Ancient History & Civilisation


Conclusions: Stories and Shapes

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

With a cargo of ivory,

And apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine.

John Masefield

I think it is only fair to offer anyone who has actually been reading this book a summary in one place of the conclusions I have reached about the transmission of the Flood Story and the evolving forms of the Ark as a result of these various investigations.

First, as has been widely accepted, the iconic story of the Flood, Noah and the Ark as we know it today certainly originated in the landscape of ancient Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. In a river-dependent land where flooding was a reality and disastrous destruction always remembered, the story was all too meaningful. Life, always at the mercy of the gods, surviving against all odds by means of a single vessel whose crew, human and animal, withstood the cataclysm to repopulate the world. The story in its earliest form must go back, far beyond any writing, into the very distant past, rooted in their circumstances and integral to their very basic existence.

In Mesopotamian terms, the remote world as it existed before the Flood was visualised as the unchanging landscape of the southern Iraqi marshes, where houses and boats were made of reed, and where, to build a lifeboat, the one could easily be recycled as the other. Here, as I see it, the boat type for the early story was naturally long and narrow, high in prow and stern, efficient in movement along the shallow waterways. Larger boats with that basic ‘almond’ shape were known in Sumerian as a magur; the huge version needed in flood circumstances had to be a super magurgur.

In the written accounts from the early second millennium BC we encounter two traditions about the shape of the Ark, which sprang from a common ancestor. At Nippur in southern Iraq the original reed magurgur tradition persisted unquestioned. Elsewhere, however, we see, starting with the clear description provided by the Ark Tablet, that the Ark was a much more practical and appropriate kind of boat, the round coracle. Coracles were not used in the marshes, but were very common on the heartland rivers, especially the Euphrates, as a water taxi that could transport people, livestock and materials from one side to the other with no fear of sinking. Boats of this kind were not made from reed but from coiled palm-rope, being effectively a great basket waterproofed all over. Coracles came in all manner of sizes; the one to do the job for Atra-hasīs would break all records.

I argue, therefore, that the traditional understanding of the boat plan changed from magur (long and thin) to coracle (big and round). Evidence is not plentiful; from the second millennium BC we only have two other cuneiform descriptions of the Ark beyond that in the Ark Tablet, but both of these – as we can now see – thought of the boat as round, and I see this process as representing an old-fashioned prototype superseded by modern improvement.

Transmission in the early second millennium BC was as much oral as written; in the hands of front-line performers or narrators, such a change in ark model would be natural: it produced better sense and a better story for their listeners. That this change from the ancient idea did come about does not surprise me at all; one relevant factor is that itinerant storytellers would probably usually work with riverside populations for whom the Ark had to be a credible and functional vessel, and a coracle would be just the job, as everyone knew.

Atra-hasīs’s round Ark had a base area of 3,600 m2 and one deck.

The only other description of a cuneiform ark available to us is the one in the classical Gilgamesh story. Here we are presented with an ark that embodies two important innovations: one, it is neither an almond-magur nor a round coracle but a cube with walls of equal length and height; two, this is an ark that to the practical Mesopotamian mind would never work adrift on the bosom of the floodwaters.

As already alluded to, and laid out below in Appendix 2, it is possible to understand how the underlying Old Babylonian coracle of circular plan in which ‘length’ and ‘breadth’ were equal could be interpreted in Late Assyrian Gilgamesh as a square plan, and how the Old Babylonian single deck could later develop into six decks, themselves divided into seven parts, sub-divided into nine. This double process is partly due to textual misunderstanding or adjustment, and partly to a kind of midrashic enthusiasm that had Utnapishti’s own iconic vessel blossom into something virtually unrecognisable, magnificent-sounding and practically dysfunctional. Nevertheless, the textual clues show that the narrative behind Utnapishti’s Ark in Gilgamesh certainly derived from the traditional Old Babylonian round coracle.

