British Museum blog

Was the ark round? A Babylonian description discovered

Irving Finkel, curator, British Museum
Detail of a cuneiform tablet

I’ve just come from the press conference launching my new book, The Ark Before Noah. As I told the journalists, it all started with a fairly normal event for a museum curator: a member of the public bringing in an object that had long been in their family to have it identified. As often happens in my case, it was a cuneiform tablet. The visitor, Douglas Simmonds, had been given it by his father for passing his exams. It was part of a modest collection: a few tablets, some cylinder seals, a lamp or two and some pieces from China and Egypt. His father, an inveterate curio hunter, had picked them up after the War in the late 1940s.

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

This tablet, however, turned out to be one in a million. The cuneiform was a sixty-line passage from the ancient Babylonian Story of the Flood. This story had been well known since the 1870s, when George Smith, a brilliant decipherer who worked at the British Museum, first identified the story known from the Book of Genesis in a seventh-century cuneiform tablet from Nineveh. The two accounts – Babylonian and biblical – were closely related. The new tablet, however, written in about 1750 BC, has startling new contents.

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. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s.

Deciphering the tablet was a great adventure, but one development soon led to another: a documentary film in which the Ark is being built according to these 3700-year-old instructions (although not quite full size), and the commissioning of a book.

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Writing it led to some demanding questions: what was the origin of the Flood Story? How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew? Then I discovered that a line from the new tablet was quoted on our famous Map of the World tablet, showing where the Babylonian believed that Ark had landed. I also got to address other questions I have been asking myself for years: how does cuneiform writing really work? What were the ancient Babylonians really like?

The Ark Before Noah_544

Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is available from the British Museum Shop online for £20, British Museum Members’ price £18.

The tablet is on display in Room 56 (Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC)

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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27 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    This is Amazing ! wish I could read the tablet. Thank you for this story

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  2. Richard Frost says:

    Irving Finkel is himself a treasure of the British Museum. I look forward to reading the book.

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  3. ayman abadear says:

    very good work god bless you

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  4. Queen B says:

    Could it be not a boat at all but a spaceship that colonised the planet Earth? That’s the first thing that came to mind …. do we assume the flood was on this planet?

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    • toffee says:

      And why should be the probability of being round higher when it comes to spaceships? It´s only our imagination that creates round spaceships. Being round is (I suppose) much more practical in the situations when you want to survive than in those when you want to colonize something or actually get from one place to another.

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  5. fay butler says:

    I have great respect for all things British Museum as the “keepers” of world treasures. The first thing one sees on entering the museum is the Rosetta Stone which had been tossed aside by lesser people into a mud pit. However, the Bible gives very specific measurements for Noah’s Ark so, while the stories may be similar, I do not think they are the same and I also think Noah’s predates this story.
    .

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    • Nope. Babylonian mythology predated the Hebrew scriptures by a long way.

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      • Fred says:

        Any change in radiation would have altered the rate of formation of radioactive carbon-14 to such an extent as to invalidate all radiocarbon dates prior to the Flood.
        It is true that the radiocarbon clock has been employed, along with other modern methods, for dating the artifacts found. However, that this method is not completely accurate is evidenced in the following statement by G. Ernest Wright in The Biblical Archaeologist (1955, p. 46): “It may be noted that the new Carbon 14 method of dating ancient remains has not turned out to be as free from error as had been hoped. . . . Certain runs have produced obviously wrong results, probably for a number of reasons. At the moment, one can depend upon the results without question only when several runs have been made which give virtually identical results and when the date seems correct from other methods of computation [italics ours].” More recently, The New Encyclopædia Britannica (Macropædia, 1976, Vol. 5, p. 508) stated: “Whatever the cause, . . . it is clear that carbon-14 dates lack the accuracy that traditional historians would like to have.”

