© Reuters/Fatih Saribas
Greenpeace volunteers build a modern-day version of the legendary Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey in this 2007 file photo.
The boat that rocked may have also rolled round more than we ever thought possible.

An ancient tablet being studied by a leading language expert is painting a new picture of Noah's ark. And it's rethinking of history's most famous love-boat may have made a lot of practical sense.

Ancient Babylonian, carved into a clay tablet salvaged by a British serviceman serving in the Middle East in the late 1940s, spells out an entirely different version of the shape of the vessel that's pictured on the nursery walls of many babies.

Irving Finkel, an expert at the British Museum, tells QMI Agency the 3,700-year-old clay tablet describes the ark as circular, rather than the bow and stern version usually depicted.

"I was astonished," Finkel says of translating the lines of script, inscribed by the hands of a poet.

For the first time, he adds, someone was reconsidering the very shape of the boat that, according to the bible, saved Noah, his family and a whole lot of animals from drowning.

The poet likely drew on vessels he was familiar with. Since the ark wouldn't have had to sail to escape the rising floodwaters - instead, it simply needed to float - then it could have been designed like round coracles still used in Iraq and Iran.

In the version described in Genesis, in the Old Testament, Noah's life-saving ark has always been fashioned as coffin-shaped.

But among the lines translated by Finkel - who's wrestling with several damaged and incomplete passages - God tells the Noah-figure: "Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions and save (sic) life. Draw out the boat that you will build with a circular design. Let its length and breadth be the same."

Finkel says he knows the poet's interpretation won't alter most people's imagining of the ark, nor will it compete against the bible, but he's fascinated that the writer thought of the ark in a way citizens of his time could relate to. It was, the researcher adds, tangible.

He's now picking apart unclear or damaged parts of the 60-lines, including those that describe decks inside the ark. In all, the tablet, dated to around 1,700 BC, is not that much younger than the oldest known version of the remarkable voyage.

And if the round theory doesn't rock your sense of the shape of Noah's salvation, the list of critters that missed the boat may.

Finkel says the natural assumption is the ark was filled with two of living thing on Earth. But a more plausible theory is Noah would have only needed to save animals familiar to his region.

Despite what was sewn into your favourite baby blanky, Finkel figures: "That would have meant no giraffes or rhinos."