Thursday, October 08, 2015

Understanding An Ancient World

By reading cuneiform tablets, Dr. Irving Finkel, of the British Museum, has been able to understand the life and times of the Mesopotamian period

Photo of Dr. Irving Finkel is by Ratheesh Sundaram; a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet; a reed stylus which was used in those times 

By Shevlin Sebastian

A steady summer breeze is blowing. At the seashore, on Willingdon Island, Kochi, the silver hair of Dr. Irving Finkel is blowing about. But Finkel's mind is far away. In fact, it has gone three thousand years into the past. And that is no surprise.

The Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum has spent his entire life doing research about the ancient Mesopotamian civilisation. What has helped his research is the 1.3 lakh cuneiform tablets, written in the Babylonian language, at the British Museum, on which has been etched the life of those times.

There are letters between businessmen,” says Finkel. “One asks the other why he has not paid the money due to him. The people understood the difference between good and evil. And when a king took the throne for the first time, he published a statement stating that, unlike the previous ruler, he would be looking after the poor and the sick, and there would be safety on the roads.”

A smiling Finkel says that these are same promises that are being given now also. “The more time I spend in reading these inscriptions, the more it seems to me that nothing has changed in the world,” he says. “Human behaviour is the same.”

In fact, like now, in Babylon, most people had monogamous relationships. “For a marriage, a contract had to be signed, with witnesses,” says Finkel. “There were all sorts of lawyers. And the legal language was complicated, just like it is today.”

And, like the present, women also felt vulnerable. “If she failed to conceive, or produce a son, these could be sufficient grounds for divorce,” says Finkel, who had come to give a lecture at Kochi, on the invitation of the Kochi Muziris Biennale Foundation, the Association of British Scholars, Thiruvananthapuram & Kochi Chapters, and the British Council.

It is one of the miracles of nature that the tablets have lasted for thousands of years. But the documents were made very simply. “Cuneiform tablets are made of clay, taken from the banks of rivers, like the Tigris,” says Finkel. “They used a reed stylus to impress symbols on it. Afterwards, they put it outside, but not in direct sunlight, so that it became hard enough to handle safely.”

As for the size, it is amazingly like the dimensions of a smartphone. “It fits in the hand,” says Finkel. “The writers were well trained. They had a proverb: a good scribe follows the mouth. It meant that they could keep up with the speaker. And as for the reed stylus, it is tough and resilient. It has a sharp end. You can write at least ten tablets before you need to sharpen it.”

Like the stylus, Finkel has a sharp brain. So, one day, in 1997, when a 38-year-old man called Douglas Simmonds came into the Museum, and showed a cuneiform tablet, Finkel's eyes lit up. The tablet was given to Simmonds by his father, who had got it while serving in the Royal Air Force at Egypt during the Second World War.

Simmonds asked Finkel aabout the contents. “It is a story about a great flood, and how a king had told the people to build a large boat so that they could survive,” said Finkel.

Finkel's conclusion: the story of Noah's Ark and the Big Flood existed a long time before the events mentioned in the Bible. “The authors of the Bible were recycling an ancient story,” says Finkel.

And, interestingly, the boat in the Bible has been described as an oblong craft. However, most people often visualise Noah’s Ark, with a house on it, along with a high prow and stern. But on the tablet, it is described as a coracle, which is circular in design. “In fact, there are instructions on the tablet on how to make such a boat,” says Finkel. “It is 3,660 sq. m, with a wall of seven metres.”

Last year, on the Punnamada Lake, at Allapuzha, Finkel made a giant coracle, with the help of experienced boat-makers from Italy and local craftsmen, based on the instructions on the tablet. After a lot of trial and error, the boat was ready and Finkel was able to float it down the backwaters. So imagine Finkel's chagrin, that when he was passing by a houseboat, which contained a few Westerners, one of them shouted, “Oh look, there is Noah's ark.” However, Finkel says, in their defence, they could not see, from a sideways glance, that it was round.

Incidentally, in January, this year, Finkel published a book, called 'The Ark Before Noah - Decoding The Story Of The Flood'.

When you speak to him, there is no doubt about Finkel's passion for ancient history. And it happened by accident. He went to the University of Birmingham to study Egyptology. “But in the very first week, the professor dropped dead,” he says. “The head of the department called me and said it would take a year to find a replacement. He suggested that I knock on Prof. Wilfred G. Lambert's door and learn a bit of his Babylonian cuneiform. And when the University got an Egyptologist, I could come back.”

But Finkel never went back. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)


  1. If you read the Book of Mormon, which was translated from gold plates and is a written history and accounts gathered and written by ancient prophets in America, you will find that Noah’s Ark was not the only very large boat built and commanded of God to make. So the boat referring to in your article may not have been Noah’s Ark. There were other people In ancient times that came from that area of the world that did build similar vessels described in your article. It will be a very interesting comparison.

    1. Anonymous8:19 AM

      The Book of Mormon has no sense of literary, socio-cultural, or historical value when it comes to cross referencing it with much, much older texts. It is revisionist use of modern hindsight. The boat Dr. Finkel is referring to is of a symbolic element -- that the flood narrative harbors immense amounts of cultural and religious syncretism. By the time Joseph Smith created the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the flood narrative was understood (in the Christian West) by limited exegesis. The argument isn't that they are the same, just that the story influenced others like it down the line.