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  6. Regarding the Ark begin round … it has been considered, see: ‘Noah’s Ark, the Zodiac, the 0/9 Number System & the Preservation of Knowledge’ http://circumsolatious.blogspot.com/2011/03/noahs-ark-zodiac-09-number-system.html I don’t know if an actual round ship was built to preserve life during an actual flood … but I don’t think this cuneiform discovery/mystery can be solved with out understanding the cosmological foundation of the Ark and how the story originates from the Vedic civilization.

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  7. varda sarnat says:

    According to the Hebrew bible the flood was 4,120 years ago (2106 BC).
    350 years later (1756 BC) Noah died (that year Abraham was already 58 years old).
    I suppose your claim is that “The Babylonian tablets” were written before the Hebrew bible, but this is no proof that there was a flood before Noah …. The Hebrew language was spoken long before it was written and the stories were told by heart, orally… the Tora (written in Hebrew) was given to Moses (1330 BC) 400 years after these tablets were written.
    Taiva (so called Ark in English) means a word – in Hebrew. Biblical Abraham already wrote the book Yetzira – the famous book of formation… (unfortunately, not detailing the number of woods or nail… but rather the secrets of creation….)
    Many thanks –
    Varda

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  8. mick ainge says:

    The Bible has got to be the ultimate source of reliable history – even when there has been no other evidence and the Bible has been ‘rubbished’ as ‘unscientific’ it has frequently transpired that archeology has provided undeniable evidence that the facts stated in the Bible are and always have been correct. The archeologist Dr Keller wrote ‘the Bible as History’ and states that any serious research always begins by examining what the Bible says – there are numerous kings, people, places cities that have lain undiscovered and only mentioned in the Bible and then discovered by archeology – the Ark was NOT round in shape the sizes Noah was to build it are quite specificly given at Genesis Chpt 6 v 15 i.e 300 cubits long (450ft) 50cubits wide and 30 cubits high cubit = 18” .
    These proportions are considered even today to be the best for giving a vessel stability.
    The ark is reported to have ‘landed’ on Mt Ararat now in Turkey and travellors\explorers have reported seeing a large boxlike vessel within a glacier – one person even managed to bring back a piece of wood from this frame.
    What amazes me is why there has never been a full scale exploration of Mt Ararat to discover the Ark surely this would prove not only the Bible as being true but that GOD DOES actually exist – but of course is this what man in general wants to hear???
    A little while ago a ‘One Show’ journalist set out on a boat with a scientist and threw a dredge along the bottom of the North Sea – on the very first throw they found numerous bones of large land dwelling animals and according to this scientist the whole bottom of the North Sea was a veritable Serengeti teaming with animal life.
    Another scientist claims that the whole sea floor around England is covered in what remains of a vast forest – logically Britain was connected to mainland Europe at one time – why have we become an island? where did all this water come from? Where did thye Polar regions and ice caps come from? because even now mammoths are being dug up or exposed in these regions – the answer is of course an Earthwide flood

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    • Free .Savant says:

      Rubbish piled on top of garbage. Religious fanatics get that way by aggressively fitting every fact to their beliefs, ignoring the evidence that undercuts their fanciful tales, and grasping at every bit of nonsense to make their case. Thus the above from “mick ainge.”

      Mick, dude, why is there not a single reputable earth scientist, geologist, petroleum engineer, petrologist, or oceanographer that thinks your arguments are worth spit?

      It is a fairy tale, Mick, to lure the gullible into giving their money to priests and witch doctors who amass power over others’ lives using the religion grift.

      The obvious interpretation here is that the Babylonian myth (which has their supreme, and morally ambiguous, god Enlil, murder tens of millions of people in a global deluge and their mischievous water God Enkil save Atra-hasis and family by telling him to build a round boat) was plagiarized and adapted to the grift that the Hebrew priests were running.

      One last thing. Mick, you should embrace this news because it rescues your God. Run to it as fast as your little legs can carry you. Because it wasn’t Yahweh that slaughtered tens of millions of human beings and billions of terrestrial species because it didn’t like people’s lifestyles. What sort of monster would worship a God that horrible, that vicious, that evil? This means it wasn’t your God, it was Enlil that committed this massive atrocity. So… you know… this is *good* news.

