Irving Finkel discusses Cuneiform

Irving Finkel discusses Cuneiform

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The Institute for Creation Research

News emerged in 2010 that Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert at the British Museum, had translated an ancient tablet describing Noah&rsquos Ark as round and built of reeds. 1 Now, Finkel is publishing a book on the find, and news reports again assert the tired tale that the Bible&rsquos authors borrowed a Babylonian flood tale like the one on this tablet and modified it into their &ldquostory&rdquo of Noah. 2 Babylonian or biblical, round or rectangular&mdashwhich Ark story stays afloat?

The Finkel tablet specifies a two-story, disc-shaped vessel with a 220-foot diameter. This floating saucer was supposedly made of reeds tied with reams of ropes and covered with bitumen&mdashperhaps a natural tar-like substance&mdashfor waterproofing. An earlier Creation Science Update noted that such a floppy tub would hardly have been as seaworthy as the wooden, barge-like vessel depicted in the Bible. 3

Then in 2012, British historian Bill Cooper published a 1909 translation by Dr. Hermann Hilprecht of a Babylonian flood tablet that pre-dates Finkel&rsquos fortuitous find. 4 The two tablets differ substantially in details, with implications for both Finkel&rsquos book and the Bible&rsquos veracity.

First, the story on Finkel&rsquos cylindrical tablet resembles other unrealistic ancient Babylonian mythologized stories. They tell the story of Atrahasis, their name for Noah, but they portray unfeasible Arks. This one describes a perfectly round reed boat, but tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh describes the Ark as a perfect cube. 5 The Gilgamesh story also comes from Babylon, and extant copies of it probably represent later, more fanciful retellings of originally historical events. Experiments show that neither a cube nor a disc could do the job of floating for a solid year while keeping its inhabitants alive, but the Genesis Ark&rsquos design could. 6

In contrast to Finkel&rsquos approximately 1850 B.C. tablet, the one that Cooper cited was &ldquogiven the catalogue designation CBM 13532, [and] it dates from about 2200 B.C., or soon after the Flood itself.&rdquo 7 It essentially presents no unrealistic or fanciful details, and in fact does not differ from the main elements of the Genesis account.

The link is clear. The oldest tablet retains the highest quality of information because it appears it was written when the actual Flood survivors were still living and could have quickly squelched inaccurate versions of the Flood events.

The notion that Bible authors borrowed from Babylonian myths&mdashmade explicit in Finkel&rsquos book title The Ark Before Noah&mdashfails for the same reason. Supposedly the Jews living as captives in Babylon revised their history to include the Babylonian flood account but if that were so they would have been written off as fiction writers by their contemporaries, who could refute their historically revisionist peers. Plus, why would the Jewish exiles ever want to adopt the historical identity of their brutal pagan captors?

Reality is the reverse. Noah&rsquos Ark was the first Ark and the only real one. Babylonian and other cultures&rsquo dim memories produced fanciful versions of the real events recorded in Scripture.

News reports of the round-Ark tablet on display at the British Museum show that interest in Noah&rsquos Ark remains strong, and this will undoubtedly help sell copies of Finkel&rsquos book. 8 And with the unreasonable disdain that secular scholarship has toward God&rsquos Word, each copy sold will undoubtedly mislead its reader that the Genesis Flood account was borrowed from myth and is therefore a myth itself.

But wouldn&rsquot this line of reasoning unravel all of Scripture? Isaiah, Ezekiel, Peter, and Jesus, for example, accepted Noah and his Ark of deliverance at face value. 9

The earlier date for the Hilprecht tablet combines with the unique feasibility of the Bible&rsquos Ark description to firmly establish the Genesis rectangular Ark&mdashnot a round Ark&mdashas the real one. Genesis offers the only Ark account that floats.

Editor's note: Since this article was published, ICR has learned that Hilprecht&rsquos translation, by his own admission, included Bible-centric verbiage not found on the tablet. ICR thus no longer advocates this tablet as having any more apologetic value than other cuneiform-inscribed Flood stories such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. For the standard translation of tablet CBM 13532, see Lambert, W. G. and A. R. Millard. 1999. Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 127.

  1. Irvine, C. Noah's Ark was circular raft made of reeds, according to ancient tablet. The Telegraph. Posted on January 2, 2010, accessed December 17, 2013.
  2. Hills, S. Was Noah's Ark round? Scholar says 3,700-year-old clay tablet reveals boat was a coracle made out of reeds and bitumen. The Daily Mail. Posted on December 15, 2013, accessed December 17, 2013.
  3. Thomas, B. A Round Noah's Ark? Creation Science Update. Posted on January 15, 2010, accessed December 17, 2013.
  4. Cooper, B. 2012. The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis. Portsmouth, UK: Creation Science Movement.
  5. The great Flood: The Epic of Gilgame&scaron. Livius.Org. Posted on May 8, 2007, accessed December 18, 2013.
  6. Woodmorappe, J. 1998. Noah&rsquos Ark: A Feasibility Study. Santee, CA: Institute for Creation Research.
  7. Morris, J. 2011. Genesis, Gilgamesh, and an Early Flood Tablet. Acts & Facts. 40 (11): 16.
  8. Menzie, N. Noah's Ark 'Original' Was Round, According to 4,000-Year-Old Tablet at British Museum. The Christian Post. Posted on January 27, 2014, accessed January 27, 2014.
  9. For example, see Matthew 24:38.

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.

Irving Finkel: The man history made

Darwin, Dumbledore, Engels, Gandalf, Santa. Like the men he is often nicknamed after, the 65-year-old leaves an indelible mark on his audiences. More famous writers and polymaths have attended the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), but few kindle the degree of warmth Irving Finkel does. The ID tag around his neck swings as he prances on stage, firing cannonballs of history into an audience as mesmerised with his untamed hair and beard as they are with tidbits on ancient board games.

"Pachisi is a grand invention by your country. Which a big company reproduced during the British Raj," explains the author of Ancient Board Games.

Just as delegates lean in and take the bait of a slight pause, Finkel shocks them by what seems, at that moment, like a sonic boom.

"BUT THE ENGLISH tore the rule book and created an alternative requiring not the slightest response of the soul. They took the good out of that game, repackaging and importing it to India as stupid, anodyne Ludo."

The audience, spanning from schoolchildren to the elderly, is rapt with attention.

"Now I see Indians playing Ludo, totally OBLIVIOUS about the damn good game their forefathers played," Finkel stresses, waving his arms about. There's a plea in his eyes.

"Agar yeh humein history padhate toh kitna achcha hota," whispers a schoolgirl to a vociferously-nodding friend.

