In furtherance of my vague idea of a book of the sort of stuff I might have liked to read at the age of eight or nine, I have saved below a slightly shortened version – trimmed but not shorn of the odd difficulty – of a fascinating account by Irving Finkel of the origins of his new book, The Ark Before Noah, in Seven magazine, part of the Sunday Telegraph of 19.1.14. The cutting is at http://tinyurl.com/nm8hlxh/
In the year 1872 one George Smith, a banknote engraver turned assistant in the British Museum, astounded the world by discovering the story of the Flood – much the same as that in the Book of Genesis – inscribed on a cuneiform tablet made of clay that had recently been excavated at far-distant Nineveh (in present-day Iraq). Human behaviour, according to this new discovery, prompted the gods of Babylon to wipe out mankind through death by water, and, as in the Bible, the survival of all living things was effected at the last minute by a single man.
For George Smith himself the discovery was, quite plainly, staggering, and it propelled him from back-room boffin to worldwide fame.
At first, Smith was unable to decipher the tablet that would change his life, because a lime-like deposit obscured the text. Only once this had been painstakingly removed could all the words be read. A contemporary observer reported what happened next:
“Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines which… had [been] brought to light; and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, ‘I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.’
“Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself!”
Smith announced his discoveries at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London, on December 3, 1872.
For Smith’s audience, as it had been for the man himself, the news was electrifying. In 1872 everyone knew their Bible backwards, and the announcement that the iconic story of the Ark and the Flood existed on a barbaric-looking document of clay in the British Museum that pre-dated the Bible and had been dug up somewhere in the East was indigestible.
A hundred and thirteen years after Smith’s breakthrough, a similar episode befell me.
People bring all sorts of unexpected objects to the British Museum to have them identified. In 1985 a cuneiform tablet was brought in by a member of the public already known to me, for he had been in with Babylonian objects before. His name was Douglas Simmonds.
He owned a collection of miscellaneous objects and antiquities that he had inherited from his father, Leonard. Leonard had a lifelong eye for curiosities, and, as a member of the RAF, was stationed in the Near East around the end of the Second World War, acquiring interesting bits and pieces of tablets at the same time.
I was more taken aback than I can say to discover that one of his cuneiform tablets was a copy of the Babylonian Flood story. The trouble was that, as one read down the inscribed surface of the unbaked tablet, things got harder; turning it over to confront the reverse for the first time was a cause for despair. I explained that it would take many hours to wrestle meaning from the broken signs, but Douglas would not leave his tablet with me. He blithely repacked his Flood tablet and more or less bade me good day.
Much later … he promised to bring his tablet in again for me to examine. And he did.
Decipherment proceeded in fits and starts, with groans and expletives, and in mounting excitement. Weeks later, it seemed, I looked up, blinking in the sudden light.
I had discovered that the Simmonds cuneiform tablet was virtually an instruction manual for building an ark.
The story of a flood that destroyed the world, in which human and animal life was saved from extinction by a hero with a boat, is almost universal in the world’s treasury of traditional literature. Flood stories in the broadest sense have been documented in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Syria, Europe, India, New Guinea, Central America, North America, Australia and South America.
The story of Noah, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, invites the greatest attention. In all three scriptures the Flood comes as punishment for wrongdoing by man.
Since the Victorian-period discoveries of George Smith it has been understood that the Hebrew account derives, in its turn, from that in Babylonian cuneiform, much older and surely the original that launched the story on its journey.
The Ark Tablet is designed to fit comfortably in the reader’s hand; it is much the same size and weight as a contemporary mobile phone.
The tablet was written during the Old Babylonian period, broadly 1900–1700BC.
The front is in fine condition and virtually everything can be read. The back (or reverse) is damaged in the middle of most lines, with the result that not everything there can be read now, although much of substantial importance can be deciphered; some parts are simply missing altogether and other parts are very badly worn.
The most remarkable feature provided by the Ark Tablet is that the lifeboat built by Atra-hasıs – the Noah-like hero who receives his instructions from the god Enki – was definitely, unambiguously round. “Draw out the boat that you will make,” he is instructed, “on a circular plan.”
Confronting the fact comes, initially, as a shock. For everyone knows what Noah’s Ark, the real Ark, looks like: a squat wooden affair with prow and stern and a little house in the middle, not to mention a gangplank and several windows.
As I stared into space with the tablet precariously poised over the desk, the idea of a round ark began to make sense. A truly round boat would be a coracle, and they certainly had coracles in ancient Mesopotamia; a coracle is exceptionally buoyant and would never sink; and if it happened to be difficult to steer or stop from going around and round that would not matter, because all it had to do was keep its contents safe and dry until the waters receded.
Coracles, in their unassuming way, have played a crucial and long-running role in man’s relationship with rivers. They belong, like dugout canoes and rafts, to the most practical stratum of invention: natural resources giving rise to simple solutions that can hardly be improved upon. The reed coracle is effectively a large basket, sealed with bitumen to prevent waterlogging. Its construction is somehow natural to riverine communities; coracles from India and Iraq, Tibet and Wales are close cousins. These traditional craft remained in use, unchanged, on the rivers of Mesopotamia into the first half of the last century.
