“The Ark Tablet: How the Life of an Assyriologist Could be Transformed by a Single Tablet with Sixty Lines of Writing” Irving Finkel (Part 4 of BSS Study Day)

The last talk in the Bloomsbury Summer School’s Cuneiform Study Day was about the ark tablet that Irving Finkel has recently published a book about. There was also a TV documentary about the discovery of the tablet, and the building of a boat using the information in the tablet as a starting point (which I’ve written about before). The talk was mostly unconcerned with the TV programme, but about halfway through Finkel did go on a digression about the awfulness of it (as he saw it) – the “turning it into ‘good’ TV” process made it shallow and theatrical in all sorts of ways he didn’t like. He did think the boat was cool, tho!

Finkel started off by giving us some context for Flood Stories in cuneiform texts (which is exactly what I complained the TV programme didn’t do). George Smith in 1852 was the first person to read a cuneiform tablet containing a version of the Ark Story. This was the first time it was shown that a Biblical story pre-dated the Bible. The impact of this in society at the time was huge (much larger than it would be today), as it’s such a fundamental Old Testament story. There are close & specific links between the story that Smith read and the Biblical version, too. One of these is the releasing of the two birds to see if there is any land yet. However the boat as described in that text is cubical, so those who were particularly upset said that showed it was all a coincidence. The tablet that Smith read is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and is actually one of the more recent cuneiform texts with a Flood Story. Since Smith’s discovery other (older) versions have been found. Although details differ, including the protagonist, they all share a common point that the gods had decided that the creation of humanity had been a mistake. The gods thus cause a flood to wipe them away, but one man is saved by one god warning him.

The new tablet that Finkel has translated & published dates to around 1800BC. It was initially brought to the British Museum along with various other bits & pieces by a man who’d inherited it from his father (who’d picked up these things on various trips). Finkel thought it was a letter at first glance, but then when he read the first lines it was clear that it was a Babylonian Flood Story and it didn’t match the ones he’d seen before. Which was very exciting, but sadly the chap who owned it took it away again and it was a while before Finkel had the chance to properly study it.

This version of the story includes a “How To” manual for building the ark. Unusually it describes a boat that is round – shaped like a coracle. Coracles are normally pretty small scale, but this one is much bigger. Finkel made the point that it didn’t need to go anywhere (coracles are normally propelled by oars, so it might be difficult to move a larger one) – for the occupants to survive the flood it only needed to float. The numbers and instructions in the text are surprisingly specific – not like mythological numbers generally are. If you calculate how much of the materials you would need to make a boat of that design the figures come out within 1% of those in the text. And the instructions match up well with those in a book published in the 1930s (AD) talking about coracle building in the more modern Middle East. So this is effectively the story being interrupted for an (accurate) info-dump about boat building. Finkel pointed out that this would’ve been of interest to the audience for the story, particularly if it was told orally (as it probably was) – there would be many fishermen and other river-goers who might want to know just how big this big boat was and so on. (It made me think of things like Tom Clancy’s novels where the story gets interrupted for a loving description of exactly what sort of gun is being used).

After his digression about the TV programme Finkel talked about his interest in the broader picture into which this tablet fits. Primarily – how did this ancient Mesopotamian legend end up retold in the Jewish Bible? Clearly the Exile of the Jews in Babylon must have something to do with it. Judea is invaded twice by Nebuchadnezzar, and this is documented in both the Old Testament and in the bureaucratic records of the Babylonian Empire. The texts corroborate each other to a pretty high degree – for instance there are people named in the text of the Hebrew Bible who are also mentioned in Babylonian documents. The second invasion of Judea is when Jerusalem was sacked and the bulk of the Jews were forcibly marched to Babylon. Finkel talked a bit here about what it must’ve been like for the Jews – his analogy was that in terms of culture shock it must’ve been much like it was for the rural Eastern European Jews who emigrated to New York in the 1930s.

The Book of Daniel talks about the young nobles of the Judeans being instructed in the language and literature of the Babylonians during the exile. This was a policy on the part of the Babylonians intended to indoctrinate the Judean elite with Babylonian culture, so that they would be less likely to rebel and instead be assimilated. Evidence from the Bablyonian side of the education of the Judeans includes a tablet which lists the Aramaic alphabet in cuneiform signs. The cross-cultural mixing went both ways – written around this time is a Babylonian tablet musing about monotheism and postulating that all the other gods are manifestations of Marduk. I.e. that Adad is “Marduk of the Rain” and so on.

At the time one of the ways students learnt to read & write was copying out set texts. From student tablets that have been found archaeologists have some idea of the school curriculum of the time that the Judeans were in Babylon. The stories they would’ve been copying included not only the Flood Story, but also one with a baby discovered in bulrushes and other legends of early rulers who lived unfeasibly long lives. And these all have parallels that end up in the Hebrew Bible.

