What is the origin of the Universe? Who is God? Where did Mankind come from? These are questions that have always fascinated people, and never more than at the present day, as we enter the New Millennium. People have searched to the ends of the earth and translated ancient texts in strange languages in search of these truths, yet the most widely distributed book in the world, the Bible, claims to answer these questions in the book of Genesis. It speaks of the creation of the world, the first man, and his experience of God, but unfortunately no book in the world has been interpreted in so many different and conflicting ways.
If the Bible is the inspired word of God, as Christians claim, why did God allow Genesis to be written in a way that could lead to such confusion? In order to answer this question we have to take our eyes off the problem and take a long view of history. The fact is that controversy over the meaning of Genesis began only 200 years ago when amateur scientists first started to notice geological evidence for the great antiquity of the earth. A Scottish physician, James Hutton (Fig. 1.1) summarised this evidence in a now-classic quote (Hutton, 1795):
No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end...
More recent geological investigations have now revealed some faint vestiges of the earth's beginning, but it is only in the past one hundred years that radioactive dating of rocks has been developed, and only in the past thirty years that these dating methods have attained high degrees of precision and accuracy. Similarly, it is only in the past one hundred years that the architecture and literature of ancient Mesopotamia have been unearthed and translated, providing an essential backdrop to the Genesis narrative. Indeed, it is only within the last thirty years or so that scholarly understanding of the world's oldest written languages has reached some degree of maturity.
Fig. 1.1 Portrait of James Hutton, geological pioneer.
The fact that these advances in scientific and literary understanding are so recent should give us hope that the problem of correctly interpreting Genesis can be solved in the near future. However, before we can do this, we have to understand something of the history of the problem.
For the past century the interpretation of Genesis has been strongly polarised between two conflicting theologies that I will call Fundamentalism and Liberalism. Both of these viewpoints grew over a period of time, but were also given particular shape by a few prominent authors who laid out their doctrinal principles. We will now examine some of these principles.
Liberal theologians regard much of the Old Testament as 'story' rather than 'history'. Therefore, many of the characters in the Bible, particularly in Genesis, are not regarded as real people. For example, Alt (1966), argued that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not part of a single family but from unrelated tribes whose descendants merged over time and created a composite history. A recent commentator (Sauer, 1996) summarised this position as follows:
Today, the conventional wisdom- or at least the view of many mainstream scholars- is that the patriarchal stories do not have a setting in a particular archaeological period, that there is no patriarchal period as such.
This view of the non-historicity of Genesis was largely pioneered by Wellhausen (Fig. 1.2), who argued that major portions of the Old Testament were composed around 600 BC, during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. In a classic book, Wellhausen (1883) suggested that the 'history' of Israel was composed during the Babylonian exile in order to provide a religious focus for the nation, to replace the temple of Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Hence he argued that the history of the world and mankind in Genesis were projected backwards from the exile in order to justify the religious establishment at the time of writing.
Fig. 1.2 Portrait of Julius Wellhausen, influential German theologian.
Wellhausen's 'Development Hypothesis' was largely founded on the earlier 'Documentary Hypothesis', which is the cornerstone of much scholarly interpretation of Genesis. This theory says that Genesis consists of two or more documents that were cut and pasted together by an editor without significantly changing the content of the original documents. The Documentary Hypothesis recognises these source documents on the basis of their use of two different Hebrew words for God, Elohim and Yahweh, translated in most English versions of the Bible as 'God' and 'LORD' respectively. However, two more sources were ultimately invoked, making a total of four: the Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P). Hence the acronym 'JEDP' by which this model is commonly identified.
In some parts of Genesis the Documentary Hypothesis makes good sense: for example in the Creation Story of Chapter 1, Elohim is used thirty times and Yahweh not at all, so this section could be said to be Elohist in its origin (although it is actually called the 'Priestly' source). However, in other parts of Genesis, for example the Flood Story of Chapters 6 to 9, Elohim and Yahweh appear to be used more-or-less interchangeably, and in intimate juxtaposition. This has led, under the Documentary Hypothesis, to the idea that the Flood Story was made from two separate documents minutely interleaved by the editor of Genesis.