Before the arrival of the Ark Tablet, hard facts for the boatbuilder were sparse. We have had to wait until now for the statistics of shape, size and dimensions, as well as everything to do with the matter of waterproofing. The information that has now become available could be turned into a printed set of specifications sufficient for any would-be ark-builder today.
Enki tells Atra-hasıs in a very practical way how to get his boat started; he is to draw out a plan of the round boat on the ground. The simplest way to do this would have been with a peg and a long string. The stage is thus set for building the world’s largest coracle. It works out to be the size of a Babylonian “field”, what we would call an acre. The walls, at about 20ft, would effectively inhibit an upright male giraffe from looking over at us.
Atra-hasıs’s coracle was to be made of rope, coiled into a gigantic basket. This rope was made of palm fibre, and vast quantities of it were going to be needed. Coiling the rope and weaving between the rows eventually produces a giant round floppy basket, which is then stiffened with a set of J-shaped wooden ribs.
The next stage is crucial: the application of bitumen for waterproofing, inside and out, a job to be taken very seriously considering the load and the likely weather conditions. Fortunately, bitumen bubbled out of the Mesopotamian ground in an unending, benevolent supply. Atra-hasıs devotes 20 of his 60 lines to precise details about waterproofing his boat. It is just one of the many remarkable aspects of the Ark Tablet that we are thereby given the most complete account of caulking a boat to have come down to us from antiquity.
Boat-building notwithstanding, one cannot help but worry about the various Noahs, Babylonian and otherwise, and all their animals: the thought of rounding them up, marching them up the gangplank and ensuring good behaviour all round for a voyage of unknown length…
At first sight, the very broken lines 51–52 of the Ark Tablet looked unpromising. The surface, if not completely lost, is badly abraded in this part of the tablet. I needed, then, to bring every sophisticated technique of decipherment into play: polishing the magnifying glass, holding it steady, repeatedly moving the tablet under the light to get the slightest shadow of a worn-out wedge or two. Eventually the sign traces in line 51 could be seen to be “and the wild animal[s of the st]ep[pe]”.
What gave me the biggest shock in 44 years of grappling with cuneiform tablets was, however, what came next. My best shot at the first two signs beginning line 52 came up with “sa” and “na”, both incompletely preserved. On looking unhopefully for words beginning “sana” in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, I found the following entry and nearly fell off my chair as a result of the words: “Sana (or sanâ): Two each, two by two.”
This is a very rare word among all our texts – when the dictionary was published there had only been two occurrences. To me, it is the world’s most beautiful dictionary definition.
For the first time we learn that the Babylonian animals, like those of Noah, went in two by two, a completely unsuspected Babylonian tradition that draws us ever closer to the familiar narrative of the Bible. (Another interesting matter: the Babylonian flood story in cuneiform is 1,000 years older than the Book of Genesis in Hebrew, but reading the two accounts together demonstrates their close, literary relationship. No firm explanation of how this might have really come about has previously been offered, but study of the circumstances in which the Judaeans exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II found themselves answers many crucial questions.)
There is a further consideration raised by these two lines in the Ark Tablet: they only mention wild animals. I imagine domestic livestock might well be taken for granted, especially if some of the animals were going to be part of their own food chain.
Today the question of Noah’s animals is no longer a preoccupation of scientific inquiry, but there was a time when serious scholars, especially the great polymath Athanasius Kircher (c1601–80), thought a good deal about them, just when knowledge of natural history was on the increase.
Kircher’s Ark taxonomy ran to only about 50 pairs of animals, leaving him to conclude that space inside was not such a difficulty. He developed the explanation that Noah had rescued all the animals that then existed, and that the subsequent profusion of different species in the world resulted from postdiluvian adaptation, or interbreeding among the Ark species; so that giraffes, for example, were produced after the Flood by camel and leopard parents.
The relationship between Enki and Atra-hasıs is conventionally portrayed as that between master and servant. If Atra-hasıs was not a king but a private citizen, this does raise the question of the grounds on which these “proto-Noahs” were selected to fulfil their great task. It is not evident that either was an obvious choice as, say, a famous boatbuilder. There is some indication of temple connections, but nothing to indicate that the hero was actually a member of the priesthood. Perhaps the selection was on the grounds that what was needed was a fine, upright individual who would listen to divine orders and carry them out to the full whatever his private misgivings, but we are not told.
In each case the right man seems to have been offered the job. All the stories agree that the boat, whatever its shape, was successfully built, and that human and animal life was safely preserved so that the world could go on. A story that recommends foresight and planning in order to ensure that outcome has lost none of its resonance.
PS: MORE ON NOAH
Further to previous references to evidence of fact in the Noah story, the Telegraph recently reported that a Leicester Uni team has calculated that a boat of the dimensions specified in The Bible could have carried 70,000 animals …