Photograph by Martin Gray, National Geographic
A team of evangelical Christian explorers claim they've found the remains of Noah's ark beneath snow and volcanic debris on Turkey's Mount Ararat (map). But some archaeologists and historians are taking the latest claim that Noah's ark has been found about as seriously as they have past ones—which is to say not very.
"I don't know of any expedition that ever went looking for the ark and didn't find it," said Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist specializing in the Middle East at Stony Brook University in New York State. Turkish and Chinese explorers from a group called Noah's Ark Ministries International made the latest discovery claim Monday in Hong Kong, where the group is based. "It's not 100 percent that it is Noah's ark, but we think it is 99.9 percent that this is it," Yeung Wing-cheung, a filmmaker accompanying the explorers, told The Daily Mail.
Noah's Ark Location in Turkey a Secret
The team claims to have found in 2007 and 2008 seven large wooden compartments buried at 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level, near the peak of Mount Ararat. They returned to the site with a film crew in October 2009. Many Christians believe the mountain in Turkey is the final resting place of Noah's ark, which the Bible says protected Noah, his family, and pairs of every animal species on Earth during a divine deluge that wiped out most of humanity.
"The structure is partitioned into different spaces," said Noah's Ark Ministries International team member Man-fai Yuen in a statement. "We believe that the wooden structure we entered is the same structure recorded in historical accounts. ... "The team says radiocarbon-dated wood taken from the discovery site—whose location they're keeping secret for now—shows the purported ark is about 4,800 years old, which coincides roughly with the time of Noah's flood implied by the Bible.
"Noah's Ark" Wood "Way, Way, Way Too Young"
Skepticism of the new Noah's ark claim extends to at least one scholar who interprets the Bible literally.
Biologist Todd Wood is director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College in Tennessee, which pursues biology in a creationist framework. As a creationist, Wood believes God created Earth and its various life-forms out of nothing roughly 6,000 years ago. "If you accept a young chronology for the Earth ... then radiocarbon dating has to be reinterpreted," because the method often yields dates much older than 6,000 years, Wood said. Radiocarbon dating estimates the ages of organic objects by measuring the radioisotope carbon 14, which is known to decay at a set rate over time. The method is generally thought to reach its limit with objects about 60,000 years old. Earth is generally thought to be about four and a half billion years old. Across the board, radiocarbon dates need to be recalibrated, Wood believes, to reflect shorter time frames.
Given this perceived overestimation in radiocarbon dating, the wood the Noah's Ark Ministries International team found should have a "traditional" radiocarbon date of several tens of thousands of years if the wood is truly 4,800 years old, Wood said. "I'm really, really skeptical that this could possibly be Noah's Ark," he added. The wood date is "way, way, way too young."
Wood thinks Noah's ark will never be found, because "it would have been prime timber after the flood," he said."If you just got off the ark, and there's no trees, what are you going to build your house out of? You've got a huge boat made of wood, so let's use that," he said. "So I think it got torn apart and scavenged for building material basically."
"Noah's Ark" Found in Right Country, on Wrong Mountain?
Another reason scholars are skeptical of the latest Noah's ark discovery claim is that Genesis—the first book of the Bible—never specifies which peak the vessel supposedly landed on in Turkey. "The whole notion is odd, because the Bible tells you the ark landed somewhere in Urartu,"—an ancient kingdom in eastern Turkey—"but it's only later that people identified Mount Ararat with Urartu," said Jack Sasson, a professor of Jewish and biblical studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
Stony Brook's Zimansky agreed. "Nobody associated that mountain with the ark" until the tenth century B.C., he said, adding that there's no geologic evidence for a mass flood in Turkey around 4,000 years ago. The Noah's Ark Ministries International explorers are "playing in a very different ballpark than the rest of us," Zimansky said. "They're playing without any concern for" the archaeological, historical, and geological records.
Better Explanations for "Noah's Ark" Structure?
Even if the Noah's Ark Ministries International team did find a wooden structure or even a boat on Mount Ararat, there are other explanations for what the structure might be. For example, it could be a shrine constructed by early Christians to commemorate the site where they believed Noah's Ark should be, Zimansky said. Even in that speculative case, it wouldn't be 4,000 years old. "The Bible hadn't even been written yet," he said.
Bible scholar Sasson said he thinks biblical writers intended the story of Noah's ark to be allegorical, not a true recounting of historical events. By presenting a scenario in which humanity is punished for its wickedness, "they were trying to draw us to the notion of a God who asks us to be acceptable," Sasson said.
UN to Consider "Noah's Ark"?
On its Web site, Noah's Ark Ministries International says the Turkish government plans to apply to the United Nations to put the Noah's ark discovery site on the UNESCO World Heritage list, a designation given to places of special cultural or physical significance. But the agency hasn't received any official requests from Turkey for "the inscription of 'Noah's ark'" into the list, UNESCO spokesperson Roni Amelan said in an email. Such a move would take time, Amelan added. "This cannot be done overnight."
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