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      • mick ainge says:

        Haha!! cheers ‘Free’ – that gave me such a good laugh!! – usual vitriolic ‘anti-God’ rant!!
        However, you have made me see the ‘error of my ways’ in as much as seeing as this is a ‘British Museum’ site I (foolishly it would appear) imagined it would be viewed by intelligent people who would be intellectual enough not to resort to moronic insults and self opinions.
        I do agree with you on one point though the ‘Churches’ of the world have abused their power and got rich in the process – and they’ve done this with the full support of the Governments.
        So guess what ‘Free’? – according to the Bible theres about to be another ‘Flood-like’ situation.
        I hope your still standing at the end of it mate – and always- always remember ‘Free’ Jesus loves you!’ – agape – Mick

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    • That’s not correct. There is much much more that is clearly wrong in the bible than there is that is right. Yours is just wishful thinking. Wishing won’t make the bible true.

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  9. Seth Feldman says:

    I understand that the Babylonians also had an Adam and Eve story similar to the Old Testament version. And, of course, the Egyptians had experimented with monotheism. So why is it so hard to believe that neighboring cultures borrowed each others’ ideas?

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    • mick ainge says:

      Flood ‘stories’ can be found in many cultures and it is just too much of a coincidence for them all to have the same basic components – and its not hard to believe that many cultures have ‘borrowed’ believes from each other because the Bible says that ‘Babylon’ was the first (major) culture and from that culture man spread around the world taking those believes with variations with them.

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  10. Morgan says:

    Dear Dr. Finkel,

    Does your book include a transliteration of the text, or do you intend to publish that in another venue? Trying to figure out the characters from the available pictures is giving me a headache and I’d really like to sift the evidence for myself.

    Congratulations on your discovery. I tend to have mixed feelings about sensationalized findings like this (just because there are so many poorly informed people commenting on it and drawing wild conclusions), but it’s rewarding to see an actual scholar have the chance to teach the world something substantial about these texts.

    -M

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  11. Jim Cleary says:

    Hi great story & I’m looking forward to reading the book. A quick correction for you – the tablet is on display in room 55, not 56..

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  12. varda sarnat says:

    Dear Dr. Finkel
    Quote – Writing it led to some demanding questions: what was the origin of the Flood Story? How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew?
    You also suggest that the Babylonians told the Hebrew captives…. 1,600 years after the flood… that there was a flood….? But Biblical records show that this claim…how to put it nicely…doesn’t hold water…
    Please follow the record of events throughout time, as was told and written in Hebrew.
    Adam (Human capable of perceiving language) was created – 5774 years ago
    The Flood + Noah’s ARK occurred – 4120 years ago
    Abraham – (descendant of Noah’s eldest son- Shem) was born – 3826 y ago
    Noah died – (when Abraham was 58 y old) – 3767 y ago
    These Babylonian Tablets (you claim) were written -3763 years ago
    Yitzchak – son of Abraham (born) 3726 y ago
    Jacob – Israel (born) 3666 y ago
    Tora written by Moses in Sinai – 3333 years ago (writing of the bible – began)
    Israelites exile to Babylon – approx. 2500 y ago (after 800 y of rein in the land of Israel)
    So, You claim that all this time, ever since Noah until their exile to Babylon, some 1600 years later, the Hebrews knew nothing about the flood? Regardless of the fact that- Shem was there with Noah, and 800 years before the Babylonian exile – it was already written in the bible…
    Abraham probably heard the flood story several times from Noah himself….who only died while Abraham reached the age of 58…
    All 3 sons of Noah survived the flood… Shem, Yefet and Cham- Cham is the father of many nations… Babylon, Egypt, philistines..Akad’ Arach, Ashur…cannaan…
    These tablets were written at the same time that Abraham wrote “the book of Formation” – still for sale in bookstores these days… known as the oldest and earliest Hebrew kabala book.
    The flood story was told from Grandfather to son … same as today… there’s no need for Cham descendants to push any new flood ideas into the Hebrew Bible … Shem was in the Ark and so was Yefet. Both gently throw a blanket over drunken Noah after surviving the event….
    Noah who was 10th generation from Adam told his story to his great grandchild Abraham..
    So your question – How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew?
    The answer is, Well, it did not…
    In Hebrew there are first hand testimonies, stories told and later written. Hebrew is not translated from any other language; nor from cuneiform, it is a natural language … and predated 1750 BC… Hebrew is spoken for nearly 6000 years … no reason to learn cuneiform writing… God spoke Hebrew … the origin of the flood story seems to be the event itself. Each of the 3 brothers told it as he perceived it.
    Nevertheless, many thanks….even if you got the timing wrong …. You made me rethink
    Varda

