Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.”–Genesis 11:1–3
Is there archaeological evidence that supports the historical accuracy of statements like these in the book of Genesis? Does science affirm or negate the time and location of such events?
Timing of the Tower of Babel
These introductory verses for the Tower of Babel story contain enough information to identify the time at which this event most likely occurred—to within a few hundred years. A January 2020 study entitled “The Appearance of Bricks in Ancient Mesopotamia,”1 combined with a 2021 review of that paper and other available evidence2 claim the Tower of Babel began construction sometime in the fourth millennium BC. I’ll summarize the findings and then add some historical context to help understand the story.
As documented in the two studies mentioned above, the use of “mud brick” for construction dates to at least 9,000 BC, probably earlier. Originally the bricks were sun-dried. Evidence of baked mud bricks was first discovered in Eridu about 3,500 BC.3 Baked mud bricks are stronger than sun-dried bricks, allowing the construction of very tall structures.
Adding some historical context to this body of research helps understand the confusion of languages, and supports the understanding that the tower was built sometime during the fourth millennium BC or earlier. Note Genesis 11:9b in particular: “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” The scattering of these people is the second such scattering mentioned in the Bible. The first one occurs in the previous chapter, Genesis 10, the “Table of Nations.” It lists the descendants of Noah and concludes with this statement: “From these, the nations spread out over the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32).
Apparently, the scattering of the Tower of Babel people was independent of the scattering of Noah’s descendants. The two groups were scattered at different times, and for different reasons. Because the Tower of Babel occurred later in time than Noah’s story (due to its position in the biblical narrative), we can infer that the Tower of Babel inhabitants scattered into a world that was already populated with other people—other descendants of Noah, who arrived earlier.
Language Studies Help Provide Context
Some scholars disagree with this assessment. Ignoring the first scattering in Genesis 10, some note that the phrase “as people moved eastward” (Genesis 11:2) refers to all the descendants of Noah who collectively migrated to Mesopotamia.4 From there, these scholars argue, the people subsequently scattered throughout the world. But if the people were scattered only once, as these scholars would suggest, why are two scatterings mentioned in the Bible? They might argue that both passages refer to the same event, in different contexts. Such a claim has yet to be thoroughly examined and appears to be unsupported by the currently available historical evidence.
But what do we know about this time period in Mesopotamian history? The fourth millennium BC was a time of rapid population growth that triggered urbanization that, in turn, caused significant political development. During this millennium the division of labor also increased along with the formalization of language.5 Previously, the dominant language—indeed the only language in the region—was Sumerian.6 Sumerian is, itself, an interesting language. Linguists call it a “language isolate,” meaning that there is no known language from which Sumerian arose, nor are there any later languages that are derived from Sumerian.7 Sumerian has no known predecessors or successors.
Written forms of Sumerian emerged around 3,500 BC. These earliest forms of writing were pictographs. The pictographs gradually gave way to more complex forms of writing and by 3,000 BC lexical script8 emerged.9
At the same time, the Sumerian language lost its status as the region’s sole language. Other languages, particularly Akkadian and its dialects, were introduced due to the influx of Semitic-speaking people. Being a language isolate, Sumerian was unrelated to Akkadian. Sumerian-speaking people could not understand Akkadian and vice versa.
What the Evidence Indicates
We can summarize the available archaeological and historical evidence as follows:
- During the fourth millennium BC, Sumerian, a language isolate, was apparently the only spoken language in the region.
- The Sumerian language acquired written lexical form around 3,000 BC.
- Baked mud-brick technology had been invented by this time.
- This building technology allowed very tall structures to be built.
- The Tower of Babel was planned to be a tall, baked mud-brick structure.
- The tower builders (most likely) spoke Sumerian.
- Languages in the region became more diverse.
All these statements are well supported with current archaeological and historical evidence and they corroborate the events in Genesis 11.
