“I was in the situation that having made what was really quite a serious discovery in the whole mass of the biblical world and Assyriological world. I had to hold people down, slap them on both cheeks and say “This is important because…”
WHAT: “In ‘The Ark Before Noah‘, British Museum expert Dr Irving Finkel reveals how decoding the symbols on a 4,000-year-old piece of clay enable a radical new interpretation of the Noah’s Ark myth. A world authority on the period, Dr Finkel’s enthralling real-life detective story began with a most remarkable event at the British Museum – the arrival one day in 2008 of a single, modest-sized Babylonian cuneiform tablet – the palm-sized clay rectangles on which our ancestors created the first documents. It had been brought in by a member of the public and this particular tablet proved to be of quite extraordinary importance. Not only does it date from about 1850 BC, but it is a copy of the Babylonian Story of the Flood, a myth from ancient Mesopotamia revealing among other things, instructions for building a large boat to survive a flood. But Dr Finkel’s pioneering work didn’t stop there. Through another series of enthralling discoveries he has been able to decode the story of the Flood in ways which offer unanticipated revelations to readers of ‘The Ark Before Noah‘.”
WHO: Irving Finkel is a British philologist and Assyriologist. He is currently the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum, where he specialises in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay from ancient Mesopotamia.
Well, in this case there was no possible alternative because the subject matter of this book concerns the literary narrative which existed and must have existed prior to the biblical narrative that everybody knows by heart and everybody takes for granted with Noah in the lead role.
But also if you want to give a lecture or write a book or command attention, it is always beneficial to start from a point that people know about. So, if we’d called it ‘The Ark of Utnapushtim’, no-one would have had any idea who that was and sales might have been even more modest than they are at the moment. So it wasn’t a commercial reason but simply a logical reason whereas I was taught many centuries ago that the sensible approach is to take one point and make it three times in different ways and hope that somewhere it will sink into people’s minds, so anybody who saw the cover was urged or prompted to pick it up, would know that it was something to do with Noah which isn’t a bad start.
There is a description of your illustrious Victorian predecessor at the British Museum, George Smith, discovering the first Ark tablet and going momentarily mad with excitement, stripping off his clothes and charging around the room. What would make you pull a George Smith? What discovery could you imagine would have you leaping around in your underpants?
Well I’ve made a few discoveries since I got here but this tablet with its specific – Ark Before Noah tablet – with its contents was after Smith’s accomplishment, in some ways a close second because you had the situation everybody knows, the biblical story, and there have been all sorts of theories about every single aspect of the bible and lots of discussions about what the Ark was like, whether it was like it was described in the Hebrew text, whether it was this, whether it was that but nobody to my knowledge has ever articulated the possibility that it was a circular craft like a coracle. So that was a pretty sort of head-smacking staggering discovery, it really shocked me and agitated me to the point that I loosened my tie and I rather think I might have taken my jacket off, I left it at that, you know you don’t want to excite too much attention among the younger women in the department, I always try to behave in a gentlemanly fashion.
One of the interesting comparative points about shall we say the number one big discovery George Smith, and number two, much less significant but in the same bag following 100 and so years later by me, is that when Smith discovered the flood tablet everybody knew their bible inside out, especially the beginning chapters but I mean everybody read the bible, it underpinned literature, political reference, it was just on everybody’s lips all the novels in the world refer to the bible. That was a scenario in which the discovery was of volcanic significance and when Smith made the discovery he was encouraged, or whatever, to make a public statement in front of a whole committee of worthies including the Archbishop of Canterbury who are not generally renowned for their interests in Assyriology, I think the Prime Minister was also there which is even less than easy to parallel from modern times but the fact is, it made a fantastic impact on the world.
It made a fantastic impact on Smith, who I think had an epileptic fit because the description that he jumped out, dropped the tablet on the table and held his hands and made funny noises and in fact started to disrobe himself, these separate features of behaviour are extremes of epileptic reaction, not necessarily all in a bunch, but I have a feeling that when he actually sat there reading this clay tablet, discovering what was practically speaking holy writ, appear on the surface of a piece of Weetabix, it set off in his bosom and uncontrollable explosion. So the thing is, to answer your question specifically, I thought finding this round thing was a pretty amazing discovery and went about saying you’ll never guess what I found out, but the milieu in which I operate the algae-ridden swimming pool in which one attempts to do breaststroke, is a whole different situation because familiarity with the Bible is minimal to the point that people under a certain age, I would randomly say 30, have a deep-seated and eradicable confusion between things which are in the Bible and things which come from Hollywood, they simply don’t know the difference and lots of people are not sure whether the Noah story isn’t the creation of Walt Disney and so forth and so forth.