This model can be tested by comparing the biblical Flood Story with ancient Mesopotamian flood stories. The remarkable parallels between these documents suggest a common source, but the biblical version, when considered as a single unit, has more parallels with the Mesopotamian versions than either of the two hypothetical text sources claimed by the Documentary Hypothesis (section 20.1). This suggests the Flood Story was derived from a Mesopotamian source as a single unit, and not from the two sources proposed by the Documentary Hypothesis.
Of course, the resemblances between the biblical and Mesopotamian Flood stories do not prove that Noah or the other biblical Patriarchs existed. However, such 'proof' may never be obtained, any more than the existence of God can be proved. The 17th century French philosopher, Descartes, attempted to prove the existence of God on a rational basis, but his contemporary, Pascal, called him 'Descartes, useless and uncertain' (Pensees, # 887) because the certainty that Descartes claimed to give, based on rational argument, did not meet human need (Byrne, 1997, p. 78-87). Instead, Pascal argued that our reasoning should be based on the foundation of a belief in God. Although such belief is based on faith and personal experience rather than rational argument, it is nevertheless reasonable. A similar approach can be taken to the existence of the biblical Patriarchs by saying 'supposing that the Patriarchs did exist, what would this mean for our understanding of the Bible and our interpretation of ancient history?' If the resulting reconstruction works as a piece of history and as an explanation of religious experience, this supports its truthfulness.
Fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the whole Bible, and nowhere is the literal interpretation more hotly defended than the first chapter of Genesis, describing the story of creation in six days. This belief in a literal interpretation of the creation narrative has been labelled 'Creationism', and was laid out by Whitcomb and Morris (Fig. 1.3) in their classic book 'The Genesis Flood' (Whitcomb and Morris, 1961)(1). These authors insisted that since the Bible is the Written Word of God, Genesis Ch 1 must represent a scientifically accurate record of the creation of the whole universe in six days of 24 hours each. Similarly, they insisted that the Great Flood described in Genesis Ch 6 must have been of worldwide extent. But do Creationists really adhere to a strictly literal interpretation of the creation narrative? To test their approach, we must closely examine the creation narrative of Genesis Ch 1.
Fig. 1.3 Whitcomb and Morris, authors of the Creationist classic 'The Genesis Flood'.
According to Genesis 1:2, the earth was originally a watery chaos. After the creation of light on the First Day, God's creative words on the Second Day are described as follows(2) (Gen 1:6-8):
God said "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse "sky".
This text shows that the author of Genesis understood the sky as separating some waters 'below the sky' (forming the seas) from other waters located 'above the sky' (which give rise to rain). In between these two bodies of water, the 'expanse of the sky', in which the birds fly (Gen 1:20) was conceived of as the interior of a rigid dome (Seeley, 2001), resembling a planetarium (Fig. 1.4).
Fig. 1.4 A visualisation of the Heavens and the Earth, as described in Genesis, Job, Psalms and Isaiah.
Moving now to the Fifth Day, God's creative acts are described as follows (Gen 1:16-17):
God made two great lights- the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth...
The language used in this text is quite precise; it is quite clear that God set the sun, moon and stars IN the expanse of the sky, and hence below the 'upper waters'. However, in The Genesis Flood, Whitcomb and Morris (1961) presented a very different interpretation of these verses, in which the sun, moon and stars were no longer set in the sky, but only their light appeared in the sky:
Mention is made in Genesis 1:7 of a division of the waters covering the earth at the time of creation, into two portions, separated by an expanse of atmosphere in which birds were to fly (Genesis 1:20) and in which the light from the sun, moon and stars was to be refracted and diffused to give light on the earth (Genesis 1:17).
Why didn't Whitcomb and Morris accept the literal meaning of verse 1:17, that the sun, moon and stars were set in the sky? In other cases where the interpretation of Genesis is in doubt, they turn to other biblical texts for clarification. However, concerning the location of the stars in the sky, the Bible holds a consistent position. For example, in describing the manner of his second coming, Jesus (Mark 13:24-25) quotes Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4 as follows:
The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
The original text of Isaiah 34:4b gives more detail:
All the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shrivelled figs from the fig-tree.