Rocking the boatHe's on the editorial board of Board Game Studies, but Finkel is better known as the British Museum's eminence grise on all things cuneiform, the oldest script known to humankind. For almost 40 years, he has read, translated and preserved 1,30,000 clay tablets that once called Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and Syria) &ndash the cradle of civilisation &ndash home.

This makes Finkel privy to revelations that irk custodians of Abrahamic faiths &ndash for some of these are origins of the fabled flood myth. Mesopotamia had not one, but three flood stories that predate the biblical version by a millennium: the epics of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and Ziusudra.

"The most painstaking to decipher was the one I wrote the book about," he says in a post-session interview, referring to the palm-sized clay tablet that birthed The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. This tantalising goldmine of information not only describes animals being taken onto a coracle in pairs, but has specific instructions for building the whopping 3600sqm contraption.

The tablet, damaged on the reverse, has no duplicate or parallel, so Finkel painstakingly squeezed the most out of every syllable and wedge. "Fascinating details lay in damaged parts, but I got bits about animals going 2x2 &ndash which is in the Old Testament. This had never been discovered," he says headily.

Irving Finkel's childlike gusto, coupled with animated skull sessions on the wonders of cuneiform, can border on comical. But it's the kind of delivery one wishes more academicians would adopt. Too caught up in the gravitas of their discoveries or theories, they often forget that history can be as much a joy ride as it can the equivalent of watching paint dry. Finkel makes you want to trash the future in favour of the past. More so when he regales with tales of Mesopotamian medicine and magic &ndash subjects of his Ph.D thesis.

"They had spells, pharmacopeia and oil applications for fever, stomachaches and sores. And pregnancy tests too. Records dating to first millennium BC show women urinated on a barley shoot to see if it sprouted. If it did, it meant they were pregnant. "

". and yes, the tests were remarkably accurate," he says, a twinkle in his eye.

Dear diaryIn 2012, London's Bishopsgate Institute installed The Great Diary Project. And with that, another feather was added to the cap of Irving Finkel, Assyriologist, philologist and author: that of a diary rescuer. The genesis of this story is as fantastical as the origin myths he researches for a living.

"A second-hand goods dealer once came to me with a 76-volume collection that belonged to Godfrey Williams, a British soldier serving in the Northwest Frontier Province," he shares. "I study inscriptions over 4000 years old, so I'm used to the idea of documents looking like they have nothing inside."

On reading Williams' compendium, it dawned on Finkel that diaries, rarely considered standalone historical resources, open windows other texts cannot. He collected nearly 2,000 diaries before approaching Stefan Dickers, Library and Archives Manager at Bishopsgate. The project, whose patrons include Stephen Fry, English actor Michael Palin and politician Boris Johnson, now has 6,000 diaries &ndash many of them contributions.

"Official history often has an agenda, whether unconscious or deliberate. But diaries have in them truths recorded without filters," he says. "Details like cost of living, how society functioned. and most importantly, what people felt."

Patterns of migrationFinkel's love for board games and personal diaries are symbiotic, feeding off his need to know what the ancients did for leisure. At 11, he read about the 4,600-year-old Royal Game of Ur and never looked back. Today, he's a go-to on the Mesopotamian game, as well as other forgotten ones.

The Royal Game of Ur was believed to be dethroned by backgammon. That is, until Finkel chanced upon an Indian connection he relishes talking about.

"I'd heard about anthropologists documenting the lives of Cochin or Pardesi Jews settled in a north Jerusalem kibbutz. There was mention of a game they played that dovetailed to rules on a clay tablet dating to 177BC" he recounts.

This tablet comprised the world's oldest set of game rules, for the Royal Game of Ur. On visiting a resident, Ruby Daniel, Finkel unwrapped the gift of a lifetime: the discovery that a 'dead' game is kept alive by Cochin Jews in the form of Aasha.

"Which means they came to India from Babylon after being exiled by Nebuchadnezzar," he exclaims. "This game, Aasha, is a living tradition. Migrants taught it to their children and grandchildren, making it a point to never forget."

The story of The Royal Game of Ur, Senet, and even chaupat and chess is the story of how games leapfrogged borders, mutating into versions that defied time. Board games, Finkel stresses, are as much pointers of human progress as technology. Which is why, during the ancient board game session at JLF, he put forward a request:

The Real Noah’s Ark – Dr. Irving Finkel*

Five years ago, the news broke that premier cuneiform scholar Dr. Irving Finkel, Deputy

Keeper of Middle East at the British Museum, had translated a new account of the ancient Babylonian Flood Story on a clay tablet from 1,750 B.C. and found directions for making a round ark. There are multiple versions of the deluge myth in the ancient Near East. One features Ziusudra, King of Sumer, as the Noah figure and is found on a single tablet from the 17th century B.C. excavated in Nippur, Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Utnapishtim who was tasked by the god Enki-Ea to build a boat that would save his family, craftsmen, plants and animals from the flood the other gods were sending to destroy humanity. The earliest surviving Gilgamesh tablets date to the 18th century B.C. The Akkadian version is named after its hero, Atra-Hasis, and is found on fragments of tablets also dating back to the 18th century B.C. The Flood Story on the tablet recently translated by Dr. Finkel is the Akkadian Atra-Hasis version.

All of these versions of the Flood Story precede the Biblical version with the one God and Noah by a thousand years, a fact that caused a sensation in 1872 when British Museum Assyriologist George Smith announced he’d found the first cuneiform account of the Great Flood, now known to be the 11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Smith published his find in the 1876 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, a seminal volume in the history of Assyriology even though several of his translations, admittedly makeshift solutions to missing bits in the sources (he suggested Gilgamesh was to be read Izdubar), have since been corrected.

Finkel published his translation of the Atra-Hasis tablet last year in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, a fascinating archaeological detective story that manages that rare feat of conveying its author’s contagious enthusiasm along with the scholarly information. I’m sure in someone else’s hands the analysis of cuneiform tablets can make for dry reading, but Dr. Finkel’s ebullience shines through on every vigorously-turned page.

That endlessly renewable resource of enthusiasm played a key role in the translation of the round ark tablet. Dr. Finkel first encountered the small cuneiform tablet in 1985 when it was one of several pieces Douglas Simmonds brought to the British Museum for expert assessment. Douglas’ father Leonard was in the Royal Air Force after World War II and had amassed a significant collection of Near East artifacts during his travels. After Leonard’s death, Douglas researched the objects. Finkel had already helped him with several cylinder seals and clay tablets before the fateful 1985 encounter.

