Noah’s round ark takes to the water

The author examining the Ark Tablet in the British Museum. Image by Dale Cherry.Five years ago, the news broke that premier cuneiform scholar Dr. Irving Finkel, Deputy Keeper of Middle East at the British Museum, had translated a new account of the ancient Babylonian Flood Story on a clay tablet from 1,750 B.C. and found directions for making a round ark. There are multiple versions of the deluge myth in the ancient Near East. One features Ziusudra, King of Sumer, as the Noah figure and is found on a single tablet from the 17th century B.C. excavated in Nippur, Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Utnapishtim who was tasked by the god Enki-Ea to build a boat that would save his family, craftsmen, plants and animals from the flood the other gods were sending to destroy humanity. The earliest surviving Gilgamesh tablets date to the 18th century B.C. The Akkadian version is named after its hero, Atra-Hasis, and is found on fragments of tablets also dating back to the 18th century B.C. The Flood Story on the tablet recently translated by Dr. Finkel is the Akkadian Atra-Hasis version.

Drawing of Gilgamesh tablet pieced together from fragments in Smith's "Chaldean Account of Genesis"All of these versions of the Flood Story precede the Biblical version with the one God and Noah by a thousand years, a fact that caused a sensation in 1872 when British Museum Assyriologist George Smith announced he’d found the first cuneiform account of the Great Flood, now known to be the 11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Smith published his find in the 1876 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, a seminal volume in the history of Assyriology even though several of his translations, admittedly makeshift solutions to missing bits in the sources (he suggested Gilgamesh was to be read Izdubar), have since been corrected.

Finkel published his translation of the Atra-Hasis tablet last year in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, a fascinating archaeological detective story that manages that rare feat of conveying its author’s contagious enthusiasm along with the scholarly information. I’m sure in someone else’s hands the analysis of cuneiform tablets can make for dry reading, but Dr. Finkel’s ebullience shines through on every vigorously-turned page.

That endlessly renewable resource of enthusiasm played a key role in the translation of the round ark tablet. Dr. Finkel first encountered the small cuneiform tablet in 1985 when it was one of several pieces Douglas Simmonds brought to the British Museum for expert assessment. Douglas’ father Leonard was in the Royal Air Force after World War II and had amassed a significant collection of Near East artifacts during his travels. After Leonard’s death, Douglas researched the objects. Finkel had already helped him with several cylinder seals and clay tablets before the fateful 1985 encounter.

As one of very few people in the world who can sight-read cuneiform, Finkel was able to read the clean first verses of the tablet: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-Hasis…” That passage is famous among Assyriologists as the opening lines of the Atra-Hasis Flood Story. Finkel was thrilled at such a rare find and asked to keep the tablet so he could translate the whole thing which is covered in cuneiform front and back, but Mr. Simmonds was unwilling to part with it. It wasn’t until 2009 when Dr. Finkel spotted Douglas Simmonds at the Babylon, Myth and Reality exhibition that the latter finally agreed to bring the tablet in for translation.

The Ark Tablet, ca. 1,750 B.C. Image courtesy Douglas Simmonds.The sixty lines of the Ark Tablet go into unprecedented detail on the design of the boat and the materials used in construction. None of the other Atra-Hasis tablets describe the vessel. This is most of what’s on the front of the tablet:

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
Atra-Hasis, pay heed to my advice,
That you may live for ever!
Destroy your house, build a boat;
Spurn property and save life!
Draw out the boat that you will make
On a circular plan;
Let her length and breadth be equal,
Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high,
You saw kannu ropes and aslu ropes/rushes for [a coracle before!]
Let someone (else) twist the fronds and palm-fibre for you!
It will surely consume 14,430 (sutu)!”
“I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long;
I set up 3,600 stanchions within her
Which were half (a parsiktu-vessel) thick, half a nindan high;
I constructed her cabins above and below.”
“I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her outsides;
I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her interior;
I had (already) poured out one finger of bitumen onto her cabins;
I caused the kilns to be loaded with 28,800 (sutu) of kupru-bitumen
And I poured 3,600 (sutu) of ittu-bitumen within.
The bitumen did not come to the surface [lit. up to me];
(so) I added five fingers of lard,
I ordered the kilns to be loaded … in equal measure;
(With) tamarisk wood (?) (and) stalks (?)
…(= I completed the mixture).

These quantities are enormous, enough palm-fiber rope, wooden ribs and stanchions to build a coracle 3,600 square meters in area, almost two-thirds the size of a soccer field, with walls 20 feet high. If the amount of rope described here were laid out in a single line, it would reach from London to Edinburgh. The vats of bitumen were necessary to waterproof a boat whose hull is, after all, made of rope.

The back of the tablet is more damaged than the front, with significant chunks missing, but what is there continues the discussion of bitumen application and then describes Atra-Hasis and his family getting on the boat. In one moving passage, Atra-Hasis prays to the moon god Sin that the coming tragedy be averted. Sin’s reply includes a line that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has ever heard the Noah story.

“Sin, from his throne, swore as to annihilation
And desolation on (the) darkened [day (to come)]”
“But the wild animals from the steppe [(…)]
Two by two the boat did [they enter]…”

Armed with this unique description, Dr. Finkel contacted ancient ship specialists to see if they could construct a scale version of the ark. The project was filmed for a television program called The Real Noah’s Ark which first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last September. It apparently aired as Rebuilding Noah’s Ark on the National Geographic channel, but I missed it. The British Museum’s YouTube channel just posted a five-minute introduction to the episode a few days ago, which was the first I’d heard of it. The program doesn’t appear to be available on demand from the Channel 4 website at the moment, or at least it’s not working for me. It has, however, been posted on Vimeo and I strongly urge you to watch it while the watching’s good.