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    • mick ainge says:

      Dear Varda – thankyou for this excellent and factual account – you have an excellent understanding of the ‘Flood’ details and biblical knowledge – thankyou – mick

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    • The Hebrew scriptures are myth handed down over generations and transcribed and combined and edited and redacted and rewritten over centuries by a whole bunch of unknown writers. There is no good valid reason for assuming that the dates you give for biblical events are in any way correct. They are simply estimates made by people who believe that that biblical record is the literal truth dictated by their particular version of a god to their particular choice of scribe or prophet. They were fallible men with no knowledge or appreciation of modern science.

      Real scientists who study and compare documents from antiquity are firmly convinced that the Babylonian mythology came first (Epic of Gilgamesh, etcetera) and the Hebrew writers borrowed from it. In other words, the Creation, Fall of Man and Flood stories are plagiarized from earlier myths of the middle eastern region. None of the writers were present at any of these events; they are just stories made up to and modified to bolster up the nation-binding religions of the era. The fact that they refer to cities that actually existed at that time is no more reason to believe that the details of the stories actually happened than it would be to believe that the stories of Batman and Robin are true because they are set in New York, a city which can be shown to actually exist.

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      • Fred says:

        Archaeological Dating.
        Briefly, it may be said that, in the absence of actually dated inscriptions, dating by artefacts such as pottery shards can never be more than comparative. That is, the archaeologist can only say that ‘this particular stratum and its contents in this mound evidently belong to the same general period as a certain stratum in that mound (or before it or after it).’ Thus a general chronological sequence is built up, but always subject to correction and change, the changes sometimes amounting to hundreds of years. For example, in 1937 archaeologist Barton assigned “Early Bronze Age” pottery to the period 2500-2000 B.C.E., whereas in the following year W. F. Albright listed the same period as 3200-2200 B.C.E.

        Hence, as G. Ernest Wright stated: “In this area we can seldom work with certainties. Instead, it is necessary to construct hypotheses which always possess greater or lesser degrees of probability. The truth in them rests upon their [the archaeologists’] ability to interpret and hold together a variety of disparate data, but new information at any moment may make it necessary to change a given hypothesis, or cause a scholar to express it somewhat differently.”—Shechem, The Biography of a Biblical City, 1965, foreword p. xvi.

        Further illustrating this is a statement in Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, edited by Robert Ehrich, printed in 1965 to supersede an earlier work of 1954, and containing a compendium of views on “the floating network of relative chronologies” as expressed by prominent archaeologists. The foreword (p. vii) says: “The purpose of this book is to present, in series, the chronologies of various contiguous areas as they appear in 1964 to the eyes of regional specialists. Despite the new information, the over-all situation is still fluid, and forthcoming data will render some conclusions obsolete, possibly even before this volume appears in print.” This may be kept in mind when evaluating the dates archaeologists give for the age of certain cities, such as Jericho, or the period to which they assign the conquest of Palestine by Israel.

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    • God spoke Aramaic. I saw it on a Mel Gibson movie.

