Ancient Babylonian tablet describes round ‘prototype’ to Noah’s Ark


A small clay tablet, covered in ancient cuneiform carvings, has been described as "one of the most important human documents ever discovered."

These are the words of Irving Finkel, a curator of the British Museum, according to the Associated Press. Finkel, an expert in cuneiform inscriptions, translated the tablet after the owner brought it in to the museum. Acquired shortly after World War II, it contains an account of a great flood, and a man who received divine instructions to build a large boat to rescue all the animals, who were to be loaded 'two by two'.

This is a very familiar tale to many, of course. It describes the story of Noah, from the Old Testament, who was warned of an impending flood that would wash away the wickedness of humanity, and told to build an ark and gather two of each animal in the world. It also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem that predates the Biblical account, where a man named Utnapishtim is warned by the god Ea of a great flood and told to build a large boat, sealed with pitch and bitumen, and to gather his family and the animals of the field to be saved. This newest version tells it a slightly different way, and even provides a new detail that apparently has never been seen before — the 'ark' was round!

"It was really a heart-stopping moment — the discovery that the boat was to be a round boat," Finkel told the Associated Press. "That was a real surprise."

As Finkel wrote on his British Museum blog:

When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the 'Babylonian Noah,' who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis's Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn't a problem — it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat.

The links between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah's Ark have been studied since George Smith first unveiled his translation of the poem back in 1872. There are clear links showing that the Gilgamesh story was the first of the two accounts, with the tale being included in the Hebrew bible by writers who heard it during their exile in Babylon. The account on this tablet, apparently from the Epic of Atra-hasis, is from before even the Gilgamesh story.

"I'm sure the story of the flood and a boat to rescue life is a Babylonian invention," Finkel said, according to the Associated Press.

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As for why the detailed instructions for the ark and the information about its shape were left out in the later accounts, Finkel believes it comes down to 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)," Finkel told the Associated Press. "No one cares about that. They want the car chase."

(Photo courtesy: The Canadian Press)

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