Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

Dr. Irving Finkel examines Atra-Hasis Ark Tablet in the British Museum. Image by Dale Cherry.Dr. Irving Finkel, world-renowned cuneiform expert, Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian tablets at the British Museum and author of the thoroughly delightful book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, is bringing his enormous brain and limitless enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamian history and culture to the United States. On April 1st (no, this is not a clever months-in-advance prank; I deserve neither such praise nor such censure), Dr. Finkel will be giving a lecture at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. The topic will be the Ark before Noah: the ancient Babylonian Flood stories that predate the version in Genesis.

The Atra-Hasis Ark Tablet, ca. 1750 B.C. Image courtesy Douglas Simmonds.Dr. Finkel’s translation of a previously unknown Babylonian clay tablet from around 1750 B.C. recounting the Akkadian version of the Flood myth starring Atra-Hasis as the Noah figure revealed a treasury of engineering details about the construction of the great ark found on none of the other surviving Atra-Hasis tablets. It was round, for one thing, and made of woven and coiled palm-fiber ropes slathered with bitumen. There was enough detail in the tablet to allow for an attempted recreation of the ark on a much reduced scale, of course. A wonderful documentary was made about the attempt.

In the lecture, Dr. Finkel will talk about the tablet and his translation and research. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the auditorium of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Tickets are free and can be booked by phone or on the Getty’s website. The auditorium opens at 1:30 and seating is first come, first served.

Royal Game of Ur, ca. 2600 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.April 1st is a Saturday. Make a weekend of it, because on Sunday, April 2nd, Dr. Finkel will be back at the Getty Villa being even cooler than he was the day before, if that’s possible. You see, in addition to being able to sight-read cuneiform and write grippingly about ancient tablet inscriptions, Dr. Finkel is also an expert on the Royal Game of Ur, a stone, shell and lapis lazuli board game from 2600 B.C. that was discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the 1926-1927 dig season. It is believed to be a race game where the aim is to beat your opponent to the finish line, like backgammon, which may be a descendant of the Royal Game and/or its older Egyptian cousin Senet.

Front of tablet with diagram showing how to use the central squares of the Royal Game of Ur to tell fortunes, 177-176 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.Much of what we know about how the game was played comes from, you guessed it, a cuneiform tablet also in the British Museum. This tablet was inscribed in 177-176 B.C. by Babylonian astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu, who was kind enough to sign his work. By then the game was thousands of years old, and the way it was played had changed. It was also used for divining the future, which is why an astronomer would be an appropriate person to explain the whole system. The front of the tablet has a diagram explaining how to use the central squares to tell fortunes.

As curator of the British Museum’s enormous 130,000-piece clay tablet collection, Finkel has had opportunity to research Itti-Marduk-balatu’s instructional.

Back of tablet describes rules for playing the Royal Game of Ur, 177-176 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel’s extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime’s fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.


Or so I thought. Then I read this next bit in the press release.

Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Villa Education Studio/Court
This is a free, drop-in program.

Pardon me while I get a paper bag to hyperventilate into. This is so insanely cool. All you Californians, California-adjacents and California-bound must get to the Getty Villa the first weekend in April. Anyone who plays the Royal Game of Ur with Irving Finkel must report back and I will write you up like the superstars you are. (Get pictures!)


37 thoughts on “Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

  1. Why don’t YOU go and reallllly enjoy this adventure? Surely a man who writes about HISTORY understands how brief LIFE is. It is obvious this would be a thrill for YOU! Go…we’ll feed the cat and collect the mail in your absence. Go…send back postcards and share tales. Get a reduced ticket by ordering NOW. Pull out the ole Samsonite and start toss’n in some duds. Then, come the last of March — zoooooooom!

    1. I actually do have an ole Samsonite in the attic. I haven’t used it since college and nowadays flying is intolerable with anything bigger than a breadbox. Having said that, I’ll take my tiny carry-on and leave the key under the mat. The cat likes at least 10 minutes a day of chasing the feather toy.

  2. Your enthusiasm makes me want to go, even though I cannot possibly get away nor can I afford the plane ticket to the USA 🙂 I shall have to see if I can catch him over on this side of the pond.

  3. ‘Senet’, the ‘Royal Game of Ur’, ‘Mehen’, then ‘Chasing the Hyena’ ..and ..quite similar to ‘Mehen’, the ‘Phaistos Disc’. Has anyone come up with that idea already ?

    𐇒 𐇐 𐇑 𐇒 𐇓 𐇔 𐇕 𐇖 𐇗 𐇘 𐇙 𐇚 𐇛𐇜 𐇝 𐇞𐇟 𐇠 𐇡 𐇢 𐇣 𐇤 𐇥 𐇦 𐇧 𐇨 𐇩 𐇪 𐇫 𐇬 𐇭 𐇮 𐇯 𐇰 𐇱 𐇲 𐇳 𐇴 𐇵 𐇶 𐇷 𐇸 𐇹 𐇺 𐇻 𐇼 𐇽

    “Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 units of currency. Pay 20 sheep instead.”

  4. Awesome. Truly utterly awesome.

    Nothing but total admiration for a person who can sight read an ancient language.

