Irving Finkel, assistant keeper of the Middle East at the British Museum in London, has recently deciphered the text of a 3,700 year-old Babylonian tablet. He claims it is the original version of the Noah’s Ark story.
According to Mr. Finkel, the Hebrew scholars most likely encountered these texts during their Babylonian exile. “This turned out to be one of the most important human documents ever discovered.” he said on Friday.
Mr. Finkel went on to say, "It was really a heart-stopping moment, the discovery that the boat was to be a round boat. That was a real surprise."
The tablet tells the story of a massive flood that destroys the earth. It goes on to say that the animals should be loaded onto the vessel two by two.
The story differs from Biblical scripture in its description of the ark. In this version there is a giant round vessel, two-thirds the size of a soccer field. In the book of Genesis, God commands Noah to build a longer vessel. Specific dimensions are provided and they are not round.
Finkel feels a round boat makes more sense. Coracles were widely used river boats in ancient Mesopotamia and are designed to bob along on raging floodwaters.
"It's a perfect thing," Finkel said. "It never sinks, it's light to carry."
The ancient tablet speaks of a Mesopotamian god's instructions for building the giant vessel. It was to be made of rope and reinforced with wooden ribs coated in bitumen.
This flood story recurs in a later and more familiar Mesopotamian story, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this version there is a lack of technical instructions. Mr. Finkel believes they were cut out because they got in the way of the storytelling.
The damaged tablet was brought to England by an airman returning from World War II. His son has loaned it to the British Museum. It will be on display along with an ancient Babylonian map of the world.
The descriptions in the flood tablet help explain the details of the map. It also describes the edge of the known world, where the ark was said to rest.
The clay tablet is light brown in color and about the size of a mobile phone. It is covered in cuneiform script, the text of ancient Mesopotamia.
Engineers hope to reconstruct the Ark following the ancient instructions. A television documentary due to be broadcast later this year will follow attempts to build the ark.
Finkel says he is aware his discovery may cause concern among believers in the Biblical story. In the 19th-century British Museum scholars first discovered other Babylonian cuneiform tablets describing a flood myth and they were disturbed by its striking similarities to the story of Noah at that time.