It’s the nature of such things, I suppose, that discoveries meant to be of earth-shattering importance are announced in a blaze of publicity (front page news, no less, on a number of newspapers) only to fall into obscurity as time passes. An announcement that not only has Noah’s Ark been found (again!) on Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağı), but also that complete wooden chambers are preserved is a story that, if true, would change the way in which most people view the world. It would overturn our understanding of history, geology, biology… almost everything we think we know about how the world works. And yet, within days of the initial announcement, at least one of those involved with the project were doing some rapid back-pedalling; the Ministry involved in the ‘discovery’, Noah’s Ark Ministries International (挪亞方舟國際事工), then issued a statement dismissing the author’s involvement. What is going on?
Let’s start by looking at what was announced. The press release states that “a Chinese-Turkish exploration team successfully excavated and ventured inside a large wooden structure at an elevation of more than 4,000m above sea level” containing seven ‘spaces’. One of the spaces was frozen but said to contain wood with tenons; the second was L-shaped and also featured wooden tenon construction, although it was said to be “heavily decomposed”; a third was more than five metres high, with wooden walls and a door on one side; another was box-shaped and formed a cube of more than two metres with wooden nails on one side of the wall; a small passage was found linking two other spaces; wooden staircases were found inside the structure; a final space was found, estimated to be 5 by 12 metres. These are remarkable claims, backed up with some photographs of apparently old wooden structural elements. We are also told that “[w]ood specimens were dated as 4,800 years old”, although we are not told how or by which laboratories (although the Christian Science Monitor says that it was radiocarbon dated by a laboratory in Iran). The Ministry quotes Dr Otkay Belli, a respected archaeologist and an expert on the archaeology of Urartu, as describing it as “the greatest discovery in history”.
If true, this is remarkable indeed. Not only do we have physical evidence for one of the cornerstones of biblical literalism, we also have confirmation of a story that will undermine much of what currently passes for knowledge of human and geological history. As it is such a powerful claim, the evidence used to back it up must be equally powerful. So how well does the evidence stand up to scrutiny?
Firstly, there is the dating. Noah’s Ark Ministries International has not released any details of the radiocarbon dating. We do not know what was dated or what the actual results were. To say that the “specimens were dated as 4,800 years old” is not to report a radiocarbon date: it is to interpret that date. Presumably, the date would have been 4740 Cal BP or 2790 Cal BC with a margin of error; this has been calibrated from an original radiocarbon determination of something like 4220 bp with its own margin of error. These errors are largely a result of the technique, which counts very tiny amounts of radioactive carbon in a sample by measuring the rate of its decay as it emits radioactive particles, making the initial measurements imprecise. To oversimplify, the larger the sample and the longer the period over which readings can be taken, the smaller the margin of error. But because of these errors, we have to bear in mind that the ‘date’ is not a ‘date’ in the sense that we understand it but a statistical approximation to the age of the sample.
As such, it is very unlikely indeed that the single ‘date’ is the true age of the sample; by allowing one margin of error before and after the ‘date’, we have a roughly 66% chance that the true radiocarbon age falls within this date range; allow two either side, and there is a roughly 97% chance. The date then needs to be calibrated, because the amount of radioactive carbon in the environment has fluctuated through time, which further increases the size of the margin of error. So be told that a sample of wood is “4,800 years old” is meaningless unless hedged with these uncertainties; to accept a press release as a source rather than a laboratory certified date is foolish.
Secondly, there is the location of the ‘discovery’. The team from Noah’s Ark Ministries International has refused to divulge where on the mountain they found the remains. They have said that it is at “an altitude of 4,200m” and that “the wooden structure was permanently covered by ice and volcanic rocks”, embedded in a glacier. Mount Ararat is 5,165 m high, which means that the site must lie inside the top kilometre or so of the mountain. There are several problems here. The first question we must ask is why the secrecy? While it may be important to protect an important discovery from looters, it is also vital to have potentially controversial discoveries validated by one’s peers. To keep them away seems suspicious. Secondly, if the remains are embedded in glacial ice, they are part of a moving body of water, albeit one moving at a very slow speed. Speeds of up to 20-30 m per day have been recorded, but the overall speed is dependent on friction, slope and position within the glacier. The speed is slowest at the edges and fastest in the centre. Nevertheless, we ought to envisage a flow of some sort; to be exceedingly generous, let’s call it slightly under one centimetre per day, giving us 3.5 m per year. Now, a quick look at Google Earth shows the summit covered in clouds that effectively mask the permanently glaciated top of the mountain, which gives a radius of around 5 km for the ice; even at the most generously slow rate of flow, any Ark landing on the very summit of Mount Ararat would have been carried the length of a glacier in just over 1400 years. We must explain why something claimed to be 4800 years old has not been carried down by the glacial flow.
Worse still, Dr Robert Cargill has done some investigation into Noah’s Ark Ministries International and has discovered that it is an arm of Media Evangelism Ltd of Hong Kong, a “charitable Christian organization committed to building a Christian media presence by using every modern means of communication to promote the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ”. In other words, it’s an evangelical organisation of a type more familiar in a USA overwhelmed by religiosity than in communist China. This means that we should examine their claims with even more rigour than might otherwise be the case. Even believers in Noah’s flood as an historic event are distancing themselves from the claims of Noah’s Ark Ministries International.
Most damning, despite Noah’s Ark Ministries International’s attempts to spin a bad situation, Dr Randall Price has given his version of the 2008 expedition. According to an email written to a student, the photographs of the interior of the structures were taken inside genuine structures in another part of Turkey, close to the Black Sea. He believes that the wooden beams filmed by the team in a cave on Mount Ararat in 2009 were taken from the site of the real structures onto Mount Ararat by Kurdish workers for the Chinese team; at least, that’s what he says he was told by one of those workers. Randall Price points out that some of the photographs alleged to have been taken inside the frozen Ark have cobwebs, an impossibility in sub-zero temperatures. Several of the photographs also show hay or straw inside the wooden chambers, which must also raise suspicions. Randall Price is a respected archaeologist who has excavated at Qumran and committed evangelical