    I wish I could drop everything and make the trip to meet and hear Finkel.

  5. This is one of the most insanely cool things I’ve seen in quite a while. I wish I were in, or could get to, California then. The Oriental Institute needs to get him to come here!

  6. The Villa is a Roman house from Herculaneum, with actual frescoes and mosaics. It’s hella cool.

  7. Ur has been one of my favorite board games for 35 years. I’ve given many copies as gifts and you can always find NOS by Selchow and Righter on eBay. Wish I could play with that guy, too.

  8. I’d like to know how to display the special characters in your post. On my MBP they show up as a series of code-bearing squares, of which the History Blog does not allow me to insert a screen shot. No fun! Any pointers would be appreciated!

  9. Well I loved this blog already but now I love it even more because you slipped in a Pride & Prejudice quote 😀

  10. @Troglodyte, what kinds of ‘special characters’ are we talking about, to do what with and why ?

    Check out e.g. ‘utf-8’ and what a ‘text editor’ is. What it then takes, is an editor that is capable of utf-8 and either a source or method of how to enter them. Note that from a ‘text editor’ you can easily copy and paste, even with a MBP.

    PS Note that a ‘text editor’ is not to be confused with a ‘word processor’. Unsure of what is shipped with OSX already, you could give it a go with e.g. ‘scite’ or ‘ultraedit’. There is a lot of good ones available, for all kinds of purposes. Some of them literary are for all purposes.

  11. Yes the British Museum is good with that, sadly I don’t own anything of interest to him that I could wander in with should I be in London (not that I like going there much when I visit the UK, I prefer other places)

  12. Thanks for your response. I think it’s an encoding problem– my Firefox text encoding is set to “Unicode”, but @Fat Yogi Inn’s comment upthread displays a series of code squares above “Do not pass Go…”, which I suspect are cuneiform of some kind. (If indeed they exist– in Safari, set to “utf-8”, they don’t display at all!) I will respond directly to @Fat Yogi Inn, but perhaps you can tell me if there is a way to insert a bitmapped screenshot here in the History Blog comments? My html skills are mediocre at best.

  13. Also, why is it that when I click on “Reply to this comment”, my reply appears downthread, not with the comment I’m replying to? Sorry, I’m a newcomer to The History Blog, so am unfamiliar with your local customs and code culture…

    1. That’s a bug, I’m afraid. Comments used to nest properly, but that function broke several upgrades ago. Now the only way it works is when I reply using the Admin Control Panel, which is why my comments appear under the ones they’re replying to while nobody else’s do. I’m planning a major upgrade of the site that fix that problem and many others, seen and unseen.

      Welcome to The History Blog! I hope the subjects and brilliant commenters keep you coming back.

  14. 😉 No cuneiform. Those are the ones -or some of them- from the so-called ‘Phaistos Disk’ – I have actually been to the place, where it allegedly had been found.

    A current Firefox browser, however, displays that stuff properly over here. To me, that disk looked very similar to the ‘Mehen’ Egyptian gaming disks.

    When using a text editor, where the encoding is set to utf-8, it displays properly, but with some of the other settings ‘boxes’ do appear. In other words, πάντα ῥεῖ (greek), 𐇬 𐇭 𐇮 𐇯 (phaistos symbols).

    Anyone else on here with ‘boxes’ (οὐδέν ῥεῖ) ?

    “Evidence of the game of Mehen is found from the Predynastic period dating from approximately 3000 BCE and continues until the end of the Old Kingdom, around 2300 BCE. Mehen also appears to have been played outside of Egypt. It appears alongside other boards displaying the game of Senet at Bab ‘edu Dhra and in Cyprus. [To the best of my knowledge, they used cuneiform for some of their own language(s) in Hatti, but you’d better ask in California]”

    I am on the wrong side of the pond :ohnoes:

  15. We need to have a video of this! I can’t go..but have just ordered his book. I know the basics, but wish to have HIM tell me the details.Thanks..another wonderful post!

  16. (Response to comment by Fat Yogi Inn, 2017-03-04, 12:16:01)
    Phaistos symbols? :notworthy: But that gives me a further clue. My Firefox is so current it squeaks, but neither it nor Safari can deal with the symbols in your original comment, or the four you gave as examples just now (I can see the Greek just fine). And I don’t have Chrome at the moment. So I could instead be dealing with a font problem– Apple are pretty thorough with the language and font selection they make available with their operating systems, but Phaistos symbols are a bit above and beyond. Since you work with these, it makes sense that they would be on your system already, but do you recall having downloaded a particular font to display them? I will also see if I can find any such.
    (Apologies to History Blog readers, btw, for my hijacking this thread into technical territory that may not be of great interest to many of you! But in the spirit of inquiry, could some kind soul among you perhaps post a few samples of Cuneiform and/or other ancient scripts to give us a better sense of the problem? Profuse thanks in advance…)

  17. The History Blog is one of those “I wish I’d known about this a long time ago” discoveries, and it is definitely now on my Follow Daily list. Thanks for all your hard work, and congratulations on having assembled such a brillant community of commenters. Good luck with the upgrade as well; hope you can retain the current graphic design, but I look forward to any innovations you introduce.

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