The story of Noah’s Ark has always captivated the minds of children. Many have walked animal miniatures two-by-two into toy boats, as they imagine the vessel that saved believers from 40 rainy days and nights of flood.
But it is a story that does not hold water with Dr Irving Finkel, the British Museum curator in charge of cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay from ancient Mesopotamia. Dr Finkel has decoded a 4,000-year-old terracotta-coloured tablet that purports to give the exact measurements of the Ark — long before the biblical account was written.
This “ark” is circular, like a coracle boat, takes up half a football pitch and is enclosed in a length of rope that would reach from London to Edinburgh. “It didn’t have to go in any direction, it just had to float and survive the flood,” he says pointing to the cuneiform marks, as if I was able to read the ancient language.
We sit in Finkel’s office sited above the section on Ancient Egyptians and crammed with books, papers and artefacts. The genial 62-year-old — a council member of the Anglo-Israel Archaeology Society — says he never considered working anywhere other than the British Museum. He recognises that his discovery will rattle religious cages, though he insists that “sacrilege” is not his intent.
Finkel, who describes himself as a “Jewish atheist”, says he does not believe the Ark existed, despite remains apparently being found at Mount Ararat in Turkey. He believes that the Judeans, taken to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II, incorporated Babylonian mythology into the Torah, but gave the stories a new, moral dimension.
“That period crystallised what Judaism is today,” he says. “They were dumped in Babylon. They were refugees in a bewildering part of the world. I think of it like Jews from Eastern Europe — penniless from Lithuania and Poland — who came to Manhattan, filled with skyscrapers. In Babylon, there were huge buildings and a wonderful palace where the Jewish intelligentsia were taught to read and write. They wrote [Jewish values] down into the religion we now know, otherwise it would have vanished. This is from where and when the Bible originated.
“Noah is the classic Hebrew hero,” he adds, admitting that he approaches the Torah as a text with literary devices used to convey a moral message. “Just like Doctor Who saves the world, Noah did, too. They gave it a different slant. In the Babylonian version of the story, the people were too noisy. In our version, there was sin in the world.”
Coincidentally, on my way to meet Finkel, I bumped into a former Jewish studies primary school teacher in Golders Green. Explaining whom I was about to see, he told me to ask whether “the Babylonians took the stories from the Jews”? So I did.
“It’s a fair question,” he responds smiling. “There’s a simple answer — this tablet was written 1,000 years before the Bible. They [the Babylonians] have a 1,000 year advance on the Hebrews. I imagine that there was a flood in Mesopotamia around 5,000 BC — so bad that people never forgot it. ”
Until now, no other tablet is believed to have mentioned the “roundness” of the Ark. Many versions say it had a traditional ship shape, being longer than it was wide.
Finkel first came across the tablet in 1985, when a man called Douglas Simmonds walked into the British Museum, clutching a bag that contained it, among 12 other items that proved to be less extraordinary.
He instantly recognised its significance, but only managed to convince Simmonds to leave it with him in 2009. Written in cuneiform by a scribe in what is now Iraq, it instructed a great man to build a boat and pack in two animals of every kind.
It even gave precise measurements of the vessel that would save its occupants from the flood.
Once in his possession, the piece took “a long time” to decode. “I read the bulk on the front more or less OK,” he says, thumbing an exact copy before demonstrating where he struggled with chipped sections.
He hopes that “one day” the tablet will belong to the museum. But, for now, he lets me finger the model of the tablet, which has inspired a documentary to be shown on Channel 4.
Boat experts are currently working with locals in India to reconstruct the boat according to the tablet’s measurements. He says it is bizarre watching elephants tow planks of wood for the building work. He has also filmed segments in Jerusalem.
After an initial article about his discovery appeared in the Guardian, “a dozen film companies got in touch. Blink Films went off to start raising funds for the film. It is costing a fortune with money raised from donors in America. They said: ‘If we have a film, then there should be a book to go with it.’ So I wrote this,” he says, picking up a copy of The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood.
He is looking forward to his Jewish Book Week session, where he is hoping to discuss his findings with rabbis. “This wasn’t meant to upset people,” he concludes. “Some rabbis are open-minded and some are not. I would be very happy to have a seminar with people and have a go at it.”