In 1851, British archaeologists discovered hundreds of
clay tablets whilst digging in ancient Babylon (now in Iraq). It was
twenty years later that British Museum assistant George Smith became the
first person to read them. He found the story of Gilgamesh, which bore
strong similarities to that of Noah. Gilgamesh was visited by the leading
gods, who decided that there would be a great deluge, told him to make a
boat, and carry in it the seed of all living things. 
Further Babylonian texts were discovered, showing that
the story first emerged in Mesopotamia. In the 1930s, conclusive evidence
was found of a huge flood in the area about five thousand years ago -
the timeframe for the story of Noah. 
What we know of the culture of what is now Iraq provides
the first glimpse of the real-life historical figure behind the myth.
Noah may have been king of a city called Shuruppak. He would have had a
kilt, a shaven head, and eye make-up, like the figures portrayed in
artworks created in what was then known as Sumer. The epic of Gilgamesh
says this Sumerian Noah had silver and gold, then the currency of wealthy
merchants, suggesting that he was a businessman.
Could this story have provided the inspiration for
the holy men who wrote the Book of Genesis around the middle of the
first millennium BC, while the Israelites were captives in Babylonia?
Instead of building an ark to survive a great flood,
he is more likely to have built boats to trade goods such as beer,
grain, and animals. All of the big trading centres of the era were on
the River Euphrates, and it was cheaper to move goods by water than on
land. Sumerians were able to build barges about six metres in length
(twenty feet), and marine archaeologists have not found remains or
inscriptions of larger vessels.
But they believe that the technology existed to have
built a series of barges and use them like pontoons on which a much
larger boat, or ark, could have been constructed.
Parts of the Euphrates were only navigable at certain
times of the year, when the waters were deep enough for large boats.
Noah was likely to have waited for the melt waters to arrive in June
and July and, if these had combined with a tropical storm, the river
could have flooded the Mesopotamian plain.
The Sumerian flood story includes a depiction of a large vessel
which is packed with various objects and, presumably, animals,
clearly showing a basis for the later Old Testament flood story
of Noah and the ark