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Noah's Ark found? Not so fast

Image: Ark search
A photo from Noah's Ark Ministries International shows a member of the Chinese-Turkish evangelical exploration team looking at wooden beams inside a compartment of a structure that the team has linked to the Biblical Noah's Ark.NAMI / AFP - Getty Images

Web sites are buzzing over claims that remains from Noah’s Ark may have been found on Turkey’s Mount Ararat. The finders, led by an evangelical group, say they are "99.9 percent" that a wooden structure found on the mountainside was part of a ship that housed the Biblical Noah, his family and a menagerie of creatures during a giant flood 4,800 years ago.But researchers who have spent decades studying the region – and fending off past claims of ark discoveries – caution that a boatload of skepticism is in order.

"You have to take everything out of context except the Bible to get something tolerable, and they're not even working much with the Bible," said Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist and historian at Stony Brook University who specializes in the Near East - and especially the region around Ararat, known as Urartu.

Cornell archaeologist Peter Ian Kuniholm, who has focused on Turkey for decades, was even more direct - saying that the reported find is a "crock."

The quest to find remnants of the Bible's most famous cargo ship goes back to, well, virtually biblical times (or at least back to the time of the ancient historian Josephus). In the Book of Genesis, God tells Noah to build a boat that would be longer than a modern-day football field and more than three stories high. Animals were sent to seek shelter in the ship and ride out a flood that wiped out the entire world.

Zimansky points out that Genesis identifies the mountains of Urartu (a.k.a. Ararat) as the landing zone for the ark, but not a specific peak. Over the centuries, 16,946-foot Mount Ararat and the nearby boat-shaped Durupinar rock formation have emerged as the favored locales for ark-hunters. (Others, meanwhile, have looked for evidence of an ancient flood in Turkey's Black Sea region or Iran.)

It seems as if evidence of the ark pops up at least every couple of years - and not always in the same place. The latest report appears to follow up on a 2007 expedition that came upon a wooden structure "in the interiors of an unusual cave" at the 14,700-foot level of Ararat's slopes.

That expedition was organized by Hong Kong-based Noah's Ark Ministries International, the group that is also behind the fresh reports appearing this week. Leaders of the Chinese-Turkish expedition said wooden specimens recovered from the structure on Ararat had been carbon-dated to yield an age of 4,800 years.

They said several compartments had been found, some with wooden beams, and suggested that the compartments were used to house animals. Because the evidence of habitation in that area is scant, Noah's Ark Ministries International said the best explanation for the artifacts' existence was ... you guessed it.

"It's not 100 percent that it is Noah's Ark, but we think it is 99.9 percent that this is it," Yueng Wing-cheung, a Hong Kong documentary filmmaker who was on the exploration team, said in a report from the AFP news service. Yeung said local Turkish officials were trying to win protected status for the site, so that a more extensive archaeological dig could be conducted.

Zimansky said he would welcome hearing more about the site. "It would be nice to know what they have found - if there's a scientific publication in the offing," he told me. "Press releases are not the way archaeology advances."

He was doubtful about the linkage to the Bible story, however. "It's not inconceivable to me that they've found pieces of wood at that level, but that doesn't mean they've found an ark," he said.

Even if you assume the explorers found what they say they found, linking the discovery to Noah's Ark requires lots of leaps of faith: Is the carbon dating accurate? Cornell's Kuniholm said he would like to know who did the dating, especially considering that previous tests reportedly came up with more recent dates. Is it more plausible that the structure is from a miraculous ark, or from an ancient shelter on the mountainside? Is there any evidence of a catastrophic flood that rose to near the top of Ararat 4,800 years ago?

"We know what's going on with Turkey archaeologically at that time, and there's no major interruption in the culture," Zimansky observed.

"There's not enough H2O in the world to get an ark that high up a mountain," Kuniholm said.

Kuniholm has had to deal with repeated claims from ark-hunters, including claims based on purported discoveries of ancient wood, and it sounds as if he's starting to get sick of it. He expects the latest report will end up in his thick file of ark discoveries that end up going nowhere.

"These guys have already gotten the answer worked out ahead of time," he said, "and then they go out to prove it."

During an earlier episode of Noah's Ark hype, we offered an unscientific opinion poll that seemed to suggest most people believe the ark really existed and may have been spotted. Is that how you feel this time around? Or will the Noah's Ark debate end up as muddled as the Shroud of Turin debate? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 7:45 p.m. ET April 27: I've added a couple of additional pictures to the item. I actually had these ready to go shortly after the item was published, but I've been tied up reviewing comments (more than 1,500 and counting).

Many comments relate to carbon dating: In this case, Kuniholm is not questioning the validity of carbon-dating techniques, but just wondering whether the dating was done correctly. He said he was presented with earlier samples of wood from Ararat that he was told were dated to just 1,400 years ago.

Also, one of the factors behind the scientists' skepticism is that there has been no published research about these finds. If it could be verified that this wooden structure is indeed 4,800 years ago, that would be notable - whether or not it came from an ark. Now I'm back to moderating comments...

Update for 11 p.m. ET April 27: I have to apologize to those whose comments have not yet been approved, just as I did when we had the Shroud of Turin item a couple of weeks ago. Some commenters have pointed to an intriguing video clip on The Sun's version of the "Noah's Ark" story that shows mountaineers checking out what appears to be the interior of a wooden compartment. I'm hoping to have more about all this as additional information becomes available.

Update for 6:15 p.m. ET April 28: Cornell archaeologist Peter Ian Kuniholm took a closer look at the photos from Mount Ararat and passed along some additional thoughts in an e-mail:

"... Some years back, a Turkish State Waterworks engineer told me they had found tree-stumps buried in the alluvium at the base of Mounts Ararat and Erciyes, among others, and Strabo in the second century says there were whole tribes of carpenters who made their living building furniture from Erciyes (currently deforested). So that means that at some point in history or prehistory these mountains had forestation. What is to prevent a shepherd in the Early Bronze Age from building a corral or some kind of shelter for his sheep and goats?"

Later in the day, he sent along this suggestion:

"After having been so rude to these Chinese chaps, here is a proposition which you can pass along to them from me:

"1. If the structure is indeed carbon-14-dated to around 4,800 years ago, that would put it at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, from which I have a number of tree-ring chronologies already developed.

"2. If they could saw some sections of pieces that have 100 rings or more and send them to us, we could try to combine them into a chronology and date it. (We do this sort of thing free of charge.)

"3. We could also see what species of trees these are and give them an estimate of where the wood is likely to have originated. (My bet is that it is going to be Pinus sylvestris [a type of pine tree] from eastern Turkey, but let's see.)

"4. We could see which of our Early Bronze Age chronologies it matches best with ... thereby giving us some notion of where the wood originated."

That sounds reasonable to me. My efforts to contact Noah's Ark Ministries International in Hong Kong haven't borne fruit yet, but I'll make sure to pass the proposition along if I have the chance.

Update for 6:30 p.m. ET April 28: The Christian Science Monitor quotes another ark-hunter, Randall Price, as saying he feared that "proper analysis may show this to be a hoax and negatively reflect how gullible Christians can be." The Monitor cited a leaked e-mail, attributed to Price, suggesting that Kurdish men could have trucked wood up the mountain to stage an elaborate hoax for the Chinese-Turkish team.

Update for 11 p.m. ET April 28: For more about supposed hoax angle, check out this posting to PaleoBabble and this response from Randall Price, posted to the World of the Bible Ministries' Web site.

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