When Leonard Simmons, a Londoner with a passion for history, served in the Royal Air Force in the Middle East from 1945 to 1948, he took home a clay tablet that he bought in a market as a souvenir. And when Irving Finkel, an expert in cuneiform script, was shown the tablet earlier this year, ‘he took one look at it and nearly fell off his chair with excitement’, said Leonard’s son Douglas, who took his late father’s collection to the British Museum for scholarly assessment. Finkel, who reads ancient Babylonian as fluently as the rest of us read newspapers, recognised the familiar story of Noah and his ark – no great surprise, because there are scores of ancient tablets that record variations on the story of the universal flood – but he also realised that this one had additional details describing the precise construction of the ark.
And the ark that the tablet described did not have the tub-shaped hull with pointed prow and stern familiar from illustrated Bibles and Victorian children’s toys: it was circular and made of reeds – a giant version, in fact, of the type of round coracle still used in Iran and Iraq to transport animals across rivers or floods.
Finkel’s translation of the 60 lines on the 3,700-year-old tablet has God calling to the Sumerian king Atram-Hasis, saying ‘Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions; and save life! Draw out the boat that you will build with a circular design; let its length and breadth be the same’. The tablet goes on to command the use of plaited-palm fibre, waterproofed with bitumen.
Finkel’s excitement at the discovery parallels a story often told about George Smith, the British Museum assistant who, in 1872, ‘jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement’, when he began to decipher the 7th century BC tablets inscribed with a version of the Gilgamesh epic, and recognised the familiar story of a flood that destroyed all life apart from one virtuous man and his family and one pair each of all the creatures on the earth. Modern scholars believe the events described in that epic date back to the 27th century BC: Finkel says that it was probably during their Babylonian captivity that the exiled Jews learned the story, which was later incorporated into the Old Testament.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 41. Click here to subscribe