With his Dumbledore-like snow white beard, grandfatherly wise eyes, and sharp wit, Irving Finkel, author of The Ark Before Noah and curator at the British Museum, charms the audience whenever he makes a presentation. During a literature festival earlier this year, Apeksha Bhateja caught up with the Assyriologist on his life and works.


 

TRYST WITH ASSYRIOLOGY
When I was in school, I thought of becoming an Egyptologist. I had always wanted to learn a difficult language and was intrigued by the Egyptian script. Later at my university (University of Birmingham), we had a professor of Egyptology. Unfortunately, he passed away after our first class. I was told, “Look it’s going to take a year or so to look for a replacement. In the meanwhile, we have Professor Lambert who teaches cuneiform. Why don’t you do this for a few months and swap when we find someone?” So I knocked on the door and told him I had come to learn cuneiform to which he said, “Oh dear! What a shame!”—In those days, professors didn’t like having students; now they want as many as possible. Anyhow, in the first three minutes of the class, I knew this was going to be it! He was a very ferocious teacher, very fierce, very critical. Most of the time, I was his only student, so I had a rather intense time as an undergraduate. But it was a good thing because he was a terrific teacher and one of the best scholars there has ever been in my field.

A clay tablet with cuneiform writing.
A clay tablet with cuneiform writing.

DECIPHERING ANCIENT SCRIPTS
The Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians lived in ancient Iraq and wrote on tablets of clay, beginning some 5,000 years ago. But only in the 19th century, people came to be fascinated by the Old Testament and tried to look for the old capitals of the kings they had read about (in the Bible). They were successful and found Nineveh and Babylon. The archaeologists began to dig, and eventually excavated sites in Iraq to find tablets in buildings, on floors… in different places. Around this time, Iraq was under the Ottoman administration and it was agreed that the finds would go to the British Museum in London. Thereafter, huge numbers of these tablets arrived in London. Funny bits of clay that looked like dog biscuits turned out to be messages from all that time ago and we could actually read and understand them! It was a window to an ancient life—people’s ideas, their fears and private things, what happened to the kings and their campaigns, and to merchants who tried to get rich. By 1850, the readings were properly established and in the three decades that followed, many publications and first grammars were being written—the first dictionaries of the ancient words. From then on, this field that we call ‘Assyriology’ (the study of tablets) has gone from strength to strength. Now if you go to university, you can get a degree in Babylonian just like Latin or Sanskrit or any other ancient language.

TIME AND TRAVEL
When I was younger, I’d sometimes go to excavation sites in the Middle East. But it’s in such turmoil now, and we have so much to do at the museum that it’s not such a pressing thing. I’d love to go to Iraq one day. I have never been there even though my entire life has been devoted to ancient Iraq.

Dr Irving Finkel is the Assistant Keeper Ancient Mesopotamian at the British Museum.
Dr Irving Finkel is the Assistant Keeper Ancient Mesopotamian at the British Museum.

PLAYING FIELD
The British Museum is a marvellous place. Every year, six million people come through the doors and go away with an idea of what man has achieved. We have about 1,30,000 pieces of clay—from the size of a matchbox to the size of a telephone directory—and an army of conservatives, specialists in metal, glass, and paper, who check the collection consistently. Our primary function is to preserve the content—we are custodians for the long time future.