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Can the Sumerians Help Date the Genesis Flood?

Last year I blogged a bit about the Table of Nations and the immediate aftermath of the Genesis Flood. Having already tipped my hand that I think the Flood was an actual event in history (whatever theological or mythological embellishments may have been tacked on later), I figured, in the absence of anything more significant to blog about this week, that I might as well tackle the question of when this event took place. In what follows, I will deal strictly with Mesopotamian archeology and, especially, how the archeological data can be squared with certain details found in the epics of ancient Sumeria. (See Ian Lawton’s Guide to the Sumerian Texts for brief summaries of those mentioned below and many others.)

Which Flood?

The first thing to note is that there is, in fact, an embarrassment of riches for anyone looking for evidence of a massive flood in ancient Mesopotamia. A page at Livius.org provides dates for four possible eras for the biblical flood:

  1. The end of the Ubaid period (Ur, c. 4000-3600 BC)
  2. The end of the Jemdet Nasr period (Uruk and Kish, c. 2900 BC)
  3. The end of the Early Dynastic I (“EDI”) period (Shurrupak, c. 2800 BC)
  4. The middle of the Early Dynastic III period (Kish, c. 2500 BC)

The question, therefore, is not “Is there evidence for a flood?” but “Which flood inspired the biblical and Mesopotamian legends?” (By the way, I have no idea how the writer of this page came up with a 3100 BC date for the Late Ubaid flood. Most conventional chronologies place the end of the Ubaid somewhere between 4000 and 3600 BC. The given date is perfectly in line with David Rohl’s controversial revision of ancient chronology, but the rest of the dates are conventional.)

Most scholars seem to opt for the Shurrupak flood at the end of EDI, largely I think on the strength of the fact that Ziusudra, the Sumerian flood hero, was king of that city. Other evidence from Sumerian literature argues against dating “the” Flood that late, however.

It is certain that the Flood occurred after the rise of the earliest Mesopotamian cities. According to the Sumerian King List, there were five principal urban centers in the antediluvian world, each of which ruled in turn before the flood came. These cities were:

  • Eridu (Abu Shahrain), known to be the oldest city in S Mesopotamia (Ubaid 1 period), located196 miles SW of Baghdad
  • Badtibira (Tell al-Medain), an early copper-smelting center, located roughly between Ur and Lagash.
  • Larak (Unidentified)
  • Sippar (Abu Habbah), apparently founded in the Uruk period, 20 miles SW of Baghdad. Northernmost of Sumerian cities.
  • Shurrupak (Fara), whose earliest excavated levels are from Jemdet Nasr period.

Then, the Sumerian King List tell us, “the Flood swept over.”

It looks like the end of the Jemdet Nasr period is the first era in which all the cities said to have existed before the Flood are known to have been in existence. Even so, there are problems with this assumption. First, the same document tells us that the first city to which “the kingship descended” after the flood was Kish, which in fact seems to have first become an important center during the Jemdet Nasr period.

We must also keep in mind that there were numerous floods in southern Mesopotamia. It is at least possible that several floods became conflated in the literary sources. And, of course, the possibility exists that further discoveries will allow us to push back the dates of earliest settlement in Sippar and Shurrupak.

But why hedge my bets in favor of the earliest Flood candidate? Because other Sumerian documents point in that direction.

Dating Postdiluvian Kings

After the flood, the Sumerian King List details the rulers of the First Dynasty of Kish and the First Dynasty of Uruk. The two dynasties were at least partly contemporary, as Gilgamesh, the fifth king of Uruk, was a rival of Agga, the twenty-third and final king of Kish, after whom “Kish was defeated and the kingship was taken to Eanna [i.e., Uruk].” Two early kings of Uruk are of particular importance for pinning the Flood to a recognizable archeological period.


Most scholars seem to agree that Gilgamesh was a historical person who can be dated roughly to the beginning of Early Dynastic III (EDIII, c. 2600 BC in conventional chronology) or perhaps a bit earlier. A stronger case can be made that he belongs some time in EDI.

