The Real Noah’s Ark; Tropic of Capricorn

The Real Noah’s Ark was about a 4000 year old cuneiform tablet which contains a version of the flood story that pre-dates the Jewish one. The tablet was a souvenir acquired in the Middle East by a soldier in 1948, and after his death his family brought it and other antiquities to the British Museum to see if they were of any interest. Irving Finkel, one of the curators who can read Akkadian cuneiform, recognised the story and started to translate & research it.

There were two strands to the narrative in the programme – one was about how the flood story may’ve made its way into the Jewish religious texts (and from there into Christian & Islamic texts). The other was about whether or not the ark as described on the tablet could’ve been built. The programme didn’t spend any time discussing any of the other flood myths found from this era and earlier – instead it was present almost as if the very idea that the flood myth existed before the Jewish bible was new. Which was a shame – I can see why they might’ve felt it made better telly, but it’s still not true. I would’ve liked some talk about how or why this particular one was special even if it just comes down to it being another telling that’s a bit closer in form to the Noah story as we know it.

The takeaway message for the first strand, how it came down to us, was that by the time the Jews were in exile in Babylon the flood story was a part of the curriculum in Babylonian schools. And whilst the Jews were there as forcibly exiled people they were also integrated into the Babylonian culture to some degree – it’s perfectly plausible that the Jews that grew up in Babylon went to Babylonian schools. So when the Jews returned from exile they brought the stories back with them and worked them into their own mythology.

The boat building was inspired by the fact that the story on the tablet is very specific about the dimensions, shape and building materials of the boat – and these differed from the Noah story, particularly in the case of the shape. We all know from the many depictions of Noah and his ark that the ark was, well, boat shaped. Pointy at each end. But the boat in the older version of the story is round. It was a giant coracle, the big brother of a type of boat still used on the rivers in Iraq until nearly modern times. It was to be built with wooden beams with the bulk of the walls made from ropes (made of reeds) and waterproofed with bitumen. The experimental archaeologists decided that the dimensions were probably exaggerated (mythologised), but that a 12 metre diameter boat was probably possible. So they set to work (in India) trying to use ancient techniques to build this boat. In the end, it did float and even tho it took in water you could tell that people who were better at making the bitumen to waterproof the boat would not have had that problem.

They were also interested, in this strand of the narrative, in whether there could be any reality behind this myth. Whilst coracles in more recent times have been fairly small, in periods where they were the main form of freight transport bigger ones were known. And there is evidence from soil cores to show that the Babylon region flooded many times in the millennia around when the tablet was written. So perhaps the story of saving a pair each of all the world’s animals was inspired by people using large coracles to rescue themselves and their livestock during bad floods.

This programme was a part of the Secret History series on Channel 4, and previously I’ve found them a bit too shallow. This time I was more impressed, even tho it would’ve been nice to hear about the other flood myths from that time & place not just this one example.

We finally finished watching Simon Reeve’s Tropic of Capricorn this week – there was a several week gap between the BBC showing the first 3 episodes and the last one. Obviously this series was Reeve travelling round the globe following the Tropic of Capricorn, doing his now familiar thing of showing us beautiful places before explaining how we’re messing them up. I do enjoy these programmes and find them interesting and they’re worth watching, but I also have little to say about them. Sadly I failed to notice the BBC were reshowing Equator recently, so we can’t complete the set 🙁

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath – two part series looking at the wider Stonehenge site and using modern non-invasive techniques to survey the area.

Episode 2 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.