This was a good talk to end the day on, and answered several of the things I was curious about after the TV programme. I intend at some point to read his book about the tablet, too. Overall this was a very interesting study day. Finkel is a very good speaker – my write-ups of his talks are sadly a rather dry rendition of the actual performance.

“The Royal Game of Ur: From Ancient Grave to Modern Rebirth” Irving Finkel (Part 3 of BSS Study Day)

The third talk of the Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day about cuneiform was all about the Royal Game of Ur. Irving Finkel is interested in board games as well as being an expert on ancient Mesopotamian cultures and so this game is of particular interest to him. There were six boards for it found the Royal Cemetery of Ur (in southern Iraq) by Leonard Woolley. The photo below is one that I took of the board on display in the British Museum. These boards date from around 2600BC and for a long time they were the only game boards of this sort to be found. Other similar examples are now known from around the same sort of time (for example from eastern Iran, and from the Indus Valley).

The Royal Game of Ur
Board for the Royal Game of Ur

The game is a race game, and the probable route is that the players start their pieces at the right hand end of the big block of squares and proceed horizontally leftwards to the rosette squares – one player at the top, one at the bottom. They then both move along the central line all the way to the right, where they separate and each follow their own track to the final rosette on the lefthand end of the small block of squares where they leave the board.

Somewhere around about the transition from the 2nd Millennium BC to the 1st Millennium BC the board changes shape. Instead of the two players separating and looping back at the end of the central run the run is extended by a further four squares. This shift in design takes place everywhere the game is played at around the same time. Finkel said this is probably because it makes the end of the game more exciting – in the original layout once you got to the split point then you probably knew you couldn’t be prevented from winning, but you still had to play out the last whatever moves before you actually won. The game spread even further with this changed layout. When the Hyksos invaded Egypt (in the Second Intermediate Period) they brought the game with them. In fact the game boxes from Tutankhamun’s grave have senet on one face and the modified Game of Ur board on the other face. Finkel took great delight in tweaking the noses of the Egyptologists in the room at this point – he pointed out that when the hieroglyphs on the sides are the right way up then the senet board is face down. So he thinks that makes it likely that the Game of Ur was the primary game not the Egyptian game of Senet!

Bringing this back to cuneiform writing Finkel discussed the first known written rules for a board game – which are on a cuneiform tablet dating to 119BC right near the end of the period that cuneiform was used. The front of the tablet has a 4×3 grid, each square of which has a zodiac sign & an inscription in. This seems to be some form of divination game – fling the dice, read off your fortune. On the reverse there are the rules for a “game fit for nobles” called the Game of Pack of Dogs. The first part of the text is a library tag written by the scribe who wrote the tablet explaining what it is and where it was copied from, the rest is the rules of the game. The rules talk about different pieces for each side, and they start in different places depending on type and on the dice roll. For instance if you roll a 5 the piece called the Storm Bird will start on square 5. There are also rules for when each type of piece lands on one of the special squares (marked with rosettes on the game board above). The rules are full of puns/jokes based on the fact that the phrase for “pack of dogs” also means “troop of soldiers”.

These are believed to be the rules for a descendent of the Royal Game of Ur, because of similarities to the only known modern survival of the game. There is a Jewish community in India who are descendants of Jews who moved there in the 1st Millennium BC from Babylon. They play a game on a board similar to the second layout for this game, using rules that are similar to the ones from the cuneiform tablet.

Game of Ur Board Scratched at Gate Guardian's Feet
Game Board Scratched at Gate Guardian’s Feet

Finkel finished up by talking a bit about the spread & popularity of the game. He believes it was invented in the Indus Valley in the 3rd Millenium BC, and rapidly spread through the surrounding area – to Iran and then Iraq, and through India into Sri Lanka. As mentioned before the board changes in the 1st Millennium BC and this change propagates through the whole of the game playing region. It was widely played – game boards are found scratched in floors all over the region, even between the feet of the Winged Assyrian Bull gate guardians that are in the British Museum. However it was replaced almost entirely by backgammon – leaving only that one survival discussed above.

“The Cyrus Cylinder: Unexpected Discoveries and the Rediscovery of Meaning” Irving Finkel (Part 2 of BSS Study Day)

For the second part of his Bloomsbury Summer School study day on cuneiform Irving Finkel talked about the Cyrus cylinder which was found in Iraq during excavation at Babylon in 1872. It is a cylinder of baked clay which is covered in cuneiform writing, and you can see it at the British Museum. The largest part actually belongs to the BM, and there’s another fragment that they have on permanent loan from Yale. (My photo below is actually of a replica, I think the real thing was on loan somewhere at the time I took the photo a couple of years ago.)

