Ancient History & Civilisation


The Ark Tablet

And Noah he often said to his wife

When he sat down to dine,

“I don’t care where the water goes

If it doesn’t get into the wine.”

G.K. Chesterton

Some wonderful cuneiform tablets have come to light for the Mesopotamian Flood detective since George Smith’s day. Everyone is interested in them and all Assyriologists keep their eye out for pieces of cuneiform that might start off ‘Wall! Wall … !’. Texts of this exalted literary quality, either excavated on archaeological sites or identified in museum collections, have usually been quickly published and translated into one or more modern languages; the interested reader has always been able to find them and see what they have to offer. Such documents are of concern to the widest possible readership: culturally their content belongs to the world at large.

We come now to the Flood Story tablet that has led to the writing of this book and which it has been my good fortune to publish here for the first time. The tablet, like many documents of its period, is designed to fit comfortably in the reader’s hand; it is much the same size and weight as a contemporary mobile phone.

Let us recap the important details.

The Ark Tablet was written during the Old Babylonian period, broadly 1900–1700 BC. The document was not dated by the scribe, but from the shape and appearance of the tablet itself, the character and composition of the cuneiform signs and the grammatical forms and usages, we can be sure that this is the period in which it was written. It was composed in Semitic Babylonian, that is Akkadian, in a literary style. The hand is smallish and neat and that of a fully trained cuneiform scribe whose name, unfortunately, is not recorded on the tablet. The text has been written out very ably without error and for a specific purpose; it is certainly not a school practice tablet from a beginner, or anything of that kind. It measures 11.5 × 6.0 cm and contains exactly sixty lines.

The front (or obverse) is in fine condition and virtually everything can be read and translated. The back (or reverse) is damaged in the middle of most lines, with the result that not everything there can be read now, although much of substantial importance can be deciphered; some parts are simply missing altogether and other parts are very badly worn. The tablet has at some time been fragmented in several pieces and has evidently been fired and assembled in modern times by a competent ceramic conservator. The Ark Tablet arrived in Great Britain in 1948 in the possession of Mr Leonard Simmonds and was given to his son Mr Douglas Simmonds in 1974. Throughout the time of writing it has been resident in the author’s desk at the British Museum, which has allowed repeated checking of the signs and renewed attempts at incomplete words and signs.

The Ark Tablet is of colossal importance for the history of the Flood Story both in cuneiform and biblical Hebrew, and is among the most significant inscriptions ever to come to light on a clay tablet, for the reasons discussed in the following chapters. The narrative quotes verbatim speeches by the god Ea and the man Atra-hasīs, the heroic Babylonian equivalent of Noah, concerning what is about to happen and what he must do. It concludes at the point when Atra-hasīs’s shipwright seals the door behind him before the waters come. We proceed with a straightforward translation of the original Babylonian text of the Ark Tablet into English.

The Ark Tablet, front view: how to build an ark, hands on.

(picture acknowledgement 5.1)

On the front of the tablet we read:

“Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!

Atra-hasīs, pay heed to my advice,

That you may live for ever!

Destroy your house, build a boat;

Spurn property and save life!

Draw out the boat that you will make

On a circular plan;

Let her length and breadth be equal,

Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high.

You saw kannu ropes and ašlu ropes/rushes for [a coracle before!]

Let someone (else) twist the fronds and palm-fibre for you!

It will surely consume 14,430 (sūtu)!”

“I set in place thirty ribs

Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long;

I set up 3,600 stanchions within her

Which were half (a parsiktu-vessel) thick, half a nindan high;

I constructed her cabins above and below.”

“I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her outsides;

I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her interior;

I had (already) poured out one finger of bitumen onto her cabins;

I caused the kilns to be loaded with 28,800 (sūtu) of kupru-bitumen

And I poured 3,600 (sūtu) of iṭṭû-bitumen within.

The bitumen did not come to the surface [lit. up to me]; (so) I added five fingers of lard,

I ordered the kilns to be loaded … in equal measure;

(With) tamarisk wood (?) (and) stalks (?)

… (= I completed the mixture).

On the lower edge, only parts of two of the four lines can be deciphered:

Going between her ribs;

the iṭṭû-bitumen

On the other side we read:

“I applied (?) the outside kupru-bitumen from the kilns,

Out of the 120 gur-measures, which the workmen had put to one side.”

The Ark Tablet, back view, showing the kind of damage that can happen to the best of tablets.

(picture acknowledgement 5.2)

“I lay myself down (?) … of rejoicing

My kith and kin [went into] the boat … ;

Joyful … of my in-laws,

And the porter with … and …

They ate and drank their fill.”

“As for me there was no word in my heart, and

… my heart

… my …

… of my …

… of my lips

… I slept with difficulty;

I went up on the roof [and prayed] to the moon god Sin, my lord:

‘Let my heartbreak (?) be extinguished! [Do you not disap]pear!’

             … darkness;

Into my …’

Sin, from his throne, swore as to annihilation

And desolation on (the) darkened [day (to come)].”

“But the wild animals from the steppe [(…)]

Two by two the boat did [they enter] …”

“I had … five of beer …

They were transporting eleven or twelve …

Three measures of šiqbum … ;

One-third (measure) of fodder … and kurdinnu plant (?).”

“I ordered several times (?) a one-finger (layer) of lard for the girmadû roller,

Out of the thirty gur which the workmen had put to one side.”

“When I shall have gone into the boat,

Caulk the frame of her door!”

A very dramatic moment to stop!

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