4,000 Year-Old Tablet Reveals New Details About Noah’s Ark

The 4000 year old clay tablet containing the story of the Ark and the flood stands on display at the British Museum in London during the launch of the book 'The Ark Before Noah' by Irving Finkel, curator in charge of cuneiform clay tablets at the British Museum, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. The book tells how he decoded the story of the Flood and offers a new understanding of the Old Testament's central narratives and how the flood story entered into it. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

The 4000 year old clay tablet containing the story of the Ark and the flood.

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.”

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