As one of very few people in the world who can sight-read cuneiform, Finkel was able to read the clean first verses of the tablet: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-Hasis…” That passage is famous among Assyriologists as the opening lines of the Atra-Hasis Flood Story. Finkel was thrilled at such a rare find and asked to keep the tablet so he could translate the whole thing which is covered in cuneiform front and back, but Mr. Simmonds was unwilling to part with it. It wasn’t until 2009 when Dr. Finkel spotted Douglas Simmonds at the Babylon, Myth and Reality exhibition that the latter finally agreed to bring the tablet in for translation.

The sixty lines of the Ark Tablet go into unprecedented detail on the design of the boat and the materials used in construction. None of the other Atra-Hasis tablets describe the vessel. This is most of what’s on the front of the tablet:

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
Atra-Hasis, pay heed to my advice,
That you may live for ever!
Destroy your house, build a boat
Spurn property and save life!
Draw out the boat that you will make
On a circular plan
Let her length and breadth be equal,
Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high,
You saw kannu ropes and aslu ropes/rushes for [a coracle before!]
Let someone (else) twist the fronds and palm-fibre for you!
It will surely consume 14,430 (sutu)!”
“I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long
I set up 3,600 stanchions within her
Which were half (a parsiktu-vessel) thick, half a nindan high
I constructed her cabins above and below.”
“I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her outsides
I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her interior
I had (already) poured out one finger of bitumen onto her cabins
I caused the kilns to be loaded with 28,800 (sutu) of kupru-bitumen
And I poured 3,600 (sutu) of ittu-bitumen within.
The bitumen did not come to the surface [lit. up to me]
(so) I added five fingers of lard,
I ordered the kilns to be loaded … in equal measure
(With) tamarisk wood (?) (and) stalks (?)
…(= I completed the mixture).

These quantities are enormous, enough palm-fiber rope, wooden ribs and stanchions to build a coracle 3,600 square meters in area, almost two-thirds the size of a soccer field, with walls 20 feet high. If the amount of rope described here were laid out in a single line, it would reach from London to Edinburgh. The vats of bitumen were necessary to waterproof a boat whose hull is, after all, made of rope.

The back of the tablet is more damaged than the front, with significant chunks missing, but what is there continues the discussion of bitumen application and then describes Atra-Hasis and his family getting on the boat. In one moving passage, Atra-Hasis prays to the moon god Sin that the coming tragedy be averted. Sin’s reply includes a line that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has ever heard the Noah story.

“Sin, from his throne, swore as to annihilation
And desolation on (the) darkened [day (to come)]”
“But the wild animals from the steppe [(…)]
Two by two the boat did [they enter]…”

Armed with this unique description, Dr. Finkel contacted ancient ship specialists to see if they could construct a scale version of the ark. The project was filmed for a television program called The Real Noah’s Ark which first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last September. It apparently aired as Rebuilding Noah’s Ark on the National Geographic channel, but I missed it. The British Museum’s YouTube channel just posted a five-minute introduction to the episode a few days ago, which was the first I’d heard of it. The program doesn’t appear to be available on demand from the Channel 4 website at the moment, or at least it’s not working for me. It has, however, been posted on Vimeo and I strongly urge you to watch it while the watching’s good.

Simply stated, this show has everything: Mesopotamian history, issues in ancient urban water management, the Ziggurat of Ur, dangers military and ecological, southern Iraq’s enchanting marshlands, cuneiform tablets and the laser-scanning thereof, ship design, archaeological geology, traditional crafts, how reeds can be used to make an AMAZING house, bitumen drama, flood legends and their transmission from Babylon to Judea, the reality of regular flooding in the Fertile Crescent, several exceptional beards and at the end, a big ol’ round boat.

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel – review

A s Scott Franklin, producer of the forthcoming Russell Crowe epic Noah, has correctly pointed out, the story of the flood "is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps". Unsurprisingly then, people have always been keen to fill them in. The rabbis laid claim to secret information that Noah had been kept so busy feeding the animals in his care that he didn't get to bed for a year. Bishop Ussher, in the 17th century, calculated that the flood had taken place in 2349 BC. Expeditions continue to be made to the slopes of Mount Ararat, in a perennially optimistic quest for the Ark's remains. Even Hollywood producers like to insist that their elaborations of Genesis are true to the original narrative. "We didn't really deviate from the Bible," Franklin has boasted, "despite the six-armed angels."

But was the story of the flood original to the Bible at all? We know that it was not. This first became apparent a century and a half ago, in a room above the secretary's office in the British Museum. It was there in 1872 that George Smith, a self-taught Assyriologist working among the thousands of ancient clay tablets brought back to Bloomsbury from Iraq, made a sensational discovery: a version of the flood story written in cuneiform. So overwhelmed was he by the implications of his find that he immediately leapt to his feet, ran around the room, and started taking off his clothes. His excitement, to the Christian elite of Victorian Britain, appeared only mildly overstated. When Smith presented his discovery at a public meeting shortly afterwards, both Gladstone, then prime minister, and the Archbishop of Canterbury were in the audience. Everybody listening to him understood that a thrilling – and, to the devout, faintly alarming – vista of research had been opened up. "I believe," as Gladstone observed with studied ambivalence, "we shall be permitted to know a great deal more than our forefathers in respect of the early history of mankind."

And so it has proved. Over the years, cuneiform flood tablets have continued to turn up. Three distinct Mesopotamian incarnations of the myth have now been identified, one recorded in Sumerian and two in Akkadian. It has become clear that the tale of a universal flood was widespread in Mesopotamia for an entire millennium and a half before the hapless Judaeans, defeated in the early 6th century BC by Nebuchadnezzar, were dragged away from their smoking cities into exile, there to weep beside the rivers of Babylon. Now, courtesy of Irving Finkel, the British Museum's eminence grise of cuneiform studies, there comes a further clinching piece of evidence: a tablet that actually describes animals entering an ark "two by two". Not only that, but it offers startlingly precise specifications on how best to construct one. An ark, so the tablet instructs us, should properly be circular in shape, have an area of 3,600 metres, and be fashioned out of plant fibre. All those living in the Somerset Levels may wish to take note.

Although, disappointingly, spontaneous stripteases do not seem to have been a feature of his own find, Finkel's account of how he came by the tablet – featuring as it does an enigmatic collector who once starred as Doughnut in the 1970s children's show Here Come the Double Deckers – is wryly and entertainingly told. Even so, it does not take him long to broaden out his focus. The tablet, for much of the book, in effect plays the role of a MacGuffin. Finkel's real passion is less the story of the flood than the script in which it is written. "Cuneiform!" he declaims rhapsodically. "The world's oldest and hardest writing, older by far than any alphabet, written by long-dead Sumerians and Babylonians over more than 3,000 years, and as extinct by the time of the Romans as any dinosaur. What a challenge! What an adventure!"

