Noah's Ark: Did Hollywood Get It Right?

In the forthcoming epic Noah, the vessel by which the biblical hero saves himself and other appears like a huge shipping container. But is that right?

In Darren Aronofksy's forthcoming epic "Noah," the vessel by which the biblical hero saves himself, his family, and pairs of animals from the apocalyptic flood appears like a huge shipping container standing some 50 feet tall and 500 feet long.

The design was inspired by "going back to what God tells Noah in the Bible," Aronofksy said in a behind-the-scenes featurette recently released by Paramount.

The problem is, Russell Crowe's Noah might have gotten the wrong instruction manual.

The original Noah's Ark was a giant round vessel, says a script on an 3,700-old clay tablet now on display at the British Museum in London.

Found in the Middle East in the late 1940s by Leonard Simmons, who then passed it to his son Douglas, the cracked, smartphone-sized tablet consists of 60 lines in cuneiform. It was translated by Irving Finkel, curator of the British Museum's 130,000 Mesopotamian clay tablet collection.

The tablet turned out to be a detailed construction manual for building an ark with palm-fiber ropes, wooden ribs and coated in hot bitumen to make it waterproof.

The vessel, however, was round.

"The Babylonians of around 1750 believed the ark in the flood story was a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers," Finkel told Discovery News.

The coracle described in the tablet was "the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 square meters, and six-meter high walls," Finkel said.

"A round boat makes perfect sense in Mesopotamia where round boats are likely to have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It would not have made much sense in the Levant where you don't have rivers like that," Elizabeth Stone, an anthropology professor at New York's Stony Brook University, told Discovery News.

Indeed, a waterproofed coracle would never sink.

"Being round isn't a problem -- it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat," Finkel wrote in his British Museum blog.

Over the centuries, the ark has been depicted in many ways. Although the Bible specifies its dimensions -- 300 cubits (about 450 feet) long, 50 cubits (about 75 feet) wide, and 30 cubits(about 45 feet) high -- it doesn't provide any clue about what it looked like.

Biblical creationists imagined Noah's Ark like a large, box-like vessel similar to the version shown in Aronofksy's $130 million epic movie. Other designs added a sloping roof and matched the ships of the day, from square-rigged caravels to long vessels with pointy bows.

The most elaborate depiction of the ark was produced in the 17th century by the German Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher. He calculated the number of animals that could fit in the ark and conceived a three-storied box with a double-pitched roof, a door and a window. He placed quadrupeds on the bottom, birds and humans on the top and serpents in the bilge, while food and water were stored in the middle.

His design fit popular imagination and set the standard for children's story books. There, the ark is often depicted as a large house on a boat, with a pair of giraffes sticking out of the roof.

According to Genesis, after the flood killed nearly everything on Earth, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat in Eastern Turkey.

Despite innumerable expeditions to find the biblical vessel, none has been successful.

"I do not believe the ark really existed," Finkel said.

"I think that the flood story echoes the memory of a real devastation but that the ark is a component of the mythology that developed to avert the fear of its happening again," he concluded.

Noah's Ark under contruction with its master builder, Noah (portrayed by Russel Crowe), and his son in the new Paramount Pictures film "Noah."

Animals are shown running into Noah's Ark, as depicted by Paramount Pictures "Noah." Despite the depiction of the ark as a rectangular structure in the film, research has suggested the ark could have been round in structure.

This 3,700-year-old clay tablet, consisting of 60 lines in cuneiform, has been dubbed a prototype of Noah's ark described in the Bible. The tablet contains a detailed construction manual for building an ark with palm-fiber ropes, wooden ribs and coated in hot bitumen to make it waterproof. It also contains the first description of the ark's shape -- surprisingly, it's a massive round vessel.

About two-thirds the size of a soccer field, the ark was "a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers," Irving Finkel, curator of the British Museum's 130,000 Mesopotamian clay tablet collection who translated the cuneiform script, told Discovery News.

The concept of a round ark emerges from this late 14th-century illustration. But according to Finkel, the picture is not significant. "The roundness of the ark had faded from memory before the Bible was written," he said.

Over the centuries, the ark has been depicted in many ways. Biblical creationists imagined Noah's ark like a large, box-like vessel, similar to the version shown in Aronofksy's $130 million epic. Other designs added a sloping roof.

In many cases the shape matched the ships of the days. Designs ranged from square-rigged caravels to long vessels with pointy bows.

This reconstructed medieval mural of the Noah's Ark from Saint Teilo church in Wales represents the idea of the ark in popular imagination and children's story books. There, the ark is often depicted as a large house on a boat, with animals sticking out.