The next stage of the Flood and Ark story comes from the Book of Genesis. Comparison of the Hebrew text with Gilgamesh XI highlights such a close and multi-point relationship between the accounts that the dependence of one upon the other is unavoidable. I have thus maintained in this book what has often been proposed before: that the Hebrew text derives from and is predicated upon a cuneiform flood story forerunner or forerunners, but at the same time I have contributed the first explanation of the mechanisms that enabled that borrowing. In my view the Judaeans’ need for their own written history led them to incorporate certain Babylonian stories of early times for which their own traditions were inadequate. These stories had become accessible through the induction of their youthful intelligentsia into cuneiform writing and literature, whereby they encountered and read these stories in the original, as part of the curriculum. The process of literary adoption by the Judaeans imbued already-striking narratives with a fresh and independent moral quality, so that the Great Ages of Man, the Baby in the Coracle and the Story of the Flood experienced a new lease of life far beyond the moment that saw the final extinction of the venerable parent cuneiform traditions.

As we have seen, internal evidence has long been taken to reflect different strands of Hebrew within the biblical text as being the work of authors such as ‘J’ and ‘P’, and I have argued that differences between them with regard to the Flood Story are to be explained by distinct traditions within the cuneiform sources from which they are drawn, as in the case of the numbers of animals and birds to be taken on board. Not to be forgotten is one huge new component in this link: the Ark Tablet’s revelation that the animals went on board two by two, previously unknown in any cuneiform version and therefore considered to be an innovation in Genesis.

Comparison of Noah’s Ark with that of Utnapishti introduces the fourth shape, for Noah’s famous Ark is an oblong, coffin-shaped vessel of wood. When arguing for the close dependence of the Genesis Flood Story on the cuneiform heritage the contrast between Utnapishti’s cubic Ark (which is all we have for the first millennium BC), and Noah’s oblong Ark has previously been problematical and unexplained. Real boats of the Noah kind (described and photographed in the nineteenth century) are also numbered among the traditional river craft of the Land Between the Rivers, and evidence has been offered to identify such oblong craft with the Babylonian boat name ṭubbû, which surfaces, reshaped as Hebrew, in the Ark name tēvāh, assuming that the same kind of boat is meant by both. In terms of transmission we postulate that a practical oblong ṭubbû craft had already found its way into some cuneiform Flood Story (after the Utnapishti-type boat had been contemplated in some scribal circles and found implausible), and that it was this tradition which passed into Hebrew.

Since the whole description of Noah’s oblong Ark comes from Hebrew source J we cannot know whether the tradition about the shape in source P contained the same idea or something different. This would mean that the ṭubbû-barge was already a valid Babylonian tradition embedded in some version of the cuneiform Flood Story yet to be discovered and also that it was the one favoured by source J.

Most significant here is the fact that the area of the ground plan remained virtually unchanged despite the shifts in shape:

1. Atra-hasīs’s round coracle: 14,400 cubits2 (1 ikû).

2. Utnapishti’s cube: 14,400 cubits2 (120 cubits × 120 cubits = 1 ikû)

3. Noah’s Ark: 15,000 cubits2 (300 cubits by 50 cubits = 1.04 ikû).

The Utnapishti Ark, despite restructuring a circular plan as a square, retains the same ‘starting’ size of ground plan as originally communicated by Enki to Atra-hasīs, for this was no doubt constant in Old Babylonian texts, on one of which it drew. This shift of circle to square, at first reminiscent of an awkward peg in the hole and hard to dismiss, is after all not so drastic: given that the Old Babylonian ‘length’ and ‘breadth’ terms were disassociated from defining the original circle they led naturally to a square, while the identical ground area of 14,400 cubits2 was retained.

What is more remarkable – and assuredly no coincidence – is that the base area of Noah’s Ark is virtually identical to that inherited from cuneiform (within 4 per cent) at 15,000 cubits2, revealing it unmistakably as a reworking of the same original Babylonian idea, to construct on the same basis a boat of another shape altogether, one typical of practical, heavy-duty, riverine cargo barges.