So I was in the situation that having made what was really quite a serious discovery in the whole mass of the biblical world and Assyriological world. I had to hold people down, slap them on both cheeks and say “This is important because…” And then they would wake up and say “Oh yes, that sounds quite interesting”. So that is a major, major contrast and it underpins all Assyriology because you could find an inscription with a completely new tablet, a new king, a new this, a new date, a new word for chariot pommel or something but it doesn’t shake the world and there are relatively few things that you can find within the Assyriological world which should command a wider response but the one with this had to be coaxed and publicised and lots of interviews and lots of newspaper things and eventually people say, “Oh how marvellous, how interesting, how wonderful…” and some of them bought the book but it didn’t have a matching effect reverberating throughout the world except this modest paperback available from all good book stores is actually being translated into other languages including French and American and Russian and Polish and Japanese and Armenian and Chinese is nearly done. So the anti-gospel according to me is being disseminated on a wider scale than it might otherwise have been entirely in the English version.
Is that how you see it, the ‘anti-gospel’?
Not at all, it’s a kind of joke. I mean I’ve had a lot of unpleasant substances thrown at me in public for undermining the Bible and this kind of nonsense but my argument is that it’s nothing to do with that whatsoever because the flood story clearly originated in Mesopotamia because of the landscape, the geology the geography, the history, the riverine nature of their landscape. There is no question that it comes out of that part of the world. There’s no question that the literary structure, the literary creation went from the Babylonian forerunner into the biblical narrative in the Book of Genesis. There seems to be no doubt about it, but it’s not pinching words from God or undercutting the clergy, the simple response to people who in fact have threatened me with tar and feathers and what have you is this, have you ever tried to write a detective story? Have you ever tried to write a piece of fiction? Have you ever tried to invent a plot that no-one has invented before? It is practically speaking impossible and all literature is derivative in some measure or other and the question is whether it’s derivative in the modern world, whether it’s derivative surreptitiously, accidentally or unwittingly but it’s true, you cannot create from nothing a whole new thing and the same applies to the narratives in the bible, they were borrowed from here and there and the crucial point, intellectually and from a religious point of view is that they were used to tell different messages.
So, if you hear a really good story about a chap who has a week to save the world and the clock’s going tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, this is a deep-seated irresistible format which Hollywood has embraced like with its teeth and ever since and the Babylonian story that one bloke wakes up one morning with the responsibility for the world, what the hell are they going to do to save all the world, is a brilliant story because everybody thinks, Thank God it wasn’t me. This is it and then the philosophical writers who produce the text of Genesis took the bones of the narrative and used it for a totally different theological philosophical principle. So that obviates the charge of me underpinning the bible, it’s just a recycling of literary ideas which of course there is a finite number.
You talk in the book about how the day to day work of an Assyriologist is the mundane existence of life and getting along in the world. You’re probably the nearest thing to somebody who has actually walked the streets of ancient Babylon and encountered the people. Were they like us? Did they think like us? Could we relate to them, could they relate to us? Do we share something universal or are they – without having green heads with things sticking out of them – alien to us?
Well, this is a really deep and significant question. In fact, I’ve come to conclude at my stage of stuff, without sounding pompous, this is really one of the most important questions and it’s my conviction that the human race has never altered from the time when it really emerged and classifiable as homo sapiens that the components are there and that in the whole history of the evolution of our society, the changes, which are wrought, are so-called civilising if you like, but they are cosmetic and the entity which is the human being is unchanged. So, to be specific, the writing looks like from another planet and so when you first encounter this stuff you reinforce the idea that these people are remote from us in every single possible way, they are so far back you can’t even see them with a telescope and they are therefore behind us in evolution.
Now, the danger of this argument is the built-in conception that there is improvement as part of evolution which governs the convictions for the people who think they lead the world, that we are at the apogee of the human race, that we are more intelligent, more educated, more practical, more wise than anybody who came before. In fact, all the evidence that I can see would suggest just the opposite, that that is by no means the truth and the people in Babylonia in the second millennium were, in my estimation, the sort of thing is, a Babylonian comes in the room now wearing Babylonian clothes and probably smelling of what they had for breakfast and I don’t know what, sits down in the chair and you think – God, what zoo did this person comes from. Or maybe it was a sophisticated merchant expensive clothes and a hooker under his belt and what have you, you think, Oh how am I going to talk to this person?