Simply stated, this show has everything: Mesopotamian history, issues in ancient urban water management, the Ziggurat of Ur, dangers military and ecological, southern Iraq’s enchanting marshlands, cuneiform tablets and the laser-scanning thereof, ship design, archaeological geology, traditional crafts, how reeds can be used to make an AMAZING house, bitumen drama, flood legends and their transmission from Babylon to Judea, the reality of regular flooding in the Fertile Crescent, several exceptional beards and at the end, a big ol’ round boat.

20 thoughts on “Noah’s round ark takes to the water

  1. It was only there for a moment, but did you see the VIRTUAL REALITY version of the tablet? That has to be some kind of ultimate in nerdery


    1. Of course I saw it! I’m crazy about it! That’s the product of the laser scanning. I didn’t realize that the eyewear was VR, though. I thought it was some kind of 3D thing.

  2. I had known that the biblical Noah yarn was presumably picked up in Babylon, but I hadn’t realise that Moses in his basket was also from Babylon. Ain’t scholarship wonderful?

  3. How utterly fascinating! I am envious of Dr Finkel, and also greatly appreciative of his skill and dedication. I have been intrigued by the precursors to Biblical stories since childhood, and by ancient systems of writing (my jr high science project had to do with cuneiform mathematics; is there a truer sign of an emerging nerd than that?). Dr Frankel has given us a wonderful look at an ancient tale. The fact he was there and could read cuneiform, recognized the meaning of that marvelous first line, and persisted in his efforts to be allowed to translate the tablet. A beautiful job. I am sooo curious about the context for that huge boat. Now going to fix my morning coffee and settle in for the film…

    1. Cuneiform mathematics is an exceptionally nerdy pursuit, but it makes sense because so many of those clay tablets are financial records. That’s why the oldest known written name is that of an accountant, not a king.

  4. Or not. A few minutes into an absorbing opening, it abruptly terminated with the message “Sorry There was an issue with playback”. Going searching. sigh.

  5. “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
    Atra-Hasis, pay heed to my advice,
    That you may live for ever!
    Destroy your house, build a boat;
    See boat plans in attached PDF!”


    Interesting that Douglas was like “No, you can’t borrow my tablet right now.” Maybe he was still in the middle of reading it 😉

    1. It was a weird thing. In the book Finkel says that at first he thought Douglas just didn’t realize how important a new Atra-Hasis tablet was, but when Douglas finally brought it in for translation 24 years later, it was in this beautiful custom box and he’d had the tablet professionally fired so it wouldn’t be so succestible to damage, so obviously he understood it was special after Finkel’s first examination.

  6. Great article and interesting film. They have managed to make a big ole boat, but still tiny in comparison to the dimentions described (3600m2). Perhaps the missing information on the materials used is key to the making of the real Ark as described. Surely some of the other tablets describing the flood story had a description of how it was to be made? Still some mysteries. There are a couple of related articles on the Sumerian flood description at Ancient-Origins. Thanks for this blog. Well researched.

  7. Thanks, livius. I’d thought it was probably something to do with Win10 and a new version of Firefox. There were some bugs still not worked out, and I am (and remain) reluctant to use Microsoft’s new browser (which makes no secret that it collects browsing data). But desire won out, I turned to “Edge” (dumb name), and lo, I just had a very enjoyable time watching the boat float.

    By the way, from the beginning, another recent story was nagging at me. After the story about the probably of a huge apocalyptic earthqueake and tsunami in my native Northwest, there was another story that emerged, about a traditional story told among coastal native peoples in the NW. I know many people of the Pacific coast, so it caught my eye. I came up with this for you:

    Downloadable as PDF for me, and I hope for you. Lots of intriguing parallels, both in the story and in the possible significance of the story to the cultures involved, acquiring layers of meaning with the passage of time. Perhaps a followup?

    1. There may have been something like it, though, a huge curicle loaded with livestock floating out one of the big floods Mesopotamia was prone to, say. Kernel of truth and all that.

  8. *** The Babylonian Ark of the Earth ***

    Has Finkel made the correct interpretation? Do remember that nearly all of these ancient stories were tales of the Cosmos – the acts of the gods in the heavens above. I have already interpreted the Egypto-Israelite Ark in Genesis as being the Ark of Ra that sailed the cosmic seas of Nu (from which we derive Noah – the Aramaic Nuach). And I have reinterpreted the Gilgamesh epic as the constellation of Orion battling with Taurus, as the precessional equinox changed from Taurus to Aries in 1750 BC.

    So is the Babylonian Coracle-Ark also a cosmic tale?

    Quite possibly, and we can see this in the dimensions of their Ark. This circular Ark has a 3,600 stanchions or uprights, 30 ribs, and a circumference of 14,400 bm. (The unit of measure is not given so I have used bm, denoting a Babylonian meter or perhaps a Babylonian mile.) So what size and shape of Ark would this give us?

    The first thing I noticed was that the 14,400 bm may well be a geodetic measure, thus we might be talking miles rather than meters. The Earth measures 21,600 nautical miles (nm) in circumference, with each nm measuring one minute of arc at the equator.** So if this was a cosmic tale, then each bm would measure 1.5 minutes of arc or 1.5 nautical miles (ie: 14,400 bm x 1.5 = 21,600 nm).** While the stanchions or uprights may refer to longitudes, and the ribs may refer to lines of latitude – because each of these units is related to the 360 degrees in the circumference of a circle. (This archaic geometric convention was derived from the 360 days in a year, so that each terrestrial day delineates one degree of arc around the Sun.)

    If this is so, then the Babylonian Ark is an image of the Earth.


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