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  13. Reblogged this on Ace History News and commented:
    #AHN2014

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  14. Francis Graham says:

    My friends, Dr Irving Finkel’s work allows us to form an hypothesis regarding a Biblical mystery in Biblical scholarship. Noah’s ark was built of “Gopher” wood in the traditional version. But, although certainly known to the people in the time of Solomon, the word “gopher” ‘s original meaning has been lost. What kind of wood was gopher wood?? Ideas abound. But if the flood story originated with the Babylonians as Curator Finkel suggests, but given a Hebrew twist, then it is possible the word “gopher” could refer to wood from a palm tree, the original material from which the “round” ark was said to have been constructed. It’s not a certain conclusion, of course, but an hypothesis which might be explored.

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  15. varda sarnat says:

    Another note … to the responders
    Hebrew is the only language which always stayed as is, written and read as originated… while other ancient languages including their people and cultures – differed, disappeared, vanished from the earth…. and were temporary … this shows the validity of the vehicle – the language.
    this is a sufficient indication and a reason to give some credit to the words and sentences and stories told in the Hebrew bible – it is a natural language – and nature is god (Elohim = Ha Teva = 86)
    As for the flood, if it was 4,000 years ago, or /and at the end of the last ice age … some 10,500 years ago…to judge by all other worldly cultures (Mayan, Aztecs, Egypt, India … and many more flood stories) I can’t say (I wasn’t there…and professional scientist or archeologist don’t provide conclusive evidence .. see the sphinx in Giza … or stone hedge)
    So, sustainable tool – language, is important…. Even in China – one of the oldest places …people can’t read their own language from 100 years ago, let alone from 4000 years ago… so any reliable witnesses around? …
    The Bible was not written on a sunny afternoon by a bunch of bored individuals… as suggested … the fact that Nasa spends billions on searching for cosmic intelligent life – shows that there are higher forces in action… And they reviled themselves … time and time again throughout history… even in the last 60 years – it is well known, but to scholars… their presence is evident … you can see them in the sky… they make CC for 40 years not far from the British Museum, they talk and work with many countries… we are not alone, and it is no bed time stories…
    Gofer is to do with repentance … Tree – is a representation of the Tzelem of god … like the 2 trees in the garden of Eden… it is the Mind (not the imagination) the fact that the Ark needed to float means that it could be rectangular, circular or triangle .. It could be a weal and save the life of an individual if he could wait 150 rainy days under the cloudy sky…in the water…
    Gofer is also a scientific Graf… I did a geometrical research into Hebrew if you wish to see –
    Abulafia-thought.com
    So, off course there’s more to the story… and the “forte” of the bible is not in its literary simplistic translation (although tradition insist that the hidden meaning is not canceling the simple meaning but is added to it… there are 4 levels of meanings…surely, you understand that we talk about a holly book and not a simple history book… this is about higher levels of existence which do not manifest in the materialistic world) yet there are evidence and vital support from all other written languages, that no matter what serious scientists believe, there are spiritual beings … there are thoughts and there is God… who never left a clay dish in the mud to be found by diggers of lost artifacts…
    The Ark, as Moses little ark…were made at times where evil forces were all around… the same with the ark of the covenant – there is a system here (it is understood through the letters, ars combinatory…sort of thing .. it is a technique of forming words … that in Hebrew can keep your head above the water – so to speak ) Mabul = the wisdom …very much like today, where there’s a flood of knowledge, technology and capabilities … but people still use them to exploit others and make more money for themselves… while killing millions at the same time…. So perhaps it was a spaceship after all… there are cigar shapes, round, triangle… or simple individual wings…
    God only knows
    The easy way out
    (And last remark… the flood was not a huge wave … it simply rained and rained …and the water kept rising) sounds like a spiritual journey…
    Take care and keep dry, keep try… trying sounds like tree – ing… or tri like 3… and so on… as Robert Redford once said in a movie – do you remember when Noah built the ark? Before the flood….Before the flood …

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  16. Alex C says:

    Was there today and can confirm it’s in room 55, NOT 56.

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