Decoding the Story of the Flood
Deep within the British Museum is the Arched Room, a soaring vaulted hall lined with shelves of cubbyholes. This is where the cuneiform tablets are kept and it feels rather like the Holy of Holies. I’ve only been once, but that single visit impressed me mightily: not just the architecture, but the hushed air of industry as scholars and students sat hunched over at the central line of desks, working away at deciphering these ancient fragments. Tablets might be business letters, court records or poetry. It’s an ongoing detective story and my brilliant Assyriologist colleagues never know what they’re going to turn up. In this book, the irrepressible Irving Finkel tells the story of the most exciting recent discovery, when a member of the public brought in a cuneiform tablet which offered fascinating new evidence about the story of the Ark and the Great Flood.
I’ve written about Finkel before, with reference to his story The Princess Who Wouldn’t Come Home, and the sense of humour in that charming little fable also enlivens this book. It’s a mixture of intense scholarly discussion, taking in linguistics, comparative philology, Assyriology and the finer details of Ancient Near Eastern history, and a buoyantly exuberant tale of discovery. It isn’t exactly a light poolside holiday read, but it is compelling. If anyone can convey the sheer thrill of cuneiform, it’s Finkel:
Cuneiform! The world’s oldest and hardest writing, older by far than any alphabet, written by long-dead Sumerians and Babylonians over more than three thousand years, and as extinct by the time of the Romans as any dinosaur. What a challenge! What an adventure!
The adventure here is to decipher the story of the Flood which appears on this previously unknown tablet. Much of the book is devoted to close comparison with other surviving early versions, such as the story of Utnapishti recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh; the considerably earlier Old Babylonian tale of Atra-hasīs; the tale of Nuh in the Quran; and, of course, the book of Genesis. Comparing these various accounts, often line by line, Finkel teases out what the new Ark Tablet has to say. And, along the way, he digresses cheerfully into fascinating little nuggets of Mesopotamian culture and history… and the development of cuneiform as the world’s first written script.
I remember the world history book that I had when I was little (which traumatised me with its illustration of the Royal Graves at Ur, but that’s another story), in which we were invited to try out making a cuneiform tablet with a slab of clay or play-dough and a pointy stick. I can’t remember whether I ever had a go, but I daresay my seven-year-old self would have been rather daunted by Finkel’s elaboration of what cuneiform actually involved. First, there were no spaces between words (he dismisses those who introduced the word-divider, at Ugarit in the 13th century BC, as ‘sissies!‘). Secondly, one sign might have multiple meanings, while you could use any one of several different signs to convey one syllabic sound.
There was also conventionally a mixture between signs used as logograms, to represent a whole thing (Finkel points out that the ‘jug’ sign in Sumerian cuneiform meant ‘kaš‘, i.e. ‘beer), and signs used to make syllable-sounds. (Image isolated from meaning, Finkel notes, is one of the major stages in conceptual development of written language.) Often it isn’t immediately clear which is which, until you understand the context. Plus, signs could be combined to make new signs. For example, the sign for ‘food’ within the sign for ‘mouth’ meant ‘to eat’. Oh, and just in case that wasn’t complicated enough, you’re often not entirely sure what language something is going to be in, because cuneiform was adapted to the various languages of the Middle East at the time. Indeed, the only kind of cuneiform script that I could (kind of) get my head around was the numbering, which seemed to make sense.
At this point, I quietly shelved my idea to get some play-dough and a pointy stick, and turned my attention to an important question. What did the Mesopotamians do for us? Yes, there’s the wheel and pottery and all that jazz, but Finkel points out that they have another major legacy, which I never realised. Ever wondered why there are sixty minutes in an hour or twelve hours in a day? Or why a circle has 360 degrees? Blame the Mesopotamians. They counted not in tens but in sixes. You could also, incidentally, argue that they invented the envelope: personal letters were often dispatched in the form of clay tablets tucked within an outer clay shell. From the fragments of letters that survive, we get an impression of people not all that different from us in their everyday concerns, and Finkel points out that only thirty-five generations separate us from the age of Nebuchadnezzar, which really isn’t that long in the greater scheme of things.
So what was so exciting about the Ark Tablet? Unlike all the other versions Finkel explores, there are several key points: it makes it clear that the Babylonian Ark, at least, was round. (Finkel does not, I hasten to add, argue that there was a Flood and an Ark and so forth. He’s interested in the transmission of a legend, not in establishing reality.) Moreover, it offers the earliest surviving evidence for the animals entering the Ark ‘two by two‘. And, most excitingly of all, it gives instructions for building the Ark, including figures. Finkel does what any of us would be tempted to do in these circumstances. He calls in a mathematician friend, discovers to his amazement that the measurements are completely plausible, and then gets involved in a plan to build the Ark. Although a full-size replica (which would’ve covered half a football pitch) turns out to be impractical, Finkel and co plunge on with a slightly scaled-down version, based partly on the round coracles used on the Tigris and Euphrates from time immemorial, and partly on the vaulted reed huts used until the early 20th century by the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq. It’s rather fabulous – which got me through the occasionally excessive detail about bitumen and the correct equivalents of ancient Babylonian measurements.
Along the way we swerve off into amusing side-anecdotes which help to bring a very obscure civilisation back to life. My favourite was Finkel’s unveiling of a mystic Babylonian spell, no doubt sold at great expense and made up of apparent mumbo-jumbo which was meant to have great truck with demons. It turns out that the Babylonians had borrowed some impressive-sounding Elamite words from over the border in Iran. Thanks to work on earlier cuneiform tablets, we now know these were not spells of great power, but in fact the name of a particular dog-handler who probably came from Elam to Sumer in about 2000 BC. Somehow his name made an impression and its unthinking transmission down through the centuries, as a remedy for demons, reminds me of the perils of copying and pasting from Wikipedia without checking the source material first. Nothing, it seems, is new.
This was definitely an enjoyable read. Finkel is a very engaging guide, half-scholar, half-schoolboy, but he doesn’t pull his punches with the academic stuff. There are lists, transcriptions and cross-referencing between different fragments of Flood legends. There are also appendices which interrogate the text in greater detail and explain the mathematics used to judge the practicality of the Ark Tablet’s instructions. Your tolerance for such stuff will probably depend on a) your enthusiasm for archaeology or linguistics; or b) whether you admit to being a total geek. I can’t handle any alphabet except my own, and I don’t expect to be able to do so in the future, but I am a geek and thus completely able to appreciate the thrill of having the curtain whisked away to reveal, if only for a moment, some of the mysteries of cuneiform.
I’m going to have to find my way back into the Arched Room soon. And I expect that cuneiform will rear its head again in the not too distant future, as the British Museum is planning a forthcoming exhibition on the great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal – the obsessive bibliophile and assembler of the world’s first ‘universal’ library.
Finkel and the boat-builders on board their 1/5th-scale model of the Ark, built to the Ark Tablet’s specifications.