In this light, the procession from circle to square and square to oblong within a single continuum, at first indigestible and incompatible, becomes explicable, and to my mind reinforces the linear descent from cuneiform into Hebrew, the tracing of which represents the core of the present work.

Seldom has it been that a single cuneiform tablet could engender an entire book. The Ark Tablet is so extraordinary that it leads of its own accord to myriad enquiries to which new answers have to be supplied. I close these pages dedicated to decoding the immortal Story of the Flood in the hope that, in doing my best, I have at least launched an idea or two on a voyage of their own.

The author aged 9, in Exeter Museum, talking for the first time about becoming a British Museum curator.

(picture acknowledgement i1)

The Arched Room library in the Middle East Department of the British Museum, where 130,000 cuneiform tablets are housed.

(picture acknowledgement i2)

Professor W. G. Lambert, as encountered by the author in September 1969.

(picture acknowledgement i3)

Leonard Simmons in Egypt, at the time he was collecting curios, among which this Christmas card can be included.

(picture acknowledgement i4)

Douglas Simmonds as a boy with the cast of Here Come the Double Deckers.

(picture acknowledgement i5)

Douglas Simmonds with a Mesopotamian hero in the Louvre.

(picture acknowledgement i6)

The Ark Tablet, front view.

(picture acknowledgement i7)

The Ark Tablet, back view.

(picture acknowledgement i8)

A Sumerian reed hut, or mudhif, as depicted on a stone trough of about 3000 BC.

(picture acknowledgement i9)

The characteristic and timeless landscape of the southern marshes in modern Iraq.

(picture acknowledgement i10)

Reeds, water, man and livestock in harmony in a 1974 photograph taken in the southern Iraqi marshes.

(picture acknowledgement i11)

Coracles in use, Iraq, 1920s.

(picture acknowledgement i12)

The coracle to capture the imagination of boys as part of the Churchman cigarette card set entitled Story of Navigation.

(picture acknowledgement i13)

An artist’s impression of ancient Assyrian riverside life.

(picture acknowledgement i14)

A model of a traditional coracle from Iraq; the bead and shells are to promote good luck and are also found on full-size coracles.

(picture acknowledgement i15)

A seventeenth-century view of the animals waiting patiently to embark, by the Flemish painter Jacob Savery.

(picture acknowledgement i16)

This sixteenth-century drawing by Hermann tom Ring gives a good idea of the practicalities involved when it actually came to boarding.

(picture acknowledgement i17)

The flood as depicted by Frances Danby, first exhibited in 1840, and a striking canvas.

(picture acknowledgement i18)

An Ottoman Turkish miniature with the prophet Nuh in his Ark.

(picture acknowledgement i19)

Noah sends out his raven and his first dove in a mosaic from St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, eleventh-century.

(picture acknowledgement i20)

The Tower of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, as visualised by an unknown sixteenth-century Flemish painter.

(picture acknowledgement i21)

The Babylonian mušhuššu dragon, sacred to the God Marduk, that bedecked King Nebuchadnezzar’s royal walls at Babylon, probably modelled on a giant and carnivorous monitor lizard.

The traditional view of the Judaeans grieving at Babylon, as described in Psalm 137. But, as shown in this book, much happened after the first tears dried …

(picture acknowledgement i23)

The Babylonian Map of the World, front view: the world’s oldest usable map.

(picture acknowledgement i24)

The Babylonian Map of the World, back view: an old photograph of the hard-to-read triangle descriptions.

The profile of Mount Pir Omar Gudrun, near Kirkuk, northern Iraq.

(picture acknowledgement i26)

An eternal icon: a rainbow over Mt. Ararat hidden by storm clouds; seen from Dogubeyazit, Turkey.

(picture acknowledgement i27)

Gertrude Bell’s view from Mt. Cudi Dagh.

(picture acknowledgement i28)

The twin peaks of Mt. Ararat, irresistible to romantic painters.

(picture acknowledgement i29)

(picture acknowledgement i30)

The author battling with broken Ark Tablet signs in the British Museum.

(picture acknowledgement i31)

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