; the story, fleshed out, became known as The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The question that is invariably asked at this point is: does this mean that the Ark story is ”real”? People still search Mount Ararat in Turkey, looking for the remains of a giant boat. But this isn’t a meaningful question, says Finkel. The Mesopotamian landscape is essentially a flood plain. ”In that landscape, mankind’s vulnerability to flooding is explicit,” he says. ”There must have been a heritage memory of the destructive power of flood water, based on various terrible floods. And the people who survived would have been people in boats. You can imagine someone sunbathing in a canoe, half asleep, and waking up however long later and they’re in the middle of the Persian Gulf, and that’s the beginning of the flood story.” There are, he says, geological and archaeological suggestions that there was an especially cataclysmic flood around 5000BC.
The most interesting revelation from the Simmonds tablet is that the Ark, as originally conceived, was not how we picture it. ”We all know what Noah’s Ark looked like: a boat, with a house on it and a high prow and a high stern,” says Finkel. ”You could sail to New York in it if you liked. But the Ark didn’t have to go in a direction, it just had to survive the flood.” In essence, it would have been a giant life raft: circular, and almost impossible to sink.
”It was a coracle,” says Finkel: a kind of round boat of rope around a wood frame. ”Half the people in Mesopotamia were professional boat people, so when someone told them this story, and said, imagine the biggest boat you ever saw, they must have asked: what did it look like?” What is incredible is that the tablet has detailed instructions on how to build this enormous coracle, 21 metres across, 5.5 metres high, even down to the length of rope required.
Finkel gave me the tablet to hold. It’s almost exactly the size of a modern smartphone, and the shape of a pillow; terracotta-coloured, tightly covered, almost every last millimetre, in a strange pattern of carvings that look more like the arbitrary patterns on a Christmas jumper than anything we might recognise as writing; it’s cracked and glued back together, like an old vase, with some of the writing obscured by the worst bits of damage. I would like to announce that there is a sense of mystical awe that overwhelms me as I hold this 4000-year-old artefact, this thing carved when the Egyptians were still building pyramids. But there isn’t, just a vague sense of terror that I’ll drop it and shatter it. ”That would be the end of the world, for me,” confirms Finkel, unhelpfully.
The story of the flood, as exciting as it is, is only a tiny part of Finkel’s obsession. I put it to him that his book is not really about the Ark at all, it’s a love letter to cuneiform handwriting, and he nods. ”The most interesting writing system of all!” he says, which he can best describe as a mix between hieroglyphic picture-symbols and a syllable-based system like Japanese. But it’s also about the window it provides to an ancient but weirdly familiar world.
”Writing is just a kind of dress, in which ideas and words are clothed,” he says. ”When you adjust your vision, people emerge from antiquity. People with behaviour and motives and characteristics which are familiar to us.” He draws an analogy with the recent Pompeii exhibition at the museum: ”Lots of people came out saying how amazing it was that they had breakfast and slippers and pencil sharpeners and all the normal stuff of life.” People are people, in 1850BC or 2014AD.
Finkel has been doing this for so long, and ”met” so many of the same scribes over and over again, that he gets a sense of them as people. The Babylonian schools were filled with the same mix of troublemakers, bored kids and swots as modern ones, he says, which you can tell from the recovered tablets from children learning to read and write. And when you read a really learned, intelligent, experienced scribe, ”you can really see a brain there, a brain that’s clever and can see meaning. They were very sharp”.
I ask him if he has any favourites, if any of the writers become almost friends. ”You get cleverness and intellect, but what you don’t get, usually, is personal stuff,” he says. ”You don’t get private writing, you don’t get spontaneous love poetry. So one is filled with admiration for these minds, and sometimes you wish you could bloody well talk to this guy so he could explain what he means, but not a feeling that you’d like to go for a pint with him or something.”
Occasionally, though, he finds that a scribe has missed a line in a long, copied document, and they’ve tried to squeeze it in the margin with an asterisk to mark the spot. ”The device is familiar, that’s like us. And it’s that sense of the guy going ‘Oh shit’ – that’s the moment you think you might like to buy this guy a pint and calm him down.”
There are, however, puns and jokes and swearing and bawdy humour, ”and music and songs and festivals and drinking a lot of wine”, he says. ”I think you should imagine the city of Babylon not unlike Jerusalem or Aleppo today, with a souk with metalsmiths and smells and awnings and donkeys, livestock wandering the streets, the way the world’s cities have always been.”
Finkel has never been to Iraq, the focus of his study for over a third of a century; he is Jewish, and when he began his work in 1969 the country refused visas to Jewish people. He still hopes to, ”one of these days”, but the opportunity has never arisen.
During the time he has been studying it from afar, the country, the cradle of civilisation, has been torn apart by a bloody dictatorship and then a devastating invasion and civil war. ”The Museum of Iraq was sacked, and the stuff was destroyed, and the country has been ransacked of archaeological materials, and the damage is incalculable. Of course, the hospitals and water and babies are more important, but once you get past the huge human suffering, the cultural damage is atrocious.”
It has also meant that tablets like the one Simmonds brought him can no longer be traded: dealing in materials from Iraq was made illegal a few years ago. A window on 4000 years of history has slammed shut. ”It’s heartbreaking,” Finkel says. ”Absolutely heartbreaking.”