Irving Finkel

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Irving Finkel
Black and white photograph of a man with a long beard and circular glasses
Finkel in 2015
Irving Leonard Finkel

1951 (age 72–73)
Known forDiscovery of tablet with Great Flood narrative suggesting a coracle-shaped ark,[1] Reconstruction of the Royal Game of Ur[2]
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of Birmingham (PhD)
Doctoral advisorWilfred G. Lambert
Academic work
DisciplinePhilology, Assyriology
InstitutionsOriental Institute (Chicago)
British Museum

Irving Leonard Finkel (born 1951) is an English philologist and Assyriologist. He is 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.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Finkel was born in 1951 to a dentist father and teacher mother, one of five children, and grew up at Palmers Green, North London.[4][5] He was raised as an Orthodox Jew but became an atheist as a teenager. He earned a PhD in Assyriology from the University of Birmingham under the supervision of Wilfred G. Lambert with a dissertation on Babylonian exorcistic spells against demons.[6]



Finkel spent three years as a Research Fellow at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. In 1976 he returned to the UK, and was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, where he was (and remains) responsible for curating, reading and translating the museum's collection of around 130,000 cuneiform tablets.[7]

In 2014, Finkel's study of a cuneiform tablet that contained a flood narrative[8] similar to that of the story of Noah's Ark, described in his book The Ark Before Noah, was widely reported in the news media.[9][10] The ark described in the tablet was circular, essentially a very large coracle or kuphar and made of rope on a wooden frame. The tablet included sufficient details of its dimensions and construction to enable a copy of the ark to be made at about 1/3 scale, as documented in a 2014 TV documentary Secrets of Noah's Ark that aired as an episode of PBS's NOVA series.[11] The reconstructed ark was floated with partial success given that the bitumen used as sealant for the vessel walls immediately succumbed to leaks and a gasoline powered pump had to continuously be used to pump out water.

Board games[edit]

Finkel studies the history of board games, and is on the editorial board of Board Game Studies.[12] Among his breakthrough works is the determination of the rules of the Royal Game of Ur.[7] He also owns a replica set of the Lewis chessmen which were used as props in the first Harry Potter film.[13]

Great Diary Project[edit]

Finkel founded the Great Diary Project, a project to preserve the diaries of ordinary people. In association with the Bishopsgate Institute, Finkel has helped to archive over 2,000 personal diaries. In 2014, the V&A Museum of Childhood held an exhibition of the diaries of children written between 1813 and 1996.[14]


Finkel has written a number of works of fiction for children.[15]

He appeared in the 2014 memoir The Boy in the Book by Nathan Penlington.

Personal life[edit]

Finkel lives in southeast London with his wife Joanna and has five children.[7]

Selected publications[edit]


  • ——— (2021). The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies. Hodder & Stoughton.
  • ——— (2014). The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-1444757057.
  • ———, ed. (2008). Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum.[16]
  • ———; Geller, M.J., eds. (2007). The Wellcome Conference on Babylonian Medicine. Styx.
  • ———. "Report on the Sidon Cuneiform tablet". Archaeology & History in Lebanon. 24 (Autumn 2006): 114–20.
  • ——— (2005). "Documents of the Physician and Magician". In Spar, I.; Lambert, W.G. (eds.). Cuneiform Inscriptions in the Metropolitan Museum. New York. pp. 155–76.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • ——— (2005). "Explanatory Commentary on a List of Materia Medica". In Spar, I.; Lambert, W.G. (eds.). Cuneiform Inscriptions in the Metropolitan Museum. New York. pp. 279–83.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • ——— (2003). "Pachisi in Arab Garb". Board Games Studies. 5: 65–78.
  • ———; Reade, J.E. (2002). "On some inscribed Babylonian alabastra". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. 12 (1): 31–46.



  1. ^ The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, Irving Finkel 2014, p.101, 104, 106
  2. ^ "Royal Game of Ur" (PDF). Getty. Retrieved 2 March 2022.
  3. ^ "Irving Finkel". British Museum. Archived from the original on 1 February 2014. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  4. ^ Deciphering the world's oldest rule book, Curator's Corner, British Museum, 03:55, And I have to say, I feel guilty now when I think about it because I made my poor sister Angela play this game endlessly with me to see how the rules worked, on the basis [...].
  5. ^ The Museums Journal, vol. 104, collected issues 7-12, Museums Association, 2004, p. 23
  6. ^ Green, William (19 July 2008). "Big Game Hunter". Time. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Scott, Danny (30 March 2014). "A Life in a Day: There's something special reading the blueprint of Noah's Ark". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 9 July 2014. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  8. ^ Gore, Will (13 February 2014). "How the ark changed shape". The Catholic Herald. Retrieved 2 November 2021.
  9. ^ Holland, Tom (13 February 2014). "The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel – review". The Guardian.
  10. ^ Baden, Joel (28 January 2014). "Noah's Ark discovery raises flood of questions". CNN. Archived from the original on 9 February 2014. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
  11. ^ "Secrets of Noah's Ark - Transcript". Nova. PBS. 7 October 2015. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  12. ^ "About the Great Diary Project". Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  13. ^ Irving Finkel and the Chamber of Lewis Chessmen I Curator's Corner S 2 Ep9 #CuratorsCorner, retrieved 19 August 2022
  14. ^ Grant, Katie (7 May 2014). "The Great Diary Project: The survival of the permanent life archive". The Independent. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  15. ^ Ivry, Benjamin (25 March 2014). "How Darren Aronofsky and 'Noah' Got The Ark Wrong". Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  16. ^ Aveline, John (2008). "Review of Ancient Board Games in Perspective. Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions, edited by Irving L. Finkel". Bryn Mawr Classical Review. 9: 48.

External links[edit]