Finkel's excitement is entirely understandable. As his own and Smith's examples both demonstrate, the ability to decipher cuneiform is one that gives to those rare few possessed of it a heady privilege: the prospect of making remarkable discoveries in texts that have been unread for millennia. Such is Finkel's desperation to convey to those unversed in Sumerian or Akkadian just how thrilling this can be that he reaches for metaphor after metaphor. An undeciphered clay-tablet is described by him as variously a potato waiting to be harvested, a sponge to be squeezed as tightly as possible and a bombshell that might go off at any minute. The great achievement of his book is to demonstrate not only how challenging he found it as a young man to master cuneiform, but how richly rewarding the effort of his discipleship has been ever since. "I would go so far," he declares at one point, "to recommend Assyriology enthusiastically as a way of life". So might a rabbi enthuse about the Talmud.

Small wonder, then, that Finkel should confess to a strong sense of fellow-feeling with the ancient scribes whose tablets he has devoted his life to reading. Cuneiform, so he poetically declares, is "a magic bridge to a long-dead world populated by recognisable fellow humans". But it is hard not to wonder whether perhaps Finkel might be pushing the claims of kinship a bit far. "And those ancient peoples," he writes of the Babylonians, "writing their tablets, looking at their world, crawling between heaven and earth … like us." Well – up to a point. It is certainly the case, as Finkel points out, that Babylon was a metropolis with high-rises, bankers and immigrants but it was at the same time very different from London or New York. Kingship was its heartbeat fish-garbed priests played out cultic rituals in its streets its scholars laid claim to a heritage that reached back to the first fashioning of the world out of mud. Above all, it was a city whose people consciously aimed to set the rest of mankind in their shadow. "They shall eat up your harvest and your food," as the prophet Jeremiah despairingly expresssed it. "They shall eat up your sons and your daughters they shall eat up your flocks and your herds they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees your fortified cities in which you trust they shall destroy with the sword."

No one transported to a city such as Babylon could possibly fail to feel provincial. This, surely, is the context that best explains the biblical appropriation of the Mesopotamian flood myth. Finkel, following the Book of Daniel, has various Judaean exiles being taught cuneiform after induction into a "three-year teaching programme" – which, while perfectly plausible, hardly gets to grips with the likely dynamics of the transmission. The Judaeans were not graduate students in some Ivy League college, but the bewildered and embittered victims of superpower aggression.

By plundering the heritage of Babylon, they were at once paying homage to its cultural prestige, and annexing it to their own ends. Just as Christians and Muslims would subsequently transform the biblical figure of Noah into a prefiguring of their own respective theodicies, so the Judaeans transformed the myths of their Babylonian overlords into something that would end up as Jewish. In Mesopotamia, where it was the custom to erect buildings over the remains of levelled ruins, the ancient past literally provided the foundations of new temples. In a similar manner, its legends were made to serve the self-mythologisation of the Jews. Some details of the flood tablet discovered by Finkel – the animals going in two by two, for instance – were cannibalised others – the specifications of the ark's measurements, and the detail that the great ship had been round – were not. This, for me, is the real fascination of his find: the light it sheds on how a despised and defeated people won a victory over their conquerors so remarkable that it now gets to be commemorated by Russell Crowe.

Review: Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah

By Patrick Hunt –

The Atrahasis Flood Tablet I first saw in Irving Finkel’s office at the British Museum a few years ago before this book was published seemed much like many others in the museum galleries, a cuneiform clay tablet one could easily hold in a hand. But this one was different in several ways once Finkel had started translating it from the cuneiform, rightly relishing his discoveries. For one, it described a round ark built for the great flood – like a giant coracle – and the second stunning revelation was one phrase a delighted Finkel had repeated with amused intensity: the animals assembled for the menagerie to be safely protected from the deluge were to enter the ark “two by two”, exactly as the biblical account said. This had been recorded by Israelite scribes thousands of years ago but written down seeming millennia later than this other earlier Mesopotamian account in front of me in clay. The “two by two” meme was the origin of the biblical Noah story, Finkel told me, and showed how carefully some vital details are repeated, completely logical if you want to replicate a species from haploid DNA.

The unassuming cuneiform tablet that launched this marvelous book is only sixty lines long and measures a compact 11.5 by 6.0 cm (4.3 x 2.3 in), written down almost 4,000 years ago, roughly 1900-1700 BCE in literary Babylonian (essentially Akkadian). It tells very pragmatically how to build the Ark, describing the local materials, including rushes, ropes, bitumen and tamarisk wood, and the circular dimensions, such as its diameter equalled 70 meters or 22 London double-decker buses end to end. Thus Finkel’s translation of the “new’ Atrahasis Ark Tablet shows a “Super Coracle” with a base area of 3600 square meters and a divinely-shared plan from the god Enki to be drawn out in a circle (kippatu in Akkadian) on the ground.

Some of the “new” details brought out in this particular Atrahasis tablet (there are others) are fascinating. For example, among the many animals to be brought, aboard, the list includes 44 types of snakes, 19 types of dogs, 13 types of insects with three added types of locusts differentiated by size, 16 types of larvae, 5 types of lizards, 3 types of jackals, 11 types of scorpions, and 20 types of lions, all reflecting a genuinely Mesopotamian world of the time. Perhaps the one startling animal genre is that 23 ties of pigs are to be shipped, intriguing given later religious bans.

Finkel’s writing is wonderful. Here’s an example excerpted from the first chapter:

“…George Smith’s discoveries led to unease in more than one quarter. It was simply bizarre that a close relative of Holy Writ should emanate from such a primitive, barbarous world through so improbable a medium, to thrust itself uncompromisingly into public consciousness. How could Noah and his Ark possibly have been known and important to the Assyrians of noble Asnapper and the Babylonians of mad, dread Nebuchadnezzar? Worried people over garden fences and in church pews clamoured to have important questions answered. Smith, writing soberly in 1875, ducked none of them, unanswerable though they were. Two questions that have presented themselves at the outset have echoed ever since:

Which flood translation was older? When and how did the transmission of the flood tradition take place?

The first has long been answered: cuneiform flood literature is by a millennium the older of the two, however one dates the biblical text – still a difficult problem. As for the second, this book offers a new answer…”

Finkel also convincingly relates – seemingly as a pioneer – how the exiled Jews in their Babylonian Captivity in the late seventh to sixth centuries BCE heard the Flood story and their scribes eventually acquired cuneiform reading skills to absorb and recycle the scribal details for their own Torah, to be handed down as the familiar Genesis 6-9 story of Noah.

