1 March 2014

I have been reading Irving Finkel’s book The ark before Noah, an account of his recent decoding of a Babylonian clay cuneiform tablet in the British Museum and dating from around 1750 BC, a tablet which gives a tantalising account of a flood ship built by Atrahasis in which animals went in by twos. It predates the Judean and Christian biblical Noah’s ark and flood by centuries and is the source of that story.

Finkel writes very engagingly; he has a deep knowledge and insight, what he writes about is scholarly and often technical, but he reads easily. The ark tablet is he says, “much the same size and weight of a contemporary mobile phone.” I heartily commend Finkel’s book.

However, it isn’t only the ark tablet and the Mesopotamian flood stories that I wish to note. As part of the book Finkel discusses the imaginary accounts of which mountain the Mesopotamian ark came to rest on. This involves a study of the first ever map of the world, drawn on a clay tablet with explanatory cuneiform writing. The map shows Babylon and other cities and the Euphrates; an ocean circles them and beyond the water are mountains. This Babylonian map tablet probably dates to the ninth century BC though the ideas it portrays are probably much older. Its format precedes the T-O form of medieval maps.

Out of the lees of history, these fragments have happily survived to speak to us. Now here’s a thought. Whatever was going on in our Cornwall and Britain in the second and first millenniums BC, it wasn’t up there with writing and map drawing.

Irving FINKEL (2014) The ark before Noah. Editions: hardback Hodder and Stoughton; kindle