The Noah’s Ark kerfuffle

A team of Chinese and Turkish explorers from an evangelical Christian group called Noah’s Ark Ministries International announced earlier this week that they’ve found the remains of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The news instantly spread around the world via wire service (AFP seems to have been the primary source) and a remarkable number of mainstream media outlets reported the claims virtually uncritically; see this absurdly definite headline from ABC, for example.

The basics are as follows: at an undisclosed location on Mount Ararat, the team claims to have found seven large wooden compartments, plus some fragments of wood nearby, in 2007 and 2008. In October of 2009 they returned with a film crew. They say they’ve carbon dated the wood and the results indicate the wood about 4,800 years old, which is kinda sorta when Noah would have been awaiting the rainbow sign, give or take 500 years going by Bishop Ussher’s chronology.

Explorer examines Mount Ararat structureFilmmaker Yeung Wing-cheung from the 15-person team went so far as to say “It’s not 100 per cent that it is Noah’s Ark, but we think it is 99.9 per cent that this is it.”

In support of their claims, they offer the remote location which precludes human habitation as a source of the structures, some unauthenticated footage and a couple of pictures. Oh, and also the presence of tenons in the wood, which of course only existed before nails were invented. (Any mortise and tenon joints you might have encountered on your post-Noah furniture secretly include invisible nails.) The group refuse to disclose the location, for its protection, of course. They also say Turkish officials present at the press conference will ask the government to submit the site to UNESCO for World Heritage status.

The Turkish government doesn’t seem to be quite on board with the plan, however, because they’re actually initiating an investigation into the regional officials involved and into whether the team actually had permission to do any research on Mount Ararat and remove artifacts from the country.

Also displeased are Creationist scholars who point out that if radiocarbon dating is accepted in this case, then it would have to be accepted in all the other cases where the results are older than the 6,000 years of the earth according to Biblical literalists. If you recalibrate all carbon dating results so the maximum is 6,000 years, then of course the 4,800 years of this find make it way too young to be Noah’s wood. Also, it’s cedar wood, not gopher, so yeah, literalists not happy.

Meanwhile, actual archaeologists point out that even if this find is real and the dating is accurate — two huge ifs — that proves exactly nothing. The wood could be on Mount Ararat and a) not be from a ship, b) not have been used in construction right when it was harvested.

“I don’t know of any expedition that ever went looking for the ark and didn’t find it,” Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York state, told National Geographic.

The evangelical group says it found wood structures on Ararat, and carbon dating placed it at 4,800 years old. But even this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Noah’s Ark – or that the “structure” they found is that old.

“All that we know at the moment is that the expedition members are showing us pictures and samples of a structure made out of wood,” Cline told The Christian Post.

“It could be ancient, it could be medieval, it could even have been constructed last week,” he said. “Even carbon-14 dating will only tell us how old the wood is; it will not tell us when the structure was constructed.”

“If the finds are published in a full and comprehensive manner, one will truly be able to assess it,” Dr. Aren M. Maeir, a professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told The Christian Post. “Meanwhile, it joins many other such discoveries – and sound quite hard to believe.”

There’s also zero geological evidence of a flood in Turkey 4,000 years ago, and Biblical scholars point out that the Bible says the ark landed in Urartu, a kingdom in eastern Turkey. The Mount Ararat location only became the prevalent theory in the Middle Ages.

So, in other words, the “find” is pretty much meaningless at this point. The articles quoting the team unchallenged are succumbing to the allure of Bible-related discoveries. We’ll see if there’s any fire to all this smoke should the discoveries ever be published.

Meanwhile, here’s an entertaining YouTube of the Noah’s Ark Ministries International team doing their version of archaeology on the Ararat site. I particularly like the stumbling around in thick boots part.