First, the names of Gilgamesh and his predecessor Lugalbanda appear in tablets found at Fara (Shurrupak) and assigned on epigraphic grounds to EDIII. These names are preceded by the Sumerian determinative sign for divinity, which suggests sufficient time had elapsed for him to become the focus of religious devotion.

Second, ancient literature associates that king with building a great wall around the city of Uruk. According to Tablet I of the Epic of Gilgamesh:

He carved on a stone stela all of his toils,
and built the wall of Uruk-Haven,
the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.
Look at its wall which gleams like copper(?),
inspect its inner wall, the likes of which no one can equal!
Take hold of the threshold stone–it dates from ancient times!
Go close to the Eanna Temple, the residence of Ishtar,
such as no later king or man ever equaled!
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not (even the core of) the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens, one league lowlands, the open area(?) of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area(?) of Uruk it (the wall) encloses.
Find the copper tablet box,
open the … of its lock of bronze,
undo the fastening of its secret opening.
Take and read out from the lapis lazuli tablet
how Gilgamesh went through every hardship.

Uruk was one of the earliest walled cities in the world. Its famous city wall was apparently first constructed in the Early Dynastic I period. If the post-flood Gilgamesh is accurately associated with the great city wall at Uruk, then the Flood must be dated to some time before the EDI period.

Third, a certain artistic motif of the EDII and EDIII periods show heroic figures most reasonably be interpreted as Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu fighting wild beasts and mythological monsters. (In legend, Gilgamesh and Enkidu fought both the Bull of Heaven and the demon Huwawa.) At first, scholars did make a connection between these engravings and Gilgamesh, although they now shy away from such an identification because it would mean the motif is either contemporary with or prior to the king it seems to represent. Once again, a date for Gilgamesh some time before EDII or EDIII seems desirable.

If Gilgamesh is correctly placed in the EDI period, it effectively rules out either of the Early Dynastic floods as a viable candidate for “the” Flood. Thus, the favored candidate (the late EDI Shurrupak flood) is disqualified.


The second king of Uruk’s First Dynasty was Enmerkar. This postdiluvian king almost certainly belongs to the Late Uruk period (between Ubaid and Jemdet Nasr) for the following reasons:

Writing. The epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta claims that Enmerkar, also called the Lord of Kulaba (a district of Uruk), was the first king to record his words on a clay tablet:

His speech was substantial, and its contents extensive. The messenger, whose mouth was heavy, was not able to repeat it. Because the messenger, whose mouth was tired, was not able to repeat it, the lord of Kulaba patted some clay and wrote the message as if on a tablet. Formerly, the writing of messages on clay was not established. Now, under that sun and on that day, it was indeed so.

Obviously, Enmerkar didn’t “invent” writing then and there‚ or else the messenger would not know how to read the king’s message! This narrative detail does, however, suggest that Enmerkar’s reign came very early in the history of writing‚ perhaps at the time when early Mesopotamians first realized that writing could be used for more than business transactions.

But when was this? The first clay tablets written in Sumerian cuneiform all come from Uruk level IV in what is called the Late Uruk Period. Writing achieved a degree of sophistication in the subsequent Jemdet Nasr period. Either would seem to be appropriate for Enmerkar’s noteworthy “feat” of writing his message on a tablet.

Architecture. The oldest part of Uruk was the Eanna, “the house of heaven,” the city’s cultic center. Later, the Eanna was greatly expanded and the city of Uruk grew up around it. The epic literature associates these massive building projects with Enmerkar, described in the Sumerian King List as “the one who built Uruk.” Just as the epic literature singles out Gilgamesh as the builder of Uruk’s fabled wall, it identifies Enmerkar as the builder of the Eanna complex and the city of Uruk itself. Archeologically, this expansion dates to the Uruk IV period. Archeologist Ömür Harmansah’s comments on this era are instructive:

[In the fourth millennium, the s]ite of Uruk/Warka, increases its size enormously to 250 ha, while there is a massive increase in the number of settlements. Increased metal production, stone-working for vessels. In the Late Uruk period some of these settlements were walled. Techniques of irrigation agriculture and the exploitation of the supplementary food supplies (dates, fish, willow), successfully achieved, along with the outcomes of substantial surplus that is put into building activities.