It’s very hard to stop reading when one writes like this.

Finkel is a great storyteller, savoring details with wit and verve, and his droll sense of humor catches the reader immediately, from describing the early training of a budding cuneiform scholar to the antics of George Smith, a pioneer cuneiform Assyriologist in this very museum and thus a predecessor of Finkel more than a century ago. As patient as he is meticulous (without being boring) Finkel takes the history of the Noah story back to a time much earlier than its familiar Hebrew account. He has spent enough time in the field to know rural reedy coracles still cross the Euphrates into the present time, and from his many translations of texts – he can unlock cuneiform and read it as quickly as most authors read the New York Review of Books – can also make the dimensions and philology of this literary ark version easily accessible.

Les Croniques de Burgues. Gonzales d’Hinojosa Jean Coulain, translator. France before 1407 (Image courtesy of British Library)

Finkel also gives early on in the book to anyone interested a compelling basic introduction to cuneiform writing from the origin of wedge-shaped signs to the Mesopotamian syllabaries and how Sumerian differed from later Akkadian, the precursor to many cognate Semitic languages such as Babylonian, Assyrian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew and even Arabic that subsequently evolved however differently.

I was in Istanbul this past spring and saw in many of its old bazaars various Safavid Persian, Mughal and Ottoman hand-painted illuminations of the Flood story. Animals of all kinds peeked from windows under turbanned mariners of a bearded old sage and his three sons (like the aged Noah and his sons Shem, Japheth and Ham) the ships were often gilded and floated on the waves en route to a salvific destiny. The tale also regales Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the great Abrahamic faiths. But the pre-Abrahamic story of the Flood and its savior – however told or depicted – belongs to the world, not just to any one people or religion. In this case the Flood epic precedes the later religions of the fierce desert, going back to Sumeria, to Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim and the Akkadian of the Early Bronze Age more than four thousand years ago as well as the Babylonian of about the time of Hammurabi, as Finkel tells better than anyone with the Atrahasis Tablet.

I assigned Finkel’s new book to a Stanford University class this past quarter on Mesopotamia, and the class agreed it was a keeper, extremely well-written and full of irony. If an academic can write a page-turner, this is it.

Irving Finkel in his office at the British Museum with the new Atrahasis Tablet (Photo P. Hunt 2013)

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This was a very interesting book about a very interesting subject. Irving Finkel has tried to explain the history of the well known story about Noah's Ark based upon his studies in Cuneiform and ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets. It is no doubt that Dr Finkel is a world expert on the subject.

There is a lot of information in the book and I learned a lot but the approach to the subject was to in great detail penetrate old Sumerian and Babylonian languages and their written form, Cuneiform. There are large parts of this book that gets very technical and for a serious student in those languages is is probably of great value. My interest was more toward the story itself and of course there are a lot to learn here but it takes some time since you have to go through a lot of Cuneiform discussions.

Dr Finkel tell us how the Ark was constructed, what it looked like and who went on board. There is also a discussion where it ended it's voyage. He is comparing old Babylonian and Assyrian records with the Bible and even the Koran. It is very clear that the story is far older than what is presented in the Bible.

Dr Finkel is also one of those really enjoyable English scholars that lets his fine sense of humor be presented in the book.

But after having more or less proven when the story was created, how the Ark was constructed etc. there are still a lot of questions. If we accept the story of the Ark as a real event, we must also accept that some god told Noah to build it and collect all the animals. If there are no gods, it all falls apart since how would Noah know about the storm so far in advance that he had time to construct, build and man the Ark?

Dr Finkel does not state that the story about Noah's Ark is an historical proven fact, just that the story is very old and that if it is true the Ark would have looked like he describes.

This is far from the last book on the subject but if it interests you read it. It is well wort doing that.

Dr Irving Finkel specialises in reading and writing Cuneiform, an ancient language written on clay tablets.

In 1985 a man came into his office at the British Museum and showed Irving a palm-sized clay tablet from Ancient Babylon.

It told the story of a Babylonian God telling a man that the world was about to be flooded and that he should build a giant boat, to save him and his family.

The God was instructing the man to bring animals aboard too, in pairs.

Irving realised that this was the story of Noah and his Ark, predating the account in the Bible by thousands of years.

He began a detective hunt to find out what became of the Babylonian Ark - and where it might have come to rest.

Further information

The Ark Before Noah is published by Hodder

Dr Irving Finkel is in Australia as a guest of Sydney University's Nicholson Museum, the Australian Institute of Archaeology, and the Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation

THE JAGER FILE: On Jewish Civilization

A British Museum scholar offers a Darwinian explanation for Judaism's survival.

On the way to work from his home in south London, Dr. Irving Finkel often finds himself sitting on a bus reading the Hebrew Bible while surrounded by black church ladies studying their Bibles. "If they only knew what I was thinking," he muses.

Unlike his fellow passengers, what the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian Inscriptions at the British Museum is thinking is that the Bible is not the literal word of God, but that it was crystallized during the sixth-century B.C.E. Babylonian exile by a displaced people from Judea who had lost their country, whose deity was invisible, abstract, and unforgiving, and whose monotheism had gone wobbly. Their decision to create "scripture," something that had never before been attempted, saved the refugees' civilization and enshrined their religious identity. The result was Judaism.

Finkel outlined his thesis in a late-February talk at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem entitled "New Light on the Babylonian Exile." He is in the midst of writing a book on the subject, and an American literary agent stands ready to help place it.

Barefoot, with his flowing white beard and long white hair offset by a tee-shirt and black jeans—which is how I found him when we sat down for this interview—Finkel looks more like an ancient Hebrew prophet than a buttoned-down London librarian.

Your job has an interesting designation.

Yes, people think an Assistant Keeper must work for the zoo. It's actually a 19th-century title.

What languages do you work in?

I read the ancient languages of Iraq: Sumerian and Babylonian in cuneiform script. They are written on clay tablets that were uncovered in British Museum excavations in the 1800's. We have roughly 130,000 fragments, some as small as your miniature tape recorder. The clay came from the river banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. They were perfect for making clear inscriptions. Miraculously, they survive in the ground unless deliberately destroyed.

What we have in our collection is a potpourri of fascinating material like the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as what amount to grocery lists.

How did you get interested in cuneiform?

Well, I always wanted to work at the British Museum and to study a difficult language. My plan was to study Egyptian hieroglyphics at the University of Birmingham, but the professor upped and died after just a day of classes. It was suggested that I switch tracks.

Just how many scholars alive today can do what you do?

All the people who can read cuneiform can fit into this living room.

