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British Museum: Prototype for Noah's Ark was round

LONDON (AP) -- It was a vast boat that saved two of each animal and a handful of humans from a catastrophic flood.

But forget all those images of a long vessel with a pointy bow - the original Noah's Ark, new research suggests, was round.

A recently deciphered 4,000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia - modern-day Iraq - reveals striking new details about the roots of the Old Testament tale of Noah. It tells a similar story, complete with detailed instructions for building a giant round vessel known as a coracle - as well as the key instruction that animals should enter "two by two."

The tablet went on display at the British Museum on Friday, and soon engineers will follow the ancient instructions to see whether the vessel could actually have sailed.

It's also the subject of a new book, "The Ark Before Noah," by Irving Finkel, the museum's assistant keeper of the Middle East and the man who translated the tablet.

Finkel got hold of it a few years ago, when a man brought in a damaged tablet his father had acquired in the Middle East after World War II. It was light brown, about the size of a mobile phone and covered in the jagged cuneiform script of the ancient Mesopotamians.

It turned out, Finkel said Friday, to be "one of the most important human documents ever discovered."

"It was really a heart-stopping moment - the discovery that the boat was to be a round boat," said Finkel, who sports a long gray beard, a ponytail and boundless enthusiasm for his subject. "That was a real surprise."

And yet, Finkel said, a round boat makes sense. Coracles were widely used as river taxis in ancient Iraq and are perfectly designed to bob along on raging floodwaters.

"It's a perfect thing," Finkel said. "It never sinks, it's light to carry."

Other experts said Finkel wasn't simply indulging in book-promotion hype. David Owen, professor of ancient Near Eastern studies at Cornell University, said the British Museum curator had made "an extraordinary discovery."

Elizabeth Stone, an expert on the antiquities of ancient Mesopotamia at New York's Stony Brook University, said it 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 said. "Coracles are not unusual things to have had in Mesopotamia."

The tablet records a Mesopotamian god's instructions for building a giant vessel - two-thirds the size of a soccer field in area - made of rope, reinforced with wooden ribs and coated in bitumen.

Finkel said that on paper (or stone) the boat-building orders appear sound, but he doesn't yet know whether it would have floated. A television documentary due to be broadcast later this year will follow attempts to build the ark according to the ancient manual.

The flood story recurs in later Mesopotamian writings including the "Epic of Gilgamesh." These versions lack the technical instructions - cut out, Finkel believes, because they got in the way of the storytelling.

"It would be like a Bond movie where instead of having this great sexy red car that comes on, somebody starts to tell you about how many horsepower it's got and the pressure of the tires and the capacity of the boot (trunk)," he said. "No one cares about that. They want the car chase."

Finkel is aware his discovery may cause consternation among believers in the Biblical story. When 19th-century British Museum scholars first learned from cuneiform tablets that the Babylonians had a flood myth, they were disturbed by its striking similarities to the story of Noah.

"Already in 1872 people were writing about it in a worried way - What does it mean that Holy Writ appears on this piece of Weetabix?" he joked, referring to a cereal similar in shape to the tablet.

Finkel has no doubts.

"I'm sure the story of the flood and a boat to rescue life is a Babylonian invention," he said.

He believes the tale was likely passed on to the Jews during their exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. And he doesn't think the tablet provides evidence the ark described in the Bible existed. He said it's more likely that a devastating real flood made its way into folk memory, and has remained there ever since.

"I don't think the ark existed - but a lot of people do," he said. "It doesn't really matter. The Biblical version is a thing of itself and it has a vitality forever.

"The idea that floods are caused by sin is happily still alive among us," he added, pointing out a local councilor in England who made headlines recently for saying Britain's recent storms were caused by the legalization of gay marriage.

"Had I known it, it would have gone in the preface of the book," Finkel said.

Join the discussion

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Paul January 28 2014 at 5:27 AM

I wonder if the new Russell Crowe movie will show those mighty men those The Nephilim, Hollywood? Don’t think so...Be cool if they did.

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LoiriamJimenez January 27 2014 at 5:49 PM

Genesis 7:2-3 mention more than two animals.

