Noah's Ark Was Round, Based On 4,000-Year-Old Mesopotamian Instructions That Are 'Mathematically Accurate'

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 28, 2014 9:03 AM EST

Model of Noah's Ark
This life-size replica of Noah's Ark was built by John Huibers, and resides in Dordrecht, The Netherlands. But based on new research, it may now be considered inaccurate. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Four thousand-year-old cuneiform instructions on how to build a round "Noah's ark" have turned out to be mathematically on-target, the British Museum curator who translated the text told the International Science Times Monday. A mathematician who analyzed the instructions on how to build a round ark determined that they were 99 percent accurate, said Dr. Irving Finkel, a curator of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts who has spent decades deciphering the tablet into which the plans were pressed. The plans were written as instructions from the Mesopotamian god Enki. 

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"The numbers given in this tablet made sense from a scientific view," Finkel said. "All the measurements make sense. None of it is made up." The mathematician's analysis appears in Finkel's new book, The Ark Before Noah, out Thursday in the UK. (Doubleday is issuing its American version later this year.) There's also a documentary film in the works, in which boat-builders will construct a coracle (a traditional round boat) according to the instructions.

The "round ark" would have been like a massive bowl of rope piled up in a complex manner on a scaffolding of willow ribs. One of the ancient instructions was for the length of rope needed for the construction of this type of boat. "I got the mathematician to work out how much rope is needed to make a boat that size, and the difference between the actual length of 527 kilometers specified by the god and the difference was negligible," he said. The god's instructions even included how long to cook the tar until it bubbled and become viscous, he added. That was correct also.

The tablet describes how the ancient Mesopotamian gods decided to wipe out humankind with a flood, almost on a whim because the humans were too noisy. Disapproving god Enki tipped off a Babylonian man, called Atra-hasism, instructing him to build a round Ark, the coracle. Indeed, coracles have been floating on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since ancient times, and were still a common sight on Iraq's waterways as late as the 1950s. And up until the 1930s, they were still being constructed out of willow, just as they were in ancient times.

Enki was a micro-manager, and gave detailed instructions involved making rope out of the pith of palm trees, then twisting the rope into the complex structure of the coracle. "The god who told Atra-hasis to build this boat gave him precise directions," Finkel said. The god stipulated that the coracle be built from about 534 kilometers (332 miles) of rope, girded by wooden ribs and vats of hot bitumen — an asphalt used in ancient times in Asia Minor as mortar — with which to waterproof the vessel. The result, with an area of 3,600 sq. meters — equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football field — and six-meter (almost 20 ft.) high walls was big enough, presumably, to carry and protect a family and a bunch of animals.

Indeed, Finkel told the International Science Times that he nearly swooned when he was finally able to decipher part of the cuneiform text enjoining that the animals should be brought in "two by two," making it the most ancient reference to that emblematic moment in what was later to become the Noah's ark story. The Babylonian flood story had already been discovered in the 1870s, in a seventh-century cuneiform tablet from Nineveh. But this one was about 2,250 years older. "In the story, Atra-hasis is told to take his family, wife and sons and daughters into the round ark," he said. "When I deciphered the part of the table that described how the animals went in two by two, it was quite an exciting matter because this was a new thing. I got so excited, I nearly had heart failure."

Finkel, who has been deciphering cuneiform, the stylus-driven written "script" of the Mesopotamians, since he was 18, was brought the tablet by in the 1980s by Douglas Simmonds. Simmonds had been given the tablet by his father as a reward for doing well on exams. Finkel set out to decipher it by fits and starts, taking it out of his desk drawer and poring over it whenever he had time, with a 10-year-long interruption when Simmonds took it back into his own possession. Finkel told the International Science Times that the joy of deciphering ever more of the tablets was at times unbearable. "I many times almost had a heart attack," he said.

Simmonds shared in that joy, and about five years ago, gave his treasured tablet back to Finkel to tackle yet again. "This time, he leant the tablet to me for as long as I need it. He was very excited about it, and gave me his blessing to do what I wanted. By the time he died in 2011 I had gotten most of the meaning out of the tablet, but not all. He lived to learn about 70 percent of significance of the tablet, but not that it was scientifically accurate," Finkel said.

Ancient Audiences Demand Story-tellers Keep it Real


Why would the story of Enki and Atra-hasis — a myth, after all — be so riven with realistic details? Finkel believes it's because ancient audiences demanded their story-tellers be as realistic as possible. The boatmen, fishermen, porters, and irrigators working on the Tiger and Euphrates rivers would have scoffed at a sketchy description of a round Ark, Finkel argued. "They all lived by the rivers and depended on the rivers," Finkel said. "In order to make this story go with a zing, they would need to get the real specifications."

In the Gilgamesh version of the flood, which comes about one thousand years later, people hearing the story are less interested in the details, Finkel argued. "It's like nowadays: You don't want to hear about James Bond's new motor car air pressure and amount of exhaust coming from it: You just want to know about the car."

There's long been a consensus amongst most antiquities scholars that Hebrews, as a conquered people living in Mesopotamia, would have ultimately forged the ancient flood myth into something uniquely their own, casting the capricious group of gods bent on flooding the earth because humans were irritating and noisy into a story about one disappointed God who decided to flood the earth because people were base and immoral. What's certain is that the story — whether experienced as myth or religion — definitely has staying-power.

Photo above courtesy of Shutterstock.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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