A round ark, a square tablet, and a multifaceted curator of ancient texts
Hodder & Stoughton; £25
Review: Val Nolan
Does Irving Finkel have the best job in the world? Quite possibly. An Assyriologist and a curator of Mesopotamian artifacts at the British Museum, Finkel has been “happily reading cuneiform tablets every day now for about forty-five years”. He is responsible for sorting and translating the thousands of clay tablets and fragments held by the museum, “a jigsaw puzzle of ungovernable proportions”. And, every so often, he even finds himself part of an outlandish historical detective story such as this.
“Life as a cuneiformist is full of adrenalin moments,” Finkel says, but surely none more exciting than when a man named Douglas Simmonds, a former child actor, brought a mysterious tablet to the British Museum in search of a translation. Finkel immediately recognised the opening lines (“Wall, wall!”) as belonging to the story of Atra-Hasis, the Babylonian Noah. It took several years to persuade Simmonds to loan the artefact for study – a gap Finkel fills here with an entertaining account of his own education and career – but, when acquired, this so-called Ark Tablet prompted a reassessment of how Hebrew storytellers, who were led into Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC, eventually incorporated the local literature into their own.
The big takeaway from this volume is a precise physical description of the Babylonian craft which inspired the ark in The Book of Genesis. The shape of this vessel might not seem important but in fact it speaks to the role of the legend in world culture. There was no bow or stern as is typically imagined, no easily discerned start or finish to the story; instead it was a giant reed coracle, a round craft prefiguring the way in which the tale has been endlessly recycled through a series of literary borrowings stretching back through Hollywood, the Koran, and the Bible, all the way to the Epic of Gilgamesh and beyond.
That, really, is what Finkel’s book is all about: Following linguistic clues across Sumerian, Akkadian, Hebrew, and Greek texts in order to unravel how the flood story was transmitted down through time. The journey described is not simply of the Ark from launch to landfall but the dissemination of the narrative from one civilisation to the next. The result is a fascinating read and, moreover, terrific fun, with Finkel’s enthusiasm and expertise making him an ideal guide to the history of 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!”
Though Mesopotamian flood stories have been known to the west since 1872, the Ark Tablet is unique in that its author, like a Babylonian Tom Clancy, stresses precise technical specifications for his vessel. The measurements provided, Finkel says, are mathematically consistent with how a craft like this might actually be built. He sees them so as evidence of how the ark story emerged from an “authentic riverine Old Babylonian background”.
Indeed, the tale is emblematic of the culture from which it arose, a Mesopotamian society conscious of their dependence on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the fragility of civilisation in the face of the unforeseen. The strangeness of their script does not mean that the people themselves were very different. If anything, the opposite is true. The Ark Before Noah pivots on displays of recognisable hopes and fears in even the most ancient writings; on how the extant mass of cuneiform texts “are chock full of human ideas, for they represent the ways in which sentient individuals try to make sense of their world and cope with it”.
It is therefore to Finkel’s credit that life in Ancient Mesopotamia – the “Land Between Rivers” where floods were a regular occurrence – never feels all that distant from the present. Then as now, people carried tablets everywhere. They engaged in commercial disputes and, with “little in daily life immune from possible ominous significance,” they were as obsessed with prognostication as our own media often seems to be. Surviving texts reveal how diviners shouldered the responsibilities which today’s society assigns economists, as well as how their predictions were similarly “hedged around with uncertainty or escape mechanisms”.
Nonetheless, the kind of knowledge transmission found on tablets precludes the critical synthesis that “a modern person, or an ancient Greek, would take for granted”. Finkel’s Babylonians left little in the way of “statements of principle or theoretical summary”. No doubt they asked themselves philosophical or non-conformist questions, however they appear to have done so off-tablet, as it were. “Truly personal, spontaneous writing of any kind is exceptionally rare,” he says. Which is not surprising given the need to prepare clay before one began writing.
The onus is thus on the author to supply us with analysis, a task Finkel accomplishes without recourse to the distancing jargon of typical academic language. With sections on script, literature, political history, and shipbuilding, The Ark Before Noah, like its subject, contains a wide sampling of the distant past in one portable form. In the process it touches on the contribution of nineteenth century Irish cuneiformist Edward Hinks (“an unsung genius if ever there was one”) and, in the book’s thrilling closing act, builds upon new readings of the world’s oldest usable map to determine where the Babylonian ark is said to have come to rest.
The result is a lively primer on both the connections between ancient traditions and the enduring power of a good yarn. It comes heavily illustrated with photos, along with glossaries of cuneiform signs and a sizable appendix detailing how a coracle ark might actually be built. Armchair archaeologists are sure to find it a book which will float their boat.
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