Flood myths appear to be pretty universal, so it was not just Noah or Gilgamesh who built boats and saved the world’s fauna (what happened to the flora underwater is not addressed). It was therefore interesting to read this article in today’s Grauniad regarding the translation of a Babylonian clay tablet which describes another one of the world’s flood stories.
The tablet tells the story of the ark, the vessel that saved one virtuous man, his family and the animals from god's watery wrath. The ark was not the huge vessel made of gopher wood (and twice the size of the USS Nimitz... probably) but a giant circular reed raft.
The tablet, aged about 3,700 years, was found somewhere in the Middle East by Leonard Simmons, a largely self-educated Londoner who indulged his passion for history while serving in the RAF from 1945 to 1948. The relic was passed to his son Douglas, who took it to Irving Finkel,a British Museum expert, who translated its 60 lines of neat cuneiform script.
Although tablets describing the flood story are commonplace this one was the first to describe the vessel's shape. "In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it," said Finkel. "But the ark didn't have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It's still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods."
Finkel's research throws light on the familiar Mesopotamian story, which became the account in Genesis, in the Old Testament, of Noah and the ark that saved his menagerie from the waters which drowned every other living thing on earth.
In his translation, the god who has decided to spare one just man speaks to Atram-Hasis, a Sumerian king who lived before the flood and who is the Noah figure in earlier versions of the ark story. "Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions And save life! Draw out the boat that you will built with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same."
The tablet goes on to command the use of plaited palm fibre, waterproofed with bitumen, before the construction of cabins for the people and wild animals. It ends with the dramatic command of Atram-Hasis to the unfortunate boat builder whom he leaves behind to meet his fate, about sealing up the door once everyone else is safely inside: "When I shall have gone into the boat, Caulk the frame of the door!"
Despite its unique status, Simmons' tablet – which has been dated to around 1,700 BC and is only a few centuries younger than the oldest known account – was very nearly overlooked.
"When my dad eventually came home, he shipped a whole tea chest of this kind of stuff home – seals, tablets, bits of pottery," said Douglas. "He would have picked them up in bazaars, or when people knew he was interested in this sort of thing, they would have brought them to him and earned a few bob."
This is truly fascinating stuff. I don’t for a second believe in the literal truth of Genesis or Gilgamesh, I am sure that they were inspired by real events – not a universal flood sent down by a God who desperately needed anger management classes but perhaps a memory of events following the Ice Age or simply local floods turned into legend.
One thing I do hope is that the ark of Atram-Hasis fared better than Russian attempts to create a circular battleship in the 19th century: