Irving Finkel 2014. The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the story of the Flood. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 421 pp.

In 1872 an Assistant at the British Museum, George Smith, discovered the story of the Flood, more or less as described in the Book of Genesis, inscribed in cuneiform on a clay tablet found in Nineveh. The story of the Flood was known to the Assyrians and Babylonians more than a thousand years before the Bible. The Old Testament scooped by an even older clay testament. However, many questions remained unanswered, including how and when the story of the Flood was first told. Irving Finkel fills some of these gaps with the discoveries arising from decoding another cuneiform tablet, dating from about 1750 BC, brought to Finkel at the British Museum by a private owner. The Ark Before Noah tells the story.

The first few chapters are about cuneiform script and the languages that used it, the people who wrote and read it, various iterations of the flood story, and about the new Ark tablet. These are perhaps the most interesting parts of the book. Cuneiform script was used (mainly) by two languages: Sumerian (the older language) left no descendant languages. Akkadian led to, or at least influenced, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. The Code of Hammurabi is written in Akkadian. Both Sumerian and Akkadian had no living users by the time of the Romans. Their decoding was a modern puzzle, achieved mostly in the 1800s with the assistance of inscriptions of ancient Persian translated into cuneiform. The first use of written language was not to write early sonnets praising the beauty of sunsets, but to keep a tally of assets and document taxes. A vast number of tablets have been retrieved from Mesopotamia (130,000; most still unread since the time of their creation), and evidently enough are dated, or at least arranged chronologically, to observe the evolution of the language, for example co-opting of nouns for specific items to serve more abstract purposes, for example indefinite articles.

Thus, Akkadian fairly quickly evolved into a rich language from which we know much about the Babylonians: they liked to tell stories, especially about their myths and gods; they had dictionaries and libraries; they understood much medicine, and for example conducted cataract surgery (think about that when you complain about too many traffic lights); they played games; their level of literacy depended on need, on their place in society; they had magic, omens, mathematics (and seemed to consider them as one). They sound a lot like us.

Another snippet: Cuneiform cannot be written with the left hand (which would erase the preceding marks), probably explaining much subsequent attempted retraining, alienation and persecution of left-handed people even in more recently-derived languages.

After all that (and much more) in the introductory chapters, the story revealed by the Ark tablet is almost a postscript. The Ark tablet is not a narrative (other cuneiform sources tell that story, and show that the Babylonians knew it well). Instead it is a flood warning, and instructions on what to do about it: build a boat. A big one. Improbably big: according to the tablet, about half as big as a soccer pitch. The Ark was the world’s biggest coracle, skin covered and waterproofed with tar. The story eventually found it’s way into Hebrew. How? According to Irving Finkel that occurred following the military victory of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II over the Judeans, many of whom survived and became absorbed into Babylonian culture where they learned cuneiform and the Ark story. Subsequently they adopted the story when their own religion needed antecedent narratives for added credibility.

Irving Finkel has the splendid job descripton of curator of cuneiform at the British Museum. Even more enviably, he also works on the history of board games. Among other achievements this “hobby” project led him to decode the rules for the Royal Game of Ur, where he no doubt would have been very much at home (despite the lack of opportunities to wear corduroy). Irving Finkel’s book is a delight and by turn humorous and sympathetic to his long gone subjects. His is a very Zen attitude to cuneiform that is impossible not to warm to; in some sense he sees cuneiform as not really there at all, just a gap left in the clay by an ancient author, meaning derived not from the mark itself, but the shadow it casts. And he injects just enough of himself to personalise and quicken the book, yet never taking centre stage away from the ancient Babylonians themselves. And I cannot but relish a book that not only has endnotes and appendices, but endnotes to the appendices.

Relevant links:

Irving Finkel’s page at the British Museum.

Nineveh, in Mesopotamia, was one of the great cities of antiquity, and has an archaeological history dating from at least 3000 BC. After 637 AD it was replaced by Mosul, which is on the opposite bank of the Tigris River, in modern day Iraq. Numerous sackings and wars over many centuries left Nineveh in ruins, the modern battle by rival Islamic groups for Mosul is only the latest.).

The Royal Game of Ur.