10 September 2018


Irving Finkel. The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. Doubleday, 2014.

In 1969 a young Irving Finkel went to Birmingham University with a copy of Egyptian Grammar under his arm. Unfortunately, after delivering just one lecture, the college’s Egyptologist dropped dead. 
Unable to procure a new teacher of hieroglyphs at short notice, the university head suggested that Finkel and three young women study cuneiform, or wedge-writing, for the time being. He quickly became hooked on Assyriology, and in due course became a keeper of Mesopotamian artefacts at the British Museum.

There are a huge number of cuneiform tablets that have been dug up in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), 130,000 in the British Museum alone, most of which still await proper examination. Moreover, there are many in private hands, and this is where Finkel’s story really begins. Leonard Simmonds, who was stationed in the Near East with the RAF around the end of World War Two, assembled a collection of antiquities which included cylinder seals and clay tablets from Mesopotamia. He bequeathed them to his son Douglas, who at the beginning of the 1970s had been a well known child actor, playing Doughnut, the fat boy in the BBC comedy series Here Come the Double Deckers. Nowadays, I suppose, the health fascists would not permit such a character, and since Simmonds died when only in his early fifties they might have a point here.

Anyway, one day in 1985 Douglas Simmonds brought some of his father’s items for Finkel’s identification and explanation. “This in itself was nothing out of the ordinary, as answering public enquiries has always been a standard curatorial responsibility, and an exciting one to boot, for a curator never knows what might come through the door (especially where cuneiform tablets are involved).” Finkel recognised at once that one of them was a previously unknown version of the Babylonian Flood story. Simmonds, however, did not see any significance in this, and insisted on taking all his items away again. It was not until 2009 that Finkel was able to persuade him to lend it to him for proper study.

Since 1872 it has been known that there were Mesopotamian versions of the Flood legend that are too similar to that in the Book of Genesis for coincidence. These were in both Babylonian and Sumerian, the equivalent of Noah being variously known as Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, or, in the case of this particular tablet, Atraharsis. This raises, naturally, a controversial question: which is older?

Clifford Wilson’s Crash Go The Chariots, 1972, is ostensibly a critique of Erich von Däniken, but above all else it is intended as an affirmation of the inerrancy of the Bible. Admitting that both the Biblical and cuneiform versions of the legend feature identical details, such as the hero sending out a raven and a dove to see if the flood waters have subsided, he asserted of the Mesopotamian ones “that none of them pre-date the Biblical record which is now recognised as the oldest of all these record.” Finkel does not agree, and says flatly that “cuneiform flood literature is by a millennium the older of the two”.

The most interesting feature of the Simmonds tablet is that it contains instructions for building the Ark. These state clearly that is should be round. This ought to excite those ufologists who have always maintained that Noah’s Ark was really a huge flying saucer. Finkel, however, does observe that it was, according to this description, merely a larger version of the boats used in central Iraq, at least until recently, which are small round coracles. -- Gareth J. Medway.

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