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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.

This is the story of Atrahasis (the Supersage), and Finkel's book discusses these two flood accounts and their relationship to the Bible. He talks of itinerant bards wandering from village to village, entertaining their listeners with well-rehearsed details in return for a "mess of pottage", almost as if he had sat at their knees. But the greatest storyteller of all is Finkel himself, who enchants us with a linguistic link between the flood and the survival of a baby set adrift in a basket on a river. This was Sargon the Great of Akkad, who lived a thousand years before Moses.

But back to the tablet. As he tells us, its first line, "Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!" confirms it immediately as a flood story. This is the god Enki/Ea speaking to the reed wall, intending Atrahasis to hear and grasp his warning before the great god Enlil unleashes a mighty flood on the human race. And although this brief tablet continues, "Atrahasis, heed my advice, that you may live forever," it is not so much a literary text as an extremely detailed account of what was needed to build the Ark. But what was its purpose, and how does it fit in with previously known accounts?

In coming to his conclusions, Finkel gives a masterful account of how the main languages of Mesopotamia — Sumerian and Akkadian — were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. The great flexibility of the script leads to ambiguities on how to interpret individual signs, to say nothing of chipped and broken tablets, but Finkel is quite clear that the new tablet showed the shape of the Ark to be circular.

The word for circle appeared in another flood account, but was interpreted as "area" because a circular Ark seemed an anomaly. It was not the cube suggested in Gilgamesh, nor the oblong boat of another account that got transmitted into the Bible, yet in the rivers of Iraq, north of the marshes, round coracles were used extensively, and for a floating lifeboat such a design was ideal. The sides of the boat are made of rope, coiled around in multiple layers, and sealed with bitumen.

The detailed numerical data show a rope that could stretch from London to Edinburgh, but it all fits with the amount of bitumen, the height of the sides and the area of the base. Could this be a copy of some original instructions? The tablet even talks of the animals entering two by two. And in case you want to quibble about seven pairs of clean animals in the Bible, Finkel analyses that in terms of two different authors, known as J and P in biblical exegesis. He assembles the pieces of a marvellous jigsaw puzzle, drawing intriguing links between different flood accounts and their transmission to the Bible.

While reading this fascinating material, I learned that the new tablet has exactly 60 lines, and my interest was piqued. Sixty was the base for all Babylonian mathematics — and is the reason we have 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour — so might this tablet be connected with some mathematical study? As you read the book it seems as if the real purpose of the tablet will never be revealed, but worry not — Irving Finkel is a superb storyteller, taking the reader on a journey not to be missed. 
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