Between 3200 B.C.E and the 2nd century C.E. In the meantime, the Semitic alphabet came into being in Canaan around 1000 B.C.E., and for a millennium the two forms existed side by side.

Only a handful of people, people in power, could read or write in cuneiform, while the Semitic alphabet was easier to learn and could be written in ink on leather and wood.

There is a misconception that cuneiform—and hieroglyphics—are primitive forms of communications. In fact, they preserve sophisticated languages capable of complex ideas, imagery, and even irony.

Have you ever visited Iraq?

I'm afraid that "Finkel" is too Jewish a name. Under Saddam Hussein and even before, visitors had to prove they were not Jewish in order to visit.

When were the ancient Judeans in Babylon?

It started during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the early-6th century B.C.E. To hear the Bible tell it, everything regarding Nebuchadnezzar centered on the Jews. But from Nebuchadnezzar's vantage point, Judea was a minor though bothersome state strategically placed between Mesopotamia and Egypt. In 597 B.C.E, well before the Temple's destruction, he looted gold from the Temple and took King Jehoiakin captive to Babylon.

And when the Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and the city razed and the people sent to Babylon, what made their exile so different from the expulsion of the Northern Kingdom's population by the Assyrians a century and a half earlier?

The Assyrians deported the Israelites en masse, and the tribes then disappeared from history. But Nebuchadnezzar took mainly the intelligentsia, with the intention of acculturating them—of getting them to be "Babylonianized"—so that, once reeducated, they might be reinstated back home. All this is detailed in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel.

I've tried to visualize what happened with these displaced Judeans. Some were, let's say, ultra-Orthodox, fiercely loyal to tradition some were proto-Zionists who starting in 538 would return to Israel under the decree of Cyrus. There were also those who became so acculturated that they would stick around forever, all the way until the rise of the modern Ba'ath party. And there were those who would marry out and disappear.

You might be describing New York or London.

That's right. I start with the idea that, fundamentally, people are no different today from what they were in ancient times. The human mind is the same, and so is the range of human intelligence and behavior.

My own approach is not to adumbrate the study of ancient religion in a way that makes it seem irretrievable and remote, but to think of it as the same as contemporary religions but with some differences. Humanity is unchanging.

Where does that lead you with regard to Jewish life?

The Judeans had been ripped out of their surroundings and dumped in a huge, complex, bewildering urban capital: the greatest city in the Near East. This people, the Judeans, were at a point of transition. They had a unique monotheistic tradition in which nobody could see God. All the other ancient gods could be seen once an effigy was created, the god came to inhabit the space created for him. By contrast, not only was the God of the displaced Judeans invisible, He was unforgiving and He was interested only in men.

That last bit helps explain the pattern of wobbly monotheism reflected in the biblical narrative. Women were not served functionally by the austere male deity, and were therefore attracted to house gods. I believe the whole trouble confronted by the biblical prophets had to do with women—for instance, Jezebel's bringing in the cult of Baal. The sense we get from the prophets is of sexual betrayal, the betrayed party being God.

The exile challenged the Judeans to refine their ideas about their single God. Thinking of God as an elusive abstraction did not serve to maintain cohesion. To complicate matters further, there were local theologians in Babylon who were also arguing for one god: their patron deity was Marduk, and they held that all the other gods were but manifestations of his powers. We have cuneiform records encapsulating this dispute among Babylonian theologians.

As a single god, Marduk contributed to the insecurity of Jewish belief. The great fear was that the Judean flock would succumb to idol worship or to marrying out, or both. If that happened, the population would disappear just like the Northern Israelites in Assyria. This threat engendered the need for the biblical text to be finished, in order to solidify the Judeans' belief in their superior understanding of monotheism. What was needed was a theology.

So the "Jews" did something to prevent a replay of the Assyrian outcome. What they did was to produce the Bible, a work that practically screams out that it was written by humans.

Remember, the Judeans arrived already literate. They had with them the chronicles of their kings trunk-loads of scrolls. They wove these into a narrative, while the missing bits—meaning, from the start of humanity until the point where their historical records began—they took from the local tradition and bent to fit ethical Jewish ideas.

You're referring to parallels between the Bible's flood story and the Epic of Gilgamesh?

No, not parallels. The flood story in Genesis basically overlaps with the Babylonian story. The two are interdependent, cut from the same cloth. What I mean is that the Judean intelligentsia knew Babylon's folk tales, but gave them a Jewish twist. The same holds for the similarity between the baby-in-the-bulrushes story of Moses and the story of the Assyrian king Sargon, whose mother also placed him in a reed basket.

And the rest of the Judean sources?

The whole narrative of scripture was simple and lucid: begat, begat, begat. It's like a phone book. The idea was to connect your beautiful and eligible daughter to a genealogy intended to maintain cohesion and identity.

Nothing was composed in Babylonia they already had the foundation. But existing scripture was crafted to demonstrate that God is present. He moves the chess pieces. You get a canonization of religious identity. Monotheism is streamlined.

So Judaism as we know it was born in Babylon as a direct consequence of the exile. This experience created the Jewish people, and eventually also set the pattern for Christianity and Islam.

You are describing the evolutionary development of Jewish civilization.

What I am offering is a form of Darwinism that transforms disparate phenomena into a continuum. I am saying that the exile was responsible for Judaism. That the Judeans behaved in the way we would have expected them to behave, based on what we know about how Jews in New York or London behaved upon their arrival millennia later.

Even the intellectual approach of the Talmud is a product of the larger Babylonian culture, reflecting three generations of learning during the period of exile. The rabbinic method of taking innocuous sentences and getting them to demonstrate just about anything reflects a specific heritage of learning. We find similar intellectual exercises in Babylonian cuneiform that illuminate otherwise obscure statements. There are linguistic similarities there is the idea of the alphabet having numerical value (gematria) there is the idea that statements can have double meanings, leading to a particular form of textual analysis. In cuneiform, each syllable has multiple meanings, so there has to be a mechanism for explanation. Thus the Judean scholars molded Babylonian concepts to the needs of their own tradition.

How do your ideas fit with those of other scholars on this period?

Frankly, I have distilled my thesis simply on the strength of my own knowledge of the Bible coupled with a lifetime acquaintance with the cuneiform sources that are relevant to the whole issue. In writing my book, I have decided simply to present my argument as a logical and lucid explanation that accommodates the diverse issues that make up the whole problem. Consequently I have turned my back on the mountains of existing writing and theorizing on different aspects of the phenomenon. As far as I know, no one has proposed this larger idea before, and I have no interest in defending it or contrasting it with other schools of thought or argument to me it is simply correct.

