As a child going to church one of my favourite stories was the one about Noah. When I was about 10 someone even gave me a toy ark filled with pairs of little wooden animals which I played with for several years. Perhaps my affection for animals was originally aroused by this toy. Anyway, it is well-known that the Bible myth of the Flood and Noah is only one of several such myths from the ancient world, the oldest one being the Epic of Gilgamesh from which the Bible stories (there are actually two versions of it in Genesis) are derived.
Well, now they have found another such story. A newly translated ancient Babylonian clay tablet tells the story of a circular reed raft that saved all the animals from a great flood. The Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script at the British Museum, Irving Finkel, who translated the tablet, says of the ark’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. 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’. The tablet basically follows the well-known Gilgamesh and Biblical stories. The Noah equivalent is a legendary pre-flood Sumerian king Atram-Hasis. The god Enki tells the king, ‘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 build with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same’.
The tablet was found when Leonard Simmons, a history enthusiast serving with the Royal Air Force in Iraq from 1945 to 1948, obtained it along with much else. He bequeathed it to his son, Douglas, who described how his father got the ancient artefacts, ‘When my dad eventually came home, he shipped a whole tea chest of this kind of stuff home – seals, tablets, bits of pottery. 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’. When Douglas Simmons took the tablet to Finkel, one of the few people today who can read Babylonian cuneiform, he nearly fell of his chair when he recognized its significance. So now we know why all those ark-hunters have never been able to find the famous vessel. They have been searching for a boat-shaped object when they should have been looking for something circular. Of course, how all those animals were able to fit into a vessel, whether it be boat-shaped or round, remains to be answered.