Noah's Ark: Round?

A newly deciphered tablet offers new hints about the shape of an ancient vessel.
Irving Finkel, a curator of Middle Eastern objects at the British Museum, demonstrates the cuneiform on a newly deciphered tablet. (AP/Sang Tan)

Today, a new object has been put on display at the British Museum: a tablet, light brown, covered in cuneiform script. The piece is approximately 4,000 years old, and approximately the size of a smartphone. It was discovered in modern-day Iraq—ancient Mesopotamia—and, upon deciphering, it seems to tell a story that will be familiar to many: that of a boat that will help a man to survive a flood. Imentions animals, and specifies that they should enter the boat "two by two." 

Except the vessel in question isn't a boat—at least, not in the way we tend to think of boats. 

The tablet at the British Museum offers instructions (delivered, in this case, from a Mesopotamian god) for building a vessel. It would be made of woven rope, and then reinforced with wooden ribs. It would be coated, to seal it from the water, in bitumen. It would be, in area, two-thirds the size of a soccer field. And it would be ... round. 

The tablet gives instructions, in other words, for building a coracle: a large, round vessel. Coracles look something like this: 

This is what a coracle looks like. (Wikimedia Commons)

The discovery and deciphering of the tablet was done by Irving Finkel, the assistant curator of Middle East exhibits at the British Museum. (A few years ago, a man who had acquired the tablet from his father—who had in turn acquired it from the Middle East after World War II—brought it to him.) "It was really a heart-stopping moment—the discovery that the boat was to be a round boat," Finkel told the AP. "That was a real surprise."

He also notes, though, that a rotund vessel would have made sense in the context of the tablet. Coracles were used in ancient Iraq as river taxies. They were, given their construction materials, light to transport. Their shape gave them stability against shifting currents and, when necessary, floodwaters. 

Finkel is writing a book about the discovery, but the AP is quick to point out that other experts back up his ark-aeological work. Elizabeth Stone, an expert on ancient Mesopotamia at Stony Brook University, says it would have made sense that ancient Mesopotamians would depict their mythological ark as round. ("People are going to envision the boat however people envision boats where they are," she put it.) And David Owen, professor of ancient Near Eastern studies at Cornell, says that Finkel has made, with his tablet, "an extraordinary discovery."

The discovery might also be a controversial one. Later Mesopotamian writings, including the "Epic of Gilgamesh," feature flood stories; when scholars in the 19th century first discovered this similarity, they were alarmed at the tales' similarity to the story of Noah. Finkel, for his part, thinks the flood story was passed on to the Jews while they were in exile in Babylon during the 6th century BC. He also doesn't claim that the tablet he has deciphered offers evidence of the existence of the ark described in the Bible; he believes, instead, that a destructive flood "made its way into folk memory, and has remained there ever since."

Regardless. Someone, somewhere, gave instructions for boat-building, and those instructions live on in our texts. The next step? Build it, and see what comes. A team of engineers now plans to follow the instructions contained within the museum's Mesopotamian tablet. Their plan? To see whether an ancient ark coracle, its dimensions and building materials detailed on a tablet, could actually have sailed.

Via the Associated Press

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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