“I’ve had a lot of unpleasant substances thrown at me in public for undermining the Bible.” – Author Irving Finkel discusses The Ark Before Noah

WHAT: “In ‘The Ark Before Noah‘, British Museum expert Dr Irving Finkel reveals how decoding the symbols on a 4,000-year-old piece of clay enable a radical new interpretation of the Noah’s Ark myth. A world authority on the period, Dr Finkel’s enthralling real-life detective story began with a most remarkable event at the British Museum – the arrival one day in 2008 of a single, modest-sized Babylonian cuneiform tablet – the palm-sized clay rectangles on which our ancestors created the first documents. It had been brought in by a member of the public and this particular tablet proved to be of quite extraordinary importance. Not only does it date from about 1850 BC, but it is a copy of the Babylonian Story of the Flood, a myth from ancient Mesopotamia revealing among other things, instructions for building a large boat to survive a flood. But Dr Finkel’s pioneering work didn’t stop there. Through another series of enthralling discoveries he has been able to decode the story of the Flood in ways which offer unanticipated revelations to readers of ‘The Ark Before Noah‘.”

WHO: Irving Finkel is a British philologist and Assyriologist. He is currently the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum, where he specialises in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay from ancient Mesopotamia.

Well, in this case there was no possible alternative because the subject matter of this book concerns the literary narrative which existed and must have existed prior to the biblical narrative that everybody knows by heart and everybody takes for granted with Noah in the lead role.

But also if you want to give a lecture or write a book or command attention, it is always beneficial to start from a point that people know about. So, if we’d called it ‘The Ark of Utnapushtim’, no-one would have had any idea who that was and sales might have been even more modest than they are at the moment. So it wasn’t a commercial reason but simply a logical reason whereas I was taught many centuries ago that the sensible approach is to take one point and make it three times in different ways and hope that somewhere it will sink into people’s minds, so anybody who saw the cover was urged or prompted to pick it up, would know that it was something to do with Noah which isn’t a bad start.

There is a description of your illustrious Victorian predecessor at the British Museum, George Smith, discovering the first Ark tablet and going momentarily mad with excitement, stripping off his clothes and charging around the room. What would make you pull a George Smith? What discovery could you imagine would have you leaping around in your underpants?

Well I’ve made a few discoveries since I got here but this tablet with its specific – Ark Before Noah tablet – with its contents was after Smith’s accomplishment, in some ways a close second because you had the situation everybody knows, the biblical story, and there have been all sorts of theories about every single aspect of the bible and lots of discussions about what the Ark was like, whether it was like it was described in the Hebrew text, whether it was this, whether it was that but nobody to my knowledge has ever articulated the possibility that it was a circular craft like a coracle. So that was a pretty sort of head-smacking staggering discovery, it really shocked me and agitated me to the point that I loosened my tie and I rather think I might have taken my jacket off, I left it at that, you know you don’t want to excite too much attention among the younger women in the department, I always try to behave in a gentlemanly fashion.

One of the interesting comparative points about shall we say the number one big discovery George Smith, and number two, much less significant but in the same bag following 100 and so years later by me, is that when Smith discovered the flood tablet everybody knew their bible inside out, especially the beginning chapters but I mean everybody read the bible, it underpinned literature, political reference, it was just on everybody’s lips all the novels in the world refer to the bible. That was a scenario in which the discovery was of volcanic significance and when Smith made the discovery he was encouraged, or whatever, to make a public statement in front of a whole committee of worthies including the Archbishop of Canterbury who are not generally renowned for their interests in Assyriology, I think the Prime Minister was also there which is even less than easy to parallel from modern times but the fact is, it made a fantastic impact on the world.

It made a fantastic impact on Smith, who I think had an epileptic fit because the description that he jumped out, dropped the tablet on the table and held his hands and made funny noises and in fact started to disrobe himself, these separate features of behaviour are extremes of epileptic reaction, not necessarily all in a bunch, but I have a feeling that when he actually sat there reading this clay tablet, discovering what was practically speaking holy writ, appear on the surface of a piece of Weetabix, it set off in his bosom and uncontrollable explosion. So the thing is, to answer your question specifically, I thought finding this round thing was a pretty amazing discovery and went about saying you’ll never guess what I found out, but the milieu in which I operate the algae-ridden swimming pool in which one attempts to do breaststroke, is a whole different situation because familiarity with the Bible is minimal to the point that people under a certain age, I would randomly say 30, have a deep-seated and eradicable confusion between things which are in the Bible and things which come from Hollywood, they simply don’t know the difference and lots of people are not sure whether the Noah story isn’t the creation of Walt Disney and so forth and so forth.

So I was in the situation that having made what was really quite a serious discovery in the whole mass of the biblical world and Assyriological world. I had to hold people down, slap them on both cheeks and say “This is important because…” And then they would wake up and say “Oh yes, that sounds quite interesting”. So that is a major, major contrast and it underpins all Assyriology because you could find an inscription with a completely new tablet, a new king, a new this, a new date, a new word for chariot pommel or something but it doesn’t shake the world and there are relatively few things that you can find within the Assyriological world which should command a wider response but the one with this had to be coaxed and publicised and lots of interviews and lots of newspaper things and eventually people say, “Oh how marvellous, how interesting, how wonderful…” and some of them bought the book but it didn’t have a matching effect reverberating throughout the world except this modest paperback available from all good book stores is actually being translated into other languages including French and American and Russian and Polish and Japanese and Armenian and Chinese is nearly done. So the anti-gospel according to me is being disseminated on a wider scale than it might otherwise have been entirely in the English version.

Is that how you see it, the ‘anti-gospel’?

Not at all, it’s a kind of joke. I mean I’ve had a lot of unpleasant substances thrown at me in public for undermining the Bible and this kind of nonsense but my argument is that it’s nothing to do with that whatsoever because the flood story clearly originated in Mesopotamia because of the landscape, the geology the geography, the history, the riverine nature of their landscape. There is no question that it comes out of that part of the world. There’s no question that the literary structure, the literary creation went from the Babylonian forerunner into the biblical narrative in the Book of Genesis. There seems to be no doubt about it, but it’s not pinching words from God or undercutting the clergy, the simple response to people who in fact have threatened me with tar and feathers and what have you is this, have you ever tried to write a detective story? Have you ever tried to write a piece of fiction? Have you ever tried to invent a plot that no-one has invented before? It is practically speaking impossible and all literature is derivative in some measure or other and the question is whether it’s derivative in the modern world, whether it’s derivative surreptitiously, accidentally or unwittingly but it’s true, you cannot create from nothing a whole new thing and the same applies to the narratives in the bible, they were borrowed from here and there and the crucial point, intellectually and from a religious point of view is that they were used to tell different messages.