This description of the stars falling from the sky makes it clear that Jesus is understanding Isaiah 34:4 and Genesis 1:17 to mean that the stars are literally objects in the sky, from where they can fall to earth. We should also note that the phrase 'all the starry host' (Isaiah 34:4b) rules out the possibility that the Bible is talking about a few meteor showers; it is referring to the constellations that we see above us on every clear night. So the witness of the Bible should lead a Creationist to deny that the stars are distant suns in the depths of space, and to affirm that they are set in the sky. The only evidence against this view is observational scientific evidence. So we can see that Creationists do believe scientific evidence over and above the Bible when they feel compelled to by the strength of this scientific evidence, when a literal interpretation of the Bible would lead them to a position that is apparently untenable in the 21st century AD. Creationism then is actually a deception, because its proponents believe that they follow a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis, whereas in fact they follow an interpretation partially based on scientific evidence which denies the literal interpretation of Genesis.
God could have revealed the Creation from the perspective of 2000 AD, but this would have been meaningless to mankind 6000 years BC. So, of course God revealed his creation from the point of view that mankind could at least begin to understand at the time; standing on the ground and looking up at the vault of the heavens. As such, Genesis Chapter 1 is neither a literal account nor a non-literal account, but a 'cosmology of sight experience' (Flanders et al., 1988), because it explains the origin of the heavens and the earth that ancient man could see and experience.
A study of history shows that God has allowed certain things to be said in the Bible that could easily be misinterpreted by legalists. For example, Psalm 104:5 states that 'He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved', a verse which caused the Roman Catholic Church to reject for hundreds of years the scientific arguments that the earth orbits the sun. Similarly, in the New Testament, Paul's admonition 'women should remain silent in the churches' (1st Corinthians 14:34) has caused many Church denominations to prohibit for hundreds of years the speaking ministry of women. Most believers now understand that these verses must be interpreted in the context of the time when they were written, and that a legalistic interpretation is actually not in accord with God's will.
Despite the fact that Liberalism and Fundamentalism are totally opposed to one another, they have had a similar influence on how many people approach Genesis: both have tended to 'mythologise' Genesis and make it less accessible to the reader. Liberalism has done this by claiming that none of the events described in Genesis really happened. Therefore, it is claimed, the only thing we can really learn from Genesis is the mind-set of the Israelite authors, who lived around the time of the Babylonian exile, about 600 BC. Ironically, Fundamentalism has also mythologised Genesis by claiming that all of the events described are to be taken literally. Since a modern reader knows that the Earth floats in space, he can only accept a true literal reading of Genesis Ch 1 by 'disconnecting' his mind so that he keeps Genesis in one box and his everyday life in a different box. Many Creationists have attempted to rationalize this process by arguing that the Flood separated the history of the world into 'pre-Flood' and 'post-Flood' periods, when even physical laws were different. Hence, if we were to follow this approach, we could never understand the mind of Adam.
The objective of the present book is to de-mythologise Genesis by putting it back into its historical context. As the quest for spiritual enlightenment has grown, both in the Church and in the non-Christian world, the writer believes that God wants to help us gain a right understanding of Genesis that will allow us to rise above the one-dimensional tug-of-war between Liberalism and Fundamentalism. Therefore, the goal of this study is a fresh understanding of Genesis in the context of the archaeological, scientific and written evidence that we have about the dawn of human history.
However, we can only understand Genesis the way God intended when we realise that it is a spiritual as well as a physical book (e.g. Bloesch, 1978, p. 74). Thus, we read in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews (11:6) that:
Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
Therefore, we can express our quest to understand the origin of mankind in similar terms:
Without faith it is impossible to understand Genesis, because anyone who comes to it must believe that God exists, and that he reveals the truth to those who earnestly seek it.
The present book is written in the hope that a belief in God, coupled with a careful examination of the biblical and archaeological evidence, can give the reader an impression of what it was like to receive God's first revelation to mankind: 'On a faraway day...'
