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.
A recently deciphered 4,000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — reveals 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 key instruction that animals should enter “two by two”.
The tablet went on display at the British Museum recently, and soon engineers will follow the ancient instructions to see whether the vessel could 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 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 jagged cuneiform script of the ancient Mesopotamians. It turned out, Finkel said, to be “one of the most important human documents ever discovered”. “It was a heart-stopping moment — the discovery that the boat was to be a round boat,” said Finkel, adding that coracles were used as river taxis in ancient Iraq. “It never sinks, it’s light to carry.”
David Owen, professor of ancient Near Eastern studies at Cornell University, said the British Museum curator had made “an extraordinary discovery”. Elizabeth Stone, an expert on antiquities of Mesopotamia at Stony Brook University, said that Mesopotamians would have depicted the mythological ark as round.
The tablet records a Mesopotamian god’s instructions for building a giant vessel — two-thirds the size of a soccer field — made of rope, reinforced with wooden ribs, coated in bitumen. Finkel said that on paper (or stone) the boat-building orders appear sound, but he doesn’t know whether it would have floated. A TV documentary due to be broadcast this year will follow attempts to build the ark according to the ancient manual.
The flood story recurs in later Mesopotamian writings like the Epic of Gilgamesh. These versions lack technical instructions. Finkel is aware his discovery may cause consternation among believers in the Biblical story. He believes the tale passed on to Jews during their exile in Babylon in 6th century BC. And he doesn’t think the tablet provides evidence the ark described in the Bible existed. He said it’s likely that a devastating flood made its way into folk memory, and has remained there ever since.