Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
Irving Finkel, curator in charge of cuneiform clay tablets at the British Museum, poses with the 4000 year old clay tablet containing the story of the Ark and the flood during the launch of his book 'The Ark Before Noah' at the British Museum in London, Friday Jan. 24, 2014. The book tells how he decoded the story of the Flood and offers a new understanding of the Old Testament's central narratives and how the flood story entered into it. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
New research suggests that Noah’s Ark was round
First Published Jan 24 2014 11:13 am • Last Updated Jan 24 2014 01:49 pm

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.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

A recently deciphered 4,000-year-old 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 at the British Museum on Friday, and soon engineers will follow the ancient instructions to see whether the vessel could actually have sailed.

It’s also 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 after 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 Friday, 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, who sports a long gray beard, a ponytail and boundless enthusiasm for his subject. "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.

"It’s a perfect thing," Finkel said. "It never sinks, it’s light to carry."


story continues below
story continues below

Elizabeth Stone, an expert on the antiquities of ancient Mesopotamia at New York’s Stony Brook University, said it made sense that ancient Mesopotamians would depict their mythological ark in that shape.

"People are going to envision the boat however people envision boats where they are," she said. "Coracles are not unusual things to have had in Mesopotamia."

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 due 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 the "Epic of Gilgamesh." These versions lack the technical instructions — cut out, Finkel believes, because they got in the way of the storytelling.

"It would be like a Bond movie where instead of having this great sexy red car that comes on, somebody starts to tell you about how many horsepower it’s got and the pressure of the tires and the capacity of the boot (trunk)," he said. "No one cares about that. They want the car chase."

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.

Next Page >


Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.