Yet, we can infer more from this information. A common interpretation of the tower event is that it occurred in the city of Babylon. After all, the text explicitly says, in verse 9, that the city was called “Babel.” In the previous chapter, Nimrod is credited with building the city of Babylon, among other cities. But Babylon did not exist at any time in the fourth millennium BC. It was built toward the end of the third millennium BC, more than one millennium later. The dates are too far apart for Babylon to be the setting of the story.
But there’s also a biblical reason for the setting being in some other city. In Genesis 11:8, the author claims that “they stopped building the city.” Babylon was occupied continually, from about 2,300 BC until its final abandonment in the eighth century AD.10 Given that the people stopped building the city, but Babylon was continuously occupied for three thousand years, Babylon could not be the site of the tower—despite the word “Babel” used as its name.
Many scholars have suggested that the earliest Sumerian city, called Eridu, was the site of the Tower of Babel. It would make sense, as Eridu was the first city built by the first settlers in the region and contains early examples of baked mud brick construction. Additionally, the temples in Eridu are larger and older than others, its Sumerian name (NUN.KI, or “The Mighty Place”) was later known as Babylon, and the Greek historian Berosus, writing in 200 BC, referred to Eridu as “Babylon.”11
The RTB creation model suggests that the Tower of Babel was built on dry land on what now may be below sea level. Recent studies suggest that a breach of the Indian Ocean into the Persian Gulf about 13,000 years ago caused rapid sea level rise, leading the inhabitants to seek higher land.12 Given this evidence, the RTB Tower of Babel model remains a possibility. To confirm it, evidence of baked mud bricks would need to be found among ruins below the current sea level. The structures so far discovered use stone instead of brick for construction.
Regardless of whether the Tower of Babel was built in Mesopotamia during the fourth century BC or at some earlier time and perhaps somewhere else, it does appear that there’s significant archaeological evidence suggesting the events chronicled in Genesis 11 actually occurred.
- Kadim Hasson Hnaihen, “The Appearance of Bricks in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Athens Journal of History 6, no. 1 (January 2020), 73–96, doi:10.30958/ajhis.6-1-4.
- Dave Armstrong, “Tower of Babel, Baked Bricks, Bitumen, & Archaeology,” Patheos, August 26, 2021.
- Hnaihen, “The Appearance of Bricks in Ancient Mesopotamia,” 80.
- Christopher Eames, “The ‘Sumerian Problem’—Evidence of the Confusion of Languages?” Armstrong Institute of Biblical Archaeology, September 15, 2020. (See second to last paragraph.)
- Piotr Michalowski, “Mesopotamian Cunieform,” section 3 in Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds., The World’s Writing Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
- Although scholars hypothesize that there were earlier languages in the region, the current evidence shows otherwise. See page 163 of Piotr Michalowski, “The Lives of the Sumerian Language,” in Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures: New Approaches to Writing and Reading in the Ancient Near East. Papers from a Symposium Held February 25–26, 2005 (Oriential Institute Seminars), Seth L. Sanders, ed., (Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2006), 159–184.
- Piotr Michalowski, “Ancient Near Eastern and European Isolates,” chapter 2 in Language Isolates, Lyle Campbell, ed. (London, UK: Routledge, 2017).
- Lexical script is a technical term for a language with an alphabet and formal grammar.
- Theo J. H. Krispijn, “Writing Semitic with Cuneiform Script. The Interaction of Sumerian and Akkadian Orthography in the Second Half of the Third Millennium BC,” in The Idea of Writing, vol. 2 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 181–218, doi:10.1163/9789004217003_010.
- Henry W. F. Saggs, “Babylon,” Britannica, last modified July 3, 2023.
- “Eridu,” Ancient Wisdom, accessed October 24, 2023, www.ancient-wisdom.com/iraqeridu.htm.
- J. T. Teller et al., “Calcareous Dunes of the United Arab Emirates and Noah’s Flood: the Postglacial Reflooding of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf,” Quaternary International 68–71 (June 2000), 297–308, doi:10.1016/S1040-6182(00)00052-5.