Most people know that the book of Genesis (origins in Greek) describes the story of Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the history of the Patriarchs, but its underlying message is harder to discern. This message can only be understood from the perspec-tive of the whole Bible, which is concerned with a series of 'Covenants' or 'Agreements' between God and Man, which culminate in the New Covenant or 'New Testament'. In this context, Genesis is a description of a series of initiatives taken by God to reveal himself to mankind, each involving a personal encounter and an impartation of knowledge (Bloesch, 1994, p. 49). It runs counter to the humanistic view that sees Man refining his concept of God over time, or even inventing gods for himself over time.
The truth is that, far from refining his concept of God, mankind is continually confusing the revelation that God has already given. So, in the Old Testament, we see God repeatedly calling out a man (or occasionally a woman) from his existing situation, giving him a new revelation, and making a new covenant with him, only to have that revelation later compromised and in need of further renewal.
Because biblical revelation always begins with individuals, it follows that there must have been an individual who received God's first supernatural revelation. According to his descendants who wrote the Bible, this first individual was simply 'the man', who we refer to as 'Adam'. Therefore, it will be one of the aims of this book to persuade the reader that the biblical Patriarchs, including Adam, were all real people, who lived in real human cultures. If the readers find this hard to believe, they will need to temporarily suspend their disbelief while the author tries to make his case.
When the Bible describes God's revelation to mankind, this revelation always has a historical context. In the case of the birth of Jesus, this context is described in the Gospels: Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah at the time of the census of Caesar Augustus, during the governorship of Quirinius and the reign of King Herod, and his birth was marked by the appearance of a 'new' star in the sky (Luke 2:1-2; Matthew 2:1-2). Unfortunately, despite all of these markers, there is uncertainty as to the precise date of Jesus' birth relative to our modern calendar, which was set up by monks several hundred years later. However, this uncertainty is caused by an incomplete understanding of the different viewpoints of the two Gospel writers (e.g. Smith, 2000), and not by a lack of contextual references in their accounts.
God's revelations to Adam and Abram(3) are also recorded in their spatial and temporal context in Genesis. However, since these revelations occurred thousands of years before Jesus' birth, it should not surprise us that there is uncertainty in the interpretation of the contextual information.
In many ways, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is the cradle of human civilisation. In Greek, the expression 'land between the rivers' gives us the word Mesopotamia, the most accurate geographical description of this region, which lies within present-day Iraq (Fig. 2.1). Similarly, from the perspective of Israel, Mesopotamia is referred to as the 'Land beyond the River' (Joshua 24:3), meaning the region beyond the Euphrates.
Genesis provides strong evidence that God's revelations to both Adam and Abram took place in Mesopotamia. In addition there is good evidence for a Mesopotamian context for God's covenant with Noah, based on the description of the settling of Mesopotamia immediately after the Flood (Gen 10:32 and 11:2). This biblical evidence for a Mesopotamian context is also supported by the remarkable similarities between the biblical and Mesopotamian stories of the Flood, which will be examined in detail at a later point. In the meantime, we will briefly review what Genesis has to say about the geographical context in which its account is set.
A common-sense approach to Earth History is now possible in a way that was impossible 40 years ago when The Genesis Flood was written. In those days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, radioactive dating was in its infancy. In particular, there was a serious 'dating gap' between the historical period (back to 3000 BC) and the much more distant Geological Past. However, this situation has changed over the past 40 years with the huge flood of radiocarbon (C-14) dates that have become available. In order for the reader to understand the reliability of this method, it is necessary to give a brief explanation of how it works. A more detailed explanation is given in my specialist book on isotope dating (Dickin, 1995).
