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)

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A loan from Berlin: a lion from Babylon

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter the Museum has been loaned a reminder of warmer, sunnier climes, which is helping to beat the mid-winter chill. The Department of the Middle East is preparing to display a panel of glazed bricks that has been generously loaned to us by the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin group.

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king. © Vorderasiatisches Museum - SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king.
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

The panel shows a pacing, roaring lion and once was part of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s throne room in his palace in the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar II reigned from 605-562 BC, and supposedly had the hanging gardens of Babylon built for his queen. Although there is little evidence to confirm his passion for gardening, it is certain that Nebuchadnezzar commissioned other major building projects in Babylon, to glorify the capital of his empire. Inscriptions stamped on bricks reveal the extent of these works. In the city of Babylon, glazed bricks in bright shades of blue, yellow and white were used to create public monuments that emphasised the power of the king and the gods. In Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room the roaring lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king, whose empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and from the Caucasus to northern Arabia.

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB

Finds excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914 came to Berlin packed in crates. Staff spent years painstakingly joining fragments of glazed brick together to recreate Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, in Berlin. The panel loaned to the British Museum has been similarly pieced together from bricks the Vorderasiatisches Museum has in store and so is being seen complete for the very first time in London.

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The panel will be displayed in Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC) from 20 December 2013

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Collecting postcards from the Middle East

Postcard with a view of a camel train, AdenSt John Simpson, curator, British Museum

Just send us a postcard! This short catchphrase is poised to enter history across the world; today, mobile phones, text messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the media used to help connect people and share images and experiences.

The postcard is not quite dead but it is certainly endangered and it’s for that reason that we have decided to formally add them to the list of objects that we collect, register, acknowledge donor details, scan and upload onto the British Museum collection online.

Postcard with a view of a camel train, Aden.

Postcard with a view of a camel train, Aden. This vignette of a caravan connecting Aden with its Yemeni hinterland illustrates how valuable postcards are as illustrations of everyday events as well as places. This card dates from the period when Aden was a British colony.

Moreover, postcards are very evocative objects. The images are loaded with significance and capture moments in time, and this applies equally to cards showing places, landscapes and people. Indeed, the more postcards one has of a particular place, the more powerful they become in charting its history and exploring the practical issues of how the view was arrived at and what subliminal messages may have been intended by the choice of view or subject-matter.

Postcards enter into two quite different patterns of circulation. One is from sender to recipient, and the message is often either banal or stereotyped (“wish you were here … the weather’s great”), or deeply personalised, but in both cases the postcard is often treasured by the recipient.

Summer holiday in Turkey postcard

Summer holiday in Turkey. Postcard messages are often banal and stereotyped and holiday cards are a particularly good example of this. This particular card refers to “It’s very hot but I like that” but hints at the richness of Turkey’s culture by stating that “This is our third visit to Turkey and we are still completely fascinated”. Used cards like this are sometimes more poignant than unused ones as they capture personal messages as well as styles of handwriting and snapshots of postal history.

In the second case, the postcard is collected as a tangible memento of a visit and is never intended to be sent. Whereas the first category eventually enter into secondary circulation as people move house, relationships end or they pass away – often for the stamps to be soaked off – the second, almost mint, category of cards become collectibles. Used cards are postmarked and therefore offer absolute dates on a timeline but unused cards can, with patience, be dated through their internal content and series number. They are therefore just like many other objects we have in the museum, and subject to classification, typology and anthropological analysis.

Postcard showing the Bayader mosque, Aleppo.

Postcard showing the Bayader mosque, Aleppo. This postcard is a rather attractive early twentieth century visual record of the old minaret of the Bayader mosque in Aleppo. It was later replaced by another which was demolished during heavy fighting on 17 April 2012.

However, it is fundamentally the top-level information they provide on the changing Middle East that led us to start collecting them. Places, people and cultural heritage are fragile commodities and easily affected by periods of conflict, social change and economic development. It is therefore crucial we start archiving these memories before it really is too late.

Explore the British Museum postcard collection in the collection online

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Iznik pottery basin

Iznik pottery basinVenetia Porter, British Museum

The ceramics made in Ottoman Turkey at Iznik, south-east of Istanbul, are among the highest achievements not only of Turkish potters but of ceramicists anywhere. Decorated with highly elaborate and colourful floral designs they were made for the Ottoman court. A taste for them developed in Elizabethan England, and they later inspired the English nineteenth century potter William de Morgan.

Iznik pottery basin

Iznik pottery basin

At Iznik, established as a major centre in the late fifteenth century, the potters were able to achieve great technical innovations, producing an enormous range of pottery with richly-painted designs that combined motifs such as arabesques, found in the arts of earlier periods in Turkey and elsewhere, with those inspired by imports of Chinese porcelain – the glorious blue and white vessels associated with the Yuan dynasty specially made for Middle eastern patrons. The Iznik designs evolved, new colours were introduced, delicate blues and greens, and finally red.

The design of this magnificent bowl is made up of an undulating pattern of flowers that may once have been lotuses or peonies but are now hybrids unknown to nature. They are intersected with a serrated edge leaf known as the saz. Inside, is a symmetrical arrangement of lozenges framed by pairs of delicate hyacinths, within which is another Chinese inspired design, known as a cloud band. The exuberant cocktail of designs found on Iznik pottery becomes the hallmark of Ottoman art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were artists and designers at court supplying the patterns and these bold and beautiful designs appear on the kaftans of the sultans, on metalwork and on delicate book bindings.

Much of the impetus for this can be attributed to Sultan Suleyman, the Magnificent, (ruled 1520-1566) known as Kanuni or lawgiver on account of the beneficial changes he brought in relation to education and taxation. During his reign the Ottoman Empire reached its greatest extent covering the Middle East and North Africa and into Europe as far as Hungary until checked at the siege of Vienna in 1529. As patron of the arts, he initiated bold architectural projects that changed the character of Istanbul and other major cities of the Ottoman Empire and that were realised by the great architect Sinan (d. 1588). It was also during his reign, from about 1550, that the potteries began to produce the glorious tiles that were to adorn the facades and interiors of Ottoman buildings.

An inventory of the Ottoman treasury mentions ‘foot basins’; could this mean that the sultan and his family washed their feet in bowls such as these? It is not difficult to imagine when strolling through the exquisite gardens of Topkapi palace, entering that gilded world, and glimpsing the opulent objects with which the sultans clearly surrounded themselves.


This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 3 January 2013.

The Iznik pottery basin is on display in Room 34: The Islamic world

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