Cyrus Cylinder

It was written at the behest of King Cyrus in 539BC, shortly after he invaded Babylon. This was apparently a bloodless conquest and it was the end of native rule in Babylon: the previous king was the last Neo-Babylonian king. The text starts with a description of the chaos in Babylon before Cyrus came along (which made me think of the Egyptian 1st Intermediate Period texts where a nomarch’s tomb will announce how he brought order out of the chaos that Egypt was in). It continues by saying that the chaos was so bad that the gods had left their temples, and the god Marduk went in search of a candidate to rule Babylon instead of the current king. He found his ideal man in Cyrus – not a Babylonian but from Iran (Persia).

The text implies that Cyrus was a Marduk worshipper, but this is probably propaganda – especially as the Babylonian King whom he overthrew (Nabonidus) particularly worshipped a different one of their pantheon (which didn’t go down well with all of his people). Finkel pointed out that one would never read a modern text (newspaper article, press release, whatever) credulously so why do so for an ancient text? Propaganda and spin is nothing new. A more cynical reading of the text is that Cyrus took advantage of a schism in Babylonian society and picked a religious side that was opposite to the King whilst still popular with the public – and so rode that wave to a “welcomed” conquest.

In another act of propaganda Cyrus had Nabonidus’s name removed from any places where it was. There are a couple of pieces of evidence for this – the first is a tablet that has written on it a satirical poem about Cyrus doing so. And it’s backed up by a large stone stela which has on its front a relief of a king with a big blank space next to it where one would expect an inscription. If you look at the sides of this stela there are inscriptions naming Nabonidus. Finkel suggests that this stela perhaps once stood in an alcove & so when the men came to chisel off the inscriptions they only saw the front one and the sides got overlooked.

When it was discovered the Cyrus cylinder was a particularly big deal to Victorian London society because Cyrus is also mentioned in the Bible. He is the King who let the Jews return to Israel after the long exile in Babylon. However this interest resulted in the cylinder being built up into even more that it actually is. One myth is that it’s the actual decree permitting the Jews to go home – which is rubbish, it never mentions the Jews. Another (slightly more recent) myth is that it was the first charter of human rights … which is also rubbish. It does say that Cyrus will rule as a just king etc etc, but that’s a pretty standard thing for rulers of that time and place to say particularly after they’ve conquered somewhere. “Your old king was crap in all those ways; I will be awesome in all these ways”. But Finkel did say that even though the text itself has no relation to our concept of human rights the cylinder has taken on a sort of second life in modern Iran where it is a symbol of pride in their ancient civilisation and of human rights.

Another thing often said about the Cyrus cylinder is that it’s unique – this is also rubbish. This seemed implausible to experts from the start (it’s the sort of text you expect to be churned out by a conquering king) and there has been recent proof that it is indeed not one of a kind. Both Finkel and a colleague have discovered fragments of the Cyrus cylinder text in the British Museum’s collection of tablet fragments. These two fragments overlap with the text, but also with the missing portions of the cylinder. And they are from flat tablets rather than cylinders. So they are definitely from one or more separate copies of this text. Interestingly the fragments are also better quality than the cylinder, which is both of poor clay and lower quality writing. Finkel said this was probably because the Cyrus cylinder was intended to be buried – so people wouldn’t see it particularly often. He thinks there were probably thousands of copies of the text buried and distributed amongst the land that Cyrus ruled over (and beyond).

One of the (several) tangents that Finkel went on during this talk was about some fossilised horse shanks from China which were discovered with cuneiform on them that turned out to be the Cyrus cylinder text. The text had many omissions and was overall poorly copied, leading to thoughts that they were a fake. But equally the signs used for the text weren’t the same as those the cylinder – they were a different style and from a different period. So legitimate signs, and clearly not (poorly) copied straight off the Cyrus cylinder, which might incline one to think they were real. Finkel said he nearly published something saying they were real for these reasons, but shortly before the book was sent to the publisher he discovered where they’d been copied from! Wallis Budge (he of several Egyptology books of slight dubiousness by modern scholarship standards) had published an article about the Cyrus cylinder text. In it he’d presented the cuneiform using these different forms of the signs, and had presented the exact bits of text the horse shanks had (pooly) copied. So that was the origin of these fakes!

The two take home messages from this particular talk were first that one shouldn’t take anything at face value. And that there are no unique things in history, if we think there’s only one that just means we haven’t found another. And Finkel finished up with an anecdote of a surprising example of this – the Ishtar Gate from Babylon seems a prime candidate for uniqueness. However! A life size replica has been discovered in Persepolis built during Cyrus’s reign, outside his palace. Clearly he was pretty impressed by it when he conquered Babylon.

“Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System” Irving Finkel (Part 1 of BSS Study Day)

At the end of February the Bloomsbury Summer School had a study day on cuneiform, presented by Irving Finkel called “The Wonder of Cuneiform: A Passionate Exploration of Some of Mesopotamia’s Most Important Ancient Records”. Finkel is a curator at the British Museum and has recently written a book (and presented a TV programme (post)) on a tablet containing a previous unknown version of the Ark myth including details of how to build an ark. As I’m learning Akkadian it sounded like an interesting day to go to. He’s a good speaker, managing to be entertaining as well as informative about a subject that could easily have been quite dry. There were four talks throughout the day, the first was an overview of the writing system and the other three each covered a text in cuneiform. I had intended to write a single post about all four talks, but after writing this first one I’ve decided to split it into four separate posts.

Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System

The title of this talk was definitely chosen to tweak the noses of the Egyptologists in the room (of which there were many as most of the BSS’s study days are Egypt related). It worked too – I was sat between J and Janet (who we know from the EEG) and they were both muttering about how hieroglphs are better than cuneiform 😉

Cuneiform writing originates sometime in the 4th Millennium BC in the geographical area that is now Iraq. Finkel told us about a couple of theories of its origin – the first one he talked about was the token theory, which he isn’t terribly convinced by. In this theory first small objects (stones, clay shapes) of particular forms were used to keep records, and later these were drawn onto clay and became pictographs. He thinks this theory requires being selective about the evidence, so isn’t very plausible. Instead he pointed out that cylinder seals exist at least as far back as evidence of writing so it’s not a big jump to think they started by drawing pictographs on clay to keep records.

The earliest writing in Mesopotamia is bureaucratic in nature. People were beginning to live in cities, which have a much higher administrative overhead and so record keeping began to be essential for the rulers of the population. Finkel said that mathematics begins at the same time as writing, for the same sorts of reasons, and the first examples found written down are quite complex so they must’ve been doing it for a while (I think by mathematics he means arithmetic and accountancy not algebra etc).

The first known language written in cuneiform (c.3300BC) was Sumerian, which is a language that has no known relatives. Obviously there were likely to’ve been some at the time, all the rest have just died out without trace. Akkadian, which I’m learning, was written in cuneiform later on and is a Semitic language.

The Big Idea of writing was the move from pictographs representing concrete things (sheep, cow, house etc) to using them to represent sounds, and also abstract grammatical necessities. An example of the first is that the word for “beer” is “kash”, so when you want to write down something about the Kashite King you use a beer pictograph for the first syllable of his country. And you know from context that this is kash-something not beer-something. An example of the second is that the beer pictograph is also used to represent the word for “its”, for no other reason that that this was decided to be so. Dictionaries are found from very early in the history of cuneiform listing these arbitrary designations.

The system (which signs mean what things) was clearly developed once – the only change in cuneiform writing over the 3,000 years that it is used is that the shapes of the signs become more cursive. The repertoire remains the same, and they represent the same syllable sounds or concepts throughout (even when writing a different language). Finkel believes that this was may even have been the work of a single individual who was both charismatic enough and important enough to enforce his (or her) ideas on the rest of the scribes. And once you have a functional system in place then bureaucratic inertia keeps it in place. The system that was developed isn’t necessarily the best or easiest system! Each sign has more than one value, so the system is inherently ambiguous. Also there are often multiple ways of writing the same sound, chosen mostly by whim of the scribe. Context is very important for working out what was being written about. And I’m discovering it gets worse when it starts being used to write Akkadian as not all features of the language are represented in the writing system – long and short vowels for instance. Context is all that tells you if you’re reading nārum (river) or narûm (stela).

development of the sign for head in cuneiform
Development of the sign for head
Made by wikipedia user Dbachmann

Prior to the standardisation the writing system had developed from plain pictographs in two ways. First the basic signs were modified to represent more words. For instance the sign for “head” could be turned into one representing “mouth” by adding a line for a mouth. And then you could add to that sign the one for “bowl”, and you represent “ration”. The next step (which continued long after standardisation of the sign repertoire) was to move from pictographs to more stylised & abstract signs. This began with a change in how the signs were drawn – at first a point was used to actually draw in the clay, but then they began to use wedges of reed to make impressions in the surface of the tablet (the shape this produces is what “cuneiform” as a word refers to). If you look at the diagram above you’ll also notice that they rotated the signs 90° at some point (I thought it was later in the process than that diagram suggests, however).

Finkel finished this introductory talk by giving us a brief overview of what the British Museum has in its collection of cuneiform tablets. There are around 130,000 of them in the museum, 25,000 of which came from a library in Nineveh. This is analogous to the much later Library of Alexandria in a couple of ways – first because it was supposed to be complete, and second because it got burnt to the ground. However unlike papyrus scrolls clay tablets are actually preserved by burning, and so it was dug up in modern times nearly intact. Apparently there’s going to be a new display relating to this in the British Museum soon.

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.