Taken together, the evidence cited above shows conclusively that a flood of global extent did not occur in the recent past. Back to 7000 BC there is a continuous record of Bristlecone pine logs lying on the ground in the Sierra Nevada mountains that has obviously not been disturbed by a global flood. Furthermore there are numerous lakes whose sediment records can be traced back to this period based on the counting of annual varves. For example, Lake Van, near the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates in southeast Turkey, has a continuous record of annual varves reaching back from the present day to 13,000 BC (section 8.1). Beyond this range, the Lake Suigetsu calibrated varve record extends the period of undisturbed sediment deposition back to 36,000 BC. Hence, it must be concluded that the observational evidence rules out the possibility of a global flood within the past 38,000 years. On the other hand, if we push the date of Noah's flood back beyond 36,000 BC then we do such violence to the interpretation of Genesis that it is absurd. Therefore, we must conclude that there was no global flood, and that interpretations of Genesis which call for such a flood are misguided. This raises the question of what the Genesis account of the Flood does mean, which we will now examine.
Fig. 3.5 Calibration points for the Cariaco basin varve section ( . ), showing excellent agreement with the dendrochronology calibration line (solid line) and U-Th dates on corals ( o ). Modified after Hughen et al. (1998).
The story of Noah's Flood in Genesis Ch 6 - 8 is a beautifully crafted narrative that has a symmetrical structure. Symmetrical or 'chiastic' narratives are used widely in the Bible to give stories a memorable structure for oral recitation and to emphasise a central turning point in the story, usually marking the intervention of God in the situation. The story of the Flood lends itself very naturally to the construction of a chiasmus because of the rise and fall of the floodwaters; however, several commentators have suggested that the inherently symmetrical structure of the central story was enhanced by emphasising the symmetry of other events that happened immediately before and after the flood. In particular, Wenham (1978; 1987) emphasised the symmetrical structure of the days of the flood mentioned in the narrative:
7 days of waiting for the flood (7:4)
7 days of waiting for the flood (7:10)
40 days of the flood increasing (7:17)
150 days of the water flooding (7:24)
God remembered Noah (8:1)
150 days of the water going down (8:3)
40 days of Noah waiting (8:6)
7 more days waiting (8:10)
7 more days waiting (8:12)
Many scholars have attributed the repetition of some of the events surrounding the Flood, and apparent contradictions over its duration, to the combination of more than one source document to make the Flood Story in Genesis. Thus, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, a Yahwist source (J) and a Priestly source (P) have been interleaved to make the complete Genesis account (Fig. 4.1).
Fig. 4.1 Application of the Documentary Hypothesis to the Flood Story, showing proposed interleaving of the sources J and P. After Blenkinsopp(1985).
However, Wenham argued that numbers describing the duration of the Flood had been utilised to create perfect symmetry for the chiasmus, even though the actual events described were not exactly symmetrical. Therefore, the apparent inconsistencies and repetitions identified by scholars are actually part of the artistry of a single account. For example, there were only seven days of waiting for the flood, but they are described in prospect (7:4) and in retrospect (7:10), thus artificially creating two sets of seven days. Similarly, at the end of the flood there are two periods of seven days mentioned, but a total of three weeks appears to have elapsed between four incidents when a bird was sent out:
Scattered across the plain of Mesopotamia are dozens of mounds or 'tells', each of which represents the accumulated debris of centuries of human habitation. In a land of few natural resources, the ruins of past civilisations are preserved in the clay bricks, broken clay tablets and pottery sherds which together form these accumulated piles of debris. In order to find out how the story of Genesis and the biblical Flood fit into human history we must try to understand these ancient civilisations, whose remains go back over 7000 years.
The first Europeans to encounter the Middle Eastern civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were the ancient Greeks. They observed that Egyptian temples were covered in a pictorial script that they could not read, which they called 'holy writing' or hieroglyphics. Modern archaeological interest in the Middle East began in the 17th century when French and British diplomats observed fascinating monumental sculptures which they coveted to adorn the great museums of Europe. In the course of an expedition under Napoleon's command, a stone was discovered at Rosetta in Egypt which bore an inscription repeated in three languages; Greek, Egyptian demotic script and Egyptian hieroglyphics. This 'Rosetta Stone' was the key which allowed the decipherment of hieroglyphics by Champollion in 1823.
