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Unlocking the past: According to Irving Finkel, this tablet says the Ark was circular

In 1872 a young assistant keeper in the British Museum made an astonishing discovery. Examining fragments of an ancient cuneiform tablet he found what seemed to be the biblical flood story, partly covered with a thick limescale deposit, but to his intense frustration, the resident conservation expert was away for some weeks. The young cuneiform scholar George Smith awaited his return and when the tablet was finally ready for reading his reaction to its contents became so intense that, in the words of the orientalist E.A. Wallis Budge, "he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself!" The Daily Telegraph funded an expedition to discover further parts of the story, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet history has a habit of repeating itself. Irving Finkel, the present curator of cuneiform in the British Museum has, like George Smith, encountered another extraordinary flood tablet — not, as you might think, from the bowels of the museum, but from a visitor who gave him a tantalising glimpse of it in 1985. The visitor reappeared from time to time in connection with his collection of cylinder seals, but Finkel had no further sight of the tablet until 2009, when he finally got hold of it for prolonged study. Smith's days of waiting had become years for Finkel, but he is a patient man and talks of using "the squeeze technique" on the tablet to extract a maximum amount of information. Unlike Smith, Finkel did not divest himself of clothing, but in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) he does slowly and surely strip away the mystery while drawing forth connections with other texts, including the Bible.

Before saying more, let us return to 1872. What Smith had been reading was part of Gilgamesh Book XI, the final part of the epic where the hero meets the survivor of the flood, on whom the gods bestowed immortality. This man, named Utnapishti, relates the great story, but tells Gilgamesh that immortality is not for him and he must return to fulfil his duties as king of the City of Uruk. Yet Utnapishti's wife is sympathetic to the great king who, bereft of his beloved comrade Enkidu, wandered the world in despair, and finally made an impossible journey through the twin mountains where the sun rises and sets, and across the waters of death — he cannot be sent home empty-handed. So he is told a secret, a plant at the bottom of the ocean that will make old men young again. Recovering the plant, he takes it back to Uruk, but on the way, while bathing in a stream, a serpent eats the plant, sloughing off its skin.

Immortality eludes even the great Gilgamesh, but here are shades of the biblical story where the serpent's actions lead to the fall of man, and expulsion from Eden. And there is more. Gilgamesh's heroic companion Enkidu, created from the clay of the ground, lives alone with the animals in the outback (edin in Sumerian), like the biblical Adam of Genesis 2, before Gilgamesh sends a courtesan to bring this primitive man into civilisation. This causes Enkidu to fall from his state of innocence, never to return, like Adam in Genesis 3, though crafted for a different purpose. So plenty for George Smith to get excited about, and in the subsequent expedition he found new fragments, though it turned out they belong to a slightly different flood story.

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