He later remarks that the growth of Uruk during the Late Uruk period was “incomparable.” One would be hard pressed to find a more suitable time frame in which to locate the king “who built Uruk.”

Religion. The original patron deity of Uruk was the sky god An; later Uruk was the center both of his cult and that of the goddess Inanna. This introduction of Inanna’s cult to Uruk (where she was “install[ed] as the divine queen of the Eanna”) is in fact the major theme of two early epics, Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana and Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. The story of Enmerkar in fact opens (Nippur tablet 29.16.422) with a description of an idyllic age when all of Sumer worshiped the god Enlil (in Nippur, Enlil rather than An was the head of the Sumerian pantheon):

In those days there was no snake, there was no scorpion, there was no hyena,
There was no lion, there was no wild dog, no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival.

In those days the land Shubur (East), the place of plenty, of righteous decrees,
Harmony-tongued Sumer (South), the great land of the “decrees of princeship,”
Uri (North), the land having all that is needful,
The land Martu (West), resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison,
To Enlil in one tongue gave praise.

Thus, Enmerkar is remembered—among other things—as a religious innovator.

It is therefore noteworthy that it was precisely in the Late Uruk period that a new artistic motif appeared that bears directly on this religious innovation. Engravings appear around this time depicting a ruler making offerings before a temple with a distinctive gatepost of twisted reeds, which is in fact one of the iconographic symbols of Inanna.

The most noteworthy example of this motif is the Uruk (Warka) Vase, which depicts a procession of worshipers carrying various offerings to a female figure facing the ruler, ornately dressed for a “divine marriage” and attended by a servant. The female figure, either the goddess herself or her high priestess, stands at the top, robed and crowned, with the distinctive gateposts behind her.

If one accepts the testimony of the Sumerian epic literature, Inanna was not worshiped at Uruk until the reign of Enmerkar, which must mean Enmerkar must have reigned in the Uruk IV period, when the first evidence of Inanna-worship at Uruk is found.


It is, of course, possible to assert that “the” Flood was the one occurring at the end of the Jemdet Nasr period, or perhaps even the one at the end of EDI. If the list of cities in the Sumerian King List is taken at face value, this is almost certainly the case because only in the Jemdet Nasr period do we have conclusive evidence that all five antediluvian centers in fact existed.

But there are anomalies: other data from early Sumerian literature, if taken at face value, argue for a much earlier Flood as the inspiration for the legends surrounding the flood-hero Ziusudra (and, of course, Noah). If the details of Enmerkar’s reign are accepted, we must conclude that the Flood came before

  • the invention of writing
  • the architectural expansion of Uruk and its temple complex
  • the introduction of the cult of Inanna at Uruk

All of these may be dated to the Late Uruk period (specifically, to Uruk stratum IV), which leaves us with only one flood candidate that accounts for all of the details surrounding the post-flood accomplishments of Gilgamesh and Enmerkar: the late Ubaid flood, immediately before the start of the Uruk period. This is so regardless of the relative size or impact of the Ubaid flood itself. Even if the scope of this flood was remarkably exaggerated as the story was retold over the centuries, it remains the one flood candidate that properly locates Gilgamesh and Enmerkar in their correct archeological horizons.

The Ubaid flood was responsible for the 11-foot deposit of silt at Ur discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1929. It is also the candidate David Rohl favors, for the archeological reasons I have outlined, in Legend: The Genesis of Civilization. Even if one does not agree with Rohl’s chronological revision, his overall arguments in favor of the Ubaid flood are worth consideration.

technorati tags: early dynastic, enmerkar, flood, gilgamesh, jemdet nasr, leonard woolley, ubaid, uruk



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