The Mesopotamian equivalents of the Rosetta Stone are tomb inscriptions from Persepolis in SW Iran and a monumental inscription carved on a mountain-side at Bisitun (Behistun) in western Iran (Fig. 5.1). Both inscriptions were written in three different scripts, but all using indentations whose wedge-shaped form gave the name 'cuneiform' (wedge-like) to this style of writing. One of the scripts was recognised as alphabetic by Niebuhr in 1775, since it contained about
Fig. 5.1 A view of the monumental inscription of Behistun, located on a carved rock face 100m above the road. The Persian script is on the lower right and the Elamite script on the lower left. The Assyrian script is on the most inaccessible part, located to the top left above an overhang.
forty different signs. The decipherment of this 'Old Persian' script was begun by Grotefend in 1802, based on recognising the names of kings such as Darius and Xerxes who reigned from Persepolis. The decipherment of Old Persian was finally completed by Rawlinson in 1847, based on the particularly long trilingual inscription at Behistun (Mitchell, 1988, p. 85).
The second script at Persepolis and Behistun (in Elamite) was of lesser interest, since it is not widely distributed. However, the third script (originally called Assyrian) matched the writing on numerous clay tablets that were being discovered during excavations by Layard of the ancient city of Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia. This script was based on over four thousand different signs, suggesting that it represented a style of writing like Chinese, based on characters. However, the language which these characters expressed turned out to be of a Semitic type, from the same family of languages that includes Hebrew.
Having sketched out the history and prehistory of Mesopotamia, we are now ready to examine the Great Flood from a Mesopotamian perspective, and in particular to search for evidence of the Flood in the ancient record. Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult (and unsolved) problems in Mesopotamian archaeology. However, we will examine three main lines of evidence for the timing of the Flood. Firstly the biblical evidence (including genealogies and the social context of the Flood presented in Genesis); secondly the evidence from Mesopotamian written records (the Flood Stories and the Sumerian King List); and thirdly the archaeological evidence for flood deposits in excavated sections.
If we take the biblical account of the Masoretic text at face value, the Flood occurred in 2350 BC, after the Early Dynastic period and immediately before the empire of Akkad. This would be a very late date for the Flood, since it is a mature stage in Mesopotamian history, after the period of 'rival city states' and at the beginning of the period of empire building. Such a context is not consistent with the Bible's own portrayal of the social context of the Flood, at an early stage in human history. Therefore, we must conclude that the Shemite genealogy of Genesis Ch 11 (Table 2.2, column 2) is a schematic rather than a com-plete record of Abram's ancestry, and not intended to give an accurate date for the Flood. On the other hand, evidence in Genesis for an early date comes from the claim that all life in the known earth was killed by the Flood, and that all the nations were descended from Noah's sons after the Flood (Gen 7:23; 10:32). These claims are only reasonable if the Flood occurred in prehistory, not at a time when sophisticated civil-isations had trade links spanning half the globe.
The word 'civilisation' literally means 'life in cities' and is an apt word to describe the culture of Eridu and Uruk as the two great cities of the fifth and fourth millennia (5000 - 3000) BC. Eridu, literally 'the good city' (Jacobsen, 1967) is attested by both archaeology and by the Sumerian King List as the First City of Mesopotamian civilisation. On the other hand, Uruk displays the flowering of this civilisation, and the building of a city whose size was not exceeded worldwide for over 2000 years. Following an examination of the archaeological record from these cities, we can attempt to relate their development to the biblical account of the Flood.
There are no historical records describing the founding of Eridu but we can make some deductions about its origins from pictorial evidence. Cylinder seals of Protoliterate age (e.g. Fig. 7.1a) show herds of animals near byres built of reeds. These byres resemble structures which are still built today from reeds by Marsh Arabs who live in the Euphrates delta (Fig. 7.1b).
An interesting feature of the Protoliterate cylinder seal is the series of upright bundles, each with three pairs of loops attached. Modern reed-built structures have similar upright pillars, but lack the loops, implying that these loops were probably some kind of totem. The same looped totem is seen on another seal associated with what appears to be brick-built temple architecture (Fig. 7.2). Elsewhere, a single-looped variant is seen, either associated with a reed-built byre or as a temple doorpost (e.g. Saggs, 2000, p. 44, 57). Furthermore, this single-looped version later becomes the cuneiform sign for the goddess Inanna. Hence, this totem provides a clear link between the early reed-built structures and the later brick-built storehouses and temples. The many-pillared architecture of the later temples may also have been inspired by the reed-bundle pillars.
