In the year 1872, George Smith, a British Museum assistant, astounded the world by discovering the story of the Flood – much the same as that in the Book of Genesis, but older – inscribed on a cuneiform tablet made of clay that had recently been excavated at Nineveh in Mesopotamia. So excited was Smith by the meaning of the wedge-shaped signs before him that, after crying out, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion,” he jumped up and rushed about the room, astonishing the other people in it by tearing off his clothes.
A hundred and thirteen years later, another curator, Irving Finkel, also met an amazing cuneiform flood story in the course of his work at the British Museum. In 1985, a member of the public brought in a damaged clay tablet – the size of a mobile phone – for identification and explanation. Douglas Simmonds, it turned out, had inherited various antiquities from his father, who’d been prone to snapping up curiosities while in the Near East in the RAF around the end of the Second World War.
“I was more taken aback than I can say to discover that one of his cuneiform tablets was a copy of the Babylonian Flood Story,” Finkel recalls. Finkel was more taken aback still when his interlocutor blithely took the tablet away again – “he quite failed to observe that I was wobbly with desire to get on with deciphering it.” It was another 14 years before Finkel ran into Simmonds at an exhibition, asked him straight out to bring the tablet in again, and eventually got to read it properly.
A how-to guide to Ark building
“Finally alone with the tablet, armed with lamp, lens and freshly sharpened pencil, I got to work on reading it. Decipherment proceeded in fits and starts, with groans and expletives, and in mounting – but fully dressed – excitement,” Finkel says. “Weeks later, it seemed, I looked up, blinking in the sudden light …. The tablet was virtually a detailed instruction manual for building an ark.”
The huge boat was designed to survive a flood and the murderous wrath of gods intent on wiping out humanity. Described in the world’s first written language, this was a boat that would go on to inspire the Epic of Gilgamesh, which in turn would inspire the story of Noah’s Ark.
Reading about it was also the beginning of the story that, over the next few years, saw Finkel not only decipher how to build a huge animal-packed boat that might survive a flood – an ark that he learned was circular, like a giant version of the round coracles used for centuries to navigate the Mesopotamian marshes, made of coiled palm rope a finger thick and of reeds, supported by thick wooden ribs, and waterproofed with many layers of sticky bitumen, “which comes out of the ground naturally in Iraq in the most blessed way,” – but also join forces with a documentary team and actually build one.
After six months of building, at Alleppey in Kerala, southern India, an enormous replica boat was launched in April (animal-free, after an experiment with disorderly goats). “Endless somnolent individuals in deckchairs, cradling gins and tonics, registered our progress in sudden incredulity and jerked awake,” Finkel says jubilantly of that extraordinary afternoon when, despite a few leaks, the new ark floated.
The Blink Films documentary, “The Real Noah’s Ark,” aired on Channel 4 in September, and got a rapturous reception. So did the 63-year-old Finkel when – with his long white beard, flapping black Victorian-style suit, and energetic stride – he took to the stage at Harrogate History Festival to talk, wryly and very amusingly, about the making of it.
The challenge of cuneiform
I bought his book, The Ark Before Noah, after the talk. Fascinating though the story of the making of the craft inspired by the ancients had been to hear, I was delighted to find that the book was different again.
What Finkel most wants to write about is his great love, cuneiform, ancient Babylon’s wedges-in-clay writing signs – “which I think of as jewels in a bowl, full of meanings obvious and subtle.”
“Cuneiform!” he exclaims, heart-warmingly. “The world’s oldest and hardest writing, older by far than any alphabet, written by long-dead Sumerians and Babylonians over more than three thousand years, and as extinct by the time of the Romans as any dinosaur. What a challenge! What an adventure!”
The sheer pleasure Finkel takes in the “real language of real people, who can talk to us even though they have been dead so long” – as well as the vast knowledge he’s acquired since he almost accidentally checked into an Assyriology course at Birmingham University at the age of 18 – makes him the best possible guide to what might otherwise seem a shadowy civilisation, whose human face has been lost.
Nor is he scared of drawing some very big conclusions about the broader meaning of his Ark tablet, and his boat-building experiment.
Men, gods and philosophers
“Confronting a living vessel cooked up from an age-old recipe – from the time when the Flood Story was young – certainly brought home to me the human power of it all. The water-fed landscape of Mosopotamian culture was vulnerable to flooding. I suggest that the cuneiform stories reflect or encapsulate one outstanding, tsunami-like devastation, a millennium or so before the advent of writing and history, when the towns and villages between the [Tigris and Euphrates] rivers were swept down to the gulf with unimaginable destruction and unforgettable loss of life.”
“The flood story that came into existence out of that experience functioned to give shape to the fear, and the means to assuage it. Everybody knew that it was the gods who brought the flood,” he said. (In the Babylonian legends Finkel discusses, Noah’s predecessors survive because one god secretly lets one man and his household escape).
“The Mesopotamian ark, having once provided a last-minute means of escape, implied the same for the future: in any repeat of the deluge there would always be another ark. In the Hebrew Bible, the promise is different and infinitely more reassuring: there would never be another flood, as guaranteed by the symbolic rainbow.”
“As the flood story of the ancient Babylonians evolved, therefore, the uncertainty of human existence came – in Jewish, Christian and Islamic consciousness – to acquire the divine promise of human permanence. It is a message in which our very modern world, just as the ancient, can also take comfort.”
Buy The Ark Before Noah on Amazon here.
Vanora Bennett is the author of six novels including Midnight in St Petersburg. Her latest book, The White Russian, was published in hardback by Century/Arrow and comes out in paperback in spring 2015.