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cliffy934 January 27 2014 at 4:48 PM

I think at one time, everyone thought the earth was flat. How many centuries went buy before we found out it was round.

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2 replies
troyjrjackson cliffy934 January 27 2014 at 4:54 PM

the bible clearly says the earth was round but, no one took notice of the writing.

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woodpiggy cliffy934 January 27 2014 at 5:01 PM

Interesting, then, that in the Bible, Isaiah 40:22 refers to "the circle of the earth".

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mrkite129 January 28 2014 at 12:36 AM

Over 20 years ago I read how the Biblical ark story arose from Mesopotamian parables which predate Judaism. The super-sized round raft is new to me but the rafts in the parables I read about 20 years ago were round. I guess if you live long enough everything old is new again.

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pup274 January 28 2014 at 12:14 AM

If I was around at that time, I would have definitely booked tickets for that cruise. Round, square or what ever, as long as it floated.

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lundenburgj January 28 2014 at 12:09 AM

Trooper Jay here with insight. The bible clearly states a pair of each kind of unclean animal, seven pairs of each kind of clean animal (later used in sacrifice and for food once meat was given to man to eat after the rainbow covenant was instituted), and seven pairs of all birds. Food for thought. Please read the bible thoroughly before commenting. Additonal point, it states a pair as a "sire and it's mate" . It does not state "sire and it's mates" as a male and six or seven females.

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2 replies
missler lundenburgj January 28 2014 at 1:04 AM

Finally someone who knows their BIBLE.
Do you know the importance of the 4th commandment and how it was changed? Rev 14:12 keep the commanments of GOD and have the testamony of Jesus Christ.

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freeenquirer lundenburgj January 28 2014 at 1:06 AM

Did Noah keep all the Pterodactyls in the same compartment with the bluebirds, sparrows and seahawks?

Did they keep TWO Tyrannosaurus rex in the same compartment as the Two Elephants, Two AMARGASAURUS and TWO Masiakasaurus in the same compartment as the elephants, and hippos and water buffalos, and the TWO TUOJIANGOSAURUS ..... or ....we the Pterodactyls kept in the same compartment as these animals?

Man ... that must have been One HUGE Ark to hold all those dinosaurs.

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tangledweb1027 January 28 2014 at 12:03 AM

Since the origins of the Jewish people is Ur of the Chaldees (Iraq), it's likely that the story of the flood was always a part of the lexicon. In fact the story existed in the Bible before the Babylonian exile. Another instance of shoddy reporting.

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Dude January 27 2014 at 5:48 PM

I would assume that there have been many large floating vessels constructed through history. Supposing a written description of any one just happens to be the vessel commonly referred to as Noah's ark is naive at best and arrogant at worst. Anyone familiar with animal husbandry would know if you wanted to transport animals for commerce, "two by two" would be the preferred method as one of each sex is required for herd building. I'm sure countless animal "couples" have been moved about in gazillions of large watercraft through time. Claiming to have discovered what Noah's ark was "really" like is saying you have discovered what unicorn horns were "really" like.

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NomadBud January 27 2014 at 7:39 PM

Well dont that dump yer hat in the creek .

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amadeus555 January 27 2014 at 11:35 PM

The Hebrews have a flood story, the Mesopotamians have a flood story. But flood stories abound -- the Greeks, the Aztecs, early Native Americans, even (if memory serves) the Chinese. The Greeks suggest that said flood was due to the sinking of Atlantis......go with that for a moment.... Atlantis would, by description, have been perhaps the size of a small continent, the sinking of which, probably through tectonic activity, would have resulted in a horrific tsunami. Whether or no, it remains that many early civilizations have a flood story, which fact lends credence to a massive flood. Would it not make sense then that as well there would have been more than one "ark"? Noah may have been but one of a handful to have been inspired, Devinely as likely as not, to build a very large boat and rescue as much of the local flora and fauna as could be managed.

If the above is the case, then neither the Biblical record nor the Mesopotamian record would be in conflict each with the other, but would rather serve as independent witness to verify the event.

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