Fig. 7.1 Comparison of an ancient depiction of a reed-built byre with a modern reed-built strcture: a) Protoliterate cylinder seal impression, Ashmoleum Museum, Oxford; b) Modern reed-built house of the Marsh Arabs of SE Iraq.
Fig. 7.2 Uruk-age cylinder seal impression, showing the multiple looped totem next to a brick-built temple. British Museum.
Archaeological evidence points to a continuous succession of mud-brick temple architecture at Eridu from ca. 5500 BC to 3200 BC. Starting at level 18 of the excavation, which is founded on a small sand dune, these temples were built one on top of another. By building on the site of an earlier shrine, each new temple would inherit the consecrated site of its predecessor. However, it was probably regarded as sacrilegious to demolish the earlier shrine completely. Therefore, the normal procedure was to remove the roof of the old temple and partly dismantle its walls before filling up the interior space with mud bricks or sand to form a level platform on which a new temple was erected. This, no doubt, was the origin of the ziggurat, and it has also allowed the reconstruction of the successive stages of development of the site. These stages are shown in a partially exploded view in Fig. 7.3. An interesting point is that all of the temples were oriented with their corners to the cardinal points of the compass (N-S-E-W).
It was argued above that the founding of Eridu, probably around 5500 BC, places a minimum age constraint on the time of the Flood. However, there are also wider environmental constraints on the possible timing of the Flood. These constraints have to do with the global changes in climate which followed the end of the last ice age, and the effects that these climatic changes had on global sea-level. Superimposed on these global environmental changes, and in part arising from them, there were also more short-lived local changes in climate which could place important constraints on the probability of catastrophic flooding of the Mesopotamian plain at different time periods.
For much of the last million years of geological history the Earth has been through a series of climatic cycles that have involved successive ice ages interspersed with warm periods. Recently, considerable attention has been focussed on this period because of its importance in trying to predict future climate change in response to the 'Greenhouse Effect'.
One consequence of this climatic cycle, with alternating glacial and interglacial periods, is the variation in global sea-level. These variations, more than 100m in magnitude, occur as water is temporarily locked up in glaciers, then released back to the sea as the glaciers melt. We can chart the extent of sea-level fall during glacial periods because caves that are now deep under the sea were, only a few thousand years ago, above sea level. During the time that these caves were above sea-level, stalactites and stalagmites grew, and these have been dated by radiocarbon and the new uranium-thorium dating method (section 3.2; Dickin, 1995, p. 323).
Another way of charting sea-level changes is to date coral reefs that grow on the fringes of tropical islands. This evidence shows that sea level did not change smoothly, but went up and down in small jumps. During a period when sea-level was only changing slowly, a coral reef would flourish in the shallow water just off shore. However, sea-level would then change more rapidly, either stranding the reef above sea-level or drowning it below the depth of light penetration. Since coral reefs rely on a 'symbiotic' partnership with green algae to get their energy, this drowning of the reef kills it.
Using the radiocarbon and uranium-thorium dating methods, coral reefs from several tropical islands have yielded consistent records of sea-level rise since the peak of the last glacial period. One of the most reliable of these records is from Tahiti (Fig. 8.1), which shows that global sea-level rose about 110m since the maximum extent of the last glaciation, about 16,000 years ago. Since the maximum depth of the Persian Gulf is less than 100m, it would have been a dry valley during the last glacial maximum. As the glaciers melted, the sea rose at an average rate of about 1 cm per year, causing it to advance up the Persian Gulf at about 100m per year until sea-level reached its present-day height at about 4000 BC (Fig. 8.1).
Fig. 8.1 Plot of global sea-level rise since 12,000 BC, based on coral reefs from Tahiti. Open circles = U-Th dates; closed circles = radiocarbon dates. After Bard et al. (1996).