So, if you hear a really good story about a chap who has a week to save the world and the clock’s going tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, this is a deep-seated irresistible format which Hollywood has embraced like with its teeth and ever since and the Babylonian story that one bloke wakes up one morning with the responsibility for the world, what the hell are they going to do to save all the world, is a brilliant story because everybody thinks, Thank God it wasn’t me. This is it and then the philosophical writers who produce the text of Genesis took the bones of the narrative and used it for a totally different theological philosophical principle. So that obviates the charge of me underpinning the bible, it’s just a recycling of literary ideas which of course there is a finite number.

You talk in the book about how the day to day work of an Assyriologist is the mundane existence of life and getting along in the world. You’re probably the nearest thing to somebody who has actually walked the streets of ancient Babylon and encountered the people. Were they like us? Did they think like us? Could we relate to them, could they relate to us? Do we share something universal or are they – without having green heads with things sticking out of them – alien to us?

Well, this is a really deep and significant question. In fact, I’ve come to conclude at my stage of stuff, without sounding pompous, this is really one of the most important questions and it’s my conviction that the human race has never altered from the time when it really emerged and classifiable as homo sapiens that the components are there and that in the whole history of the evolution of our society, the changes, which are wrought, are so-called civilising if you like, but they are cosmetic and the entity which is the human being is unchanged. So, to be specific, the writing looks like from another planet and so when you first encounter this stuff you reinforce the idea that these people are remote from us in every single possible way, they are so far back you can’t even see them with a telescope and they are therefore behind us in evolution.

Now, the danger of this argument is the built-in conception that there is improvement as part of evolution which governs the convictions for the people who think they lead the world, that we are at the apogee of the human race, that we are more intelligent, more educated, more practical, more wise than anybody who came before. In fact, all the evidence that I can see would suggest just the opposite, that that is by no means the truth and the people in Babylonia in the second millennium were, in my estimation, the sort of thing is, a Babylonian comes in the room now wearing Babylonian clothes and probably smelling of what they had for breakfast and I don’t know what, sits down in the chair and you think – God, what zoo did this person comes from. Or maybe it was a sophisticated merchant expensive clothes and a hooker under his belt and what have you, you think, Oh how am I going to talk to this person?

A what under their belt?

A hooker, you know a sort of…

…Shisha pipe.

Yes, not a young woman. So the thing is, the person inside…

Did they have hookers?

Well actually they didn’t, it’s a good point, it’s an acronisym but for poetic purposes. They could have had hookers. But the point is if you read their literature and you read their letters and you read their so-called real documents, you find that the person, the individuals who write these tablets are familiar to us because they tell the truth and they lie and they wheedle and they’re hypocritical and they’re convinced and they’re faithful and they’re adulterers and they’re fearful and they’re brave and they’re, I don’t know, they drink, they don’t drink, they have all the contrasts which make up the complexity of a normal human being in their lies, so they are frightened of disease, they’re frightened of sterility, they’re frightened of dying, they worry about the Gods like hell when they’re ill, when they’re dying but otherwise they don’t think about them more than is absolutely necessary, they do offerings in the cult.

You know, sometimes people have a deeply religious experience, some people think this is a waste of time but I’ve got to do it. Some people do it because their fathers did it. It’s all the same in my opinion. And if you can zoom in into their houses, these things would be all the same and we can see them showing off, we can see them being clever. There are two things that make me feel this most particularly. One is sarcasm in letters, “Am I your brother or am I not your brother?” Another are all these kind of Italianate gangster sayings in letters, “I sent the material already where’s the gold, where’s the gold?” Or “Dear so and so, bless your footprints and your grandmother’s footprints too. Funny that you should have written because it was only yesterday that the messenger went off with your bag of gold so you should get it.” So, in other words, the cheque-in-the-post phenomenon that underpins industry and business in this world is not a novel thing either.

And there are many, many, many subtle points which on their own if you take one, a person might say, “yeah well you never know, it’s an accident text, you never know what they’re really thinking, you never know what they’re really thinking but when you have them all together mixed up in your mind, you kind of do know what they’re really thinking.”

I think what combats this understanding, or at least my understanding, in this direction is a conviction that we are the apogee and then before us were the Victorians who primarily thought about sexual intercourse, and then before the Victorians were the Romans who primarily thought about underfloor heating and toilets, and before them are gorillas. But you know the Victorians were like us in every way, they were stilted about this and this and this but you know in a household how they were, and it doesn’t change because there is no moment when all of a sudden all people evolve, they don’t. Now I think from a political point of view you could argue that we’re going backwards.

How are the studies of cuneiform and the ancient literature of the region being shaped in the post-Saddam era?

Well, the post-Saddam era is something whose full nature it won’t be possible to understand until more time has gone by. There was massive destruction archaeologically then Sadam Hussein, theoretically so to speak, modelled himself on the great kings of Assyria. There are posters of him in his chariot like Nebuchadnezzar or Ashurbanipal hunting lions or shooting arrows at the enemy. And he, on placards and other media, tried to give the impression in this childlike way that he stepped into or out of their own great history and stood on the shoulders of giants.

So the massive destruction and cruelty and waste to which Iraq has been subjected is obviously common knowledge. In terms of cuneiform studies, cuneiform research, the first thing is that although we have a very large collection of tablets in the British museum from the 19th century and there are many other collections like the Louvre and the Met and Berlin where there are holdings of these resources even if you put all those together, the material which is in the museums of Iraq, but more importantly still under the ground in Iraq, is of uncountable volume because when you have an ancient culture which lasted for about 3,000 years with the literature written on clay, it’s not that one city here and one city over there had a bit of writing, literacy was universal and there must be tablets under the ground everywhere in the country by their millions.

So when you take a long term view, that resource is yet to be rescued or rather excavated long before there is any question of how to deal with it. So within Iraq now the antiquities departments in universities are climbing to their feet, students are doing research learning to read, learning archaeology, we have a programme here where Iraqis come twice a year. Groups of them for the latest up-to-date training in scientific techniques of excavation and so forth. So we do what we can to nurture this but there is an upcoming number of young persons including people who can read cuneiform script who will, in due course, have their own students and hopefully when things become more peaceful, the harvesting can begin of this unimaginable richness.

This interview is being published in several parts. In the coming parts Dr Finkel will be talking about the sheer volume of ancient material written thousands of years ago in cuneiform on clay tablets still to be translated His period as President of The Coracle Society The time he built a half-sized replica of the Ark described in his discovery The best source for the best bitumen and Whether Noah had a beard.


Watch the video: Cracking Ancient Codes: Cuneiform Writing - with Irving Finkel (December 2022).

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