A what under their belt?
A hooker, you know a sort of…
Yes, not a young woman. So the thing is, the person inside…
Did they have hookers?
Well actually they didn’t, it’s a good point, it’s an acronisym but for poetic purposes. They could have had hookers. But the point is if you read their literature and you read their letters and you read their so-called real documents, you find that the person, the individuals who write these tablets are familiar to us because they tell the truth and they lie and they wheedle and they’re hypocritical and they’re convinced and they’re faithful and they’re adulterers and they’re fearful and they’re brave and they’re, I don’t know, they drink, they don’t drink, they have all the contrasts which make up the complexity of a normal human being in their lies, so they are frightened of disease, they’re frightened of sterility, they’re frightened of dying, they worry about the Gods like hell when they’re ill, when they’re dying but otherwise they don’t think about them more than is absolutely necessary, they do offerings in the cult.
You know, sometimes people have a deeply religious experience, some people think this is a waste of time but I’ve got to do it. Some people do it because their fathers did it. It’s all the same in my opinion. And if you can zoom in into their houses, these things would be all the same and we can see them showing off, we can see them being clever. There are two things that make me feel this most particularly. One is sarcasm in letters, “Am I your brother or am I not your brother?” Another are all these kind of Italianate gangster sayings in letters, “I sent the material already where’s the gold, where’s the gold?” Or “Dear so and so, bless your footprints and your grandmother’s footprints too. Funny that you should have written because it was only yesterday that the messenger went off with your bag of gold so you should get it.” So, in other words, the cheque-in-the-post phenomenon that underpins industry and business in this world is not a novel thing either.
And there are many, many, many subtle points which on their own if you take one, a person might say, “yeah well you never know, it’s an accident text, you never know what they’re really thinking, you never know what they’re really thinking but when you have them all together mixed up in your mind, you kind of do know what they’re really thinking.”
I think what combats this understanding, or at least my understanding, in this direction is a conviction that we are the apogee and then before us were the Victorians who primarily thought about sexual intercourse, and then before the Victorians were the Romans who primarily thought about underfloor heating and toilets, and before them are gorillas. But you know the Victorians were like us in every way, they were stilted about this and this and this but you know in a household how they were, and it doesn’t change because there is no moment when all of a sudden all people evolve, they don’t. Now I think from a political point of view you could argue that we’re going backwards.
How are the studies of cuneiform and the ancient literature of the region being shaped in the post-Saddam era?
Well, the post-Saddam era is something whose full nature it won’t be possible to understand until more time has gone by. There was massive destruction archaeologically then Sadam Hussein, theoretically so to speak, modelled himself on the great kings of Assyria. There are posters of him in his chariot like Nebuchadnezzar or Ashurbanipal hunting lions or shooting arrows at the enemy. And he, on placards and other media, tried to give the impression in this childlike way that he stepped into or out of their own great history and stood on the shoulders of giants.
So the massive destruction and cruelty and waste to which Iraq has been subjected is obviously common knowledge. In terms of cuneiform studies, cuneiform research, the first thing is that although we have a very large collection of tablets in the British museum from the 19th century and there are many other collections like the Louvre and the Met and Berlin where there are holdings of these resources even if you put all those together, the material which is in the museums of Iraq, but more importantly still under the ground in Iraq, is of uncountable volume because when you have an ancient culture which lasted for about 3,000 years with the literature written on clay, it’s not that one city here and one city over there had a bit of writing, literacy was universal and there must be tablets under the ground everywhere in the country by their millions.
So when you take a long term view, that resource is yet to be rescued or rather excavated long before there is any question of how to deal with it. So within Iraq now the antiquities departments in universities are climbing to their feet, students are doing research learning to read, learning archaeology, we have a programme here where Iraqis come twice a year. Groups of them for the latest up-to-date training in scientific techniques of excavation and so forth. So we do what we can to nurture this but there is an upcoming number of young persons including people who can read cuneiform script who will, in due course, have their own students and hopefully when things become more peaceful, the harvesting can begin of this unimaginable richness.
This interview is being published in several parts. In the coming parts Dr Finkel will be talking about the sheer volume of ancient material written thousands of years ago in cuneiform on clay tablets still to be translated; His period as President of The Coracle Society; The time he built a half-sized replica of the Ark described in his discovery; The best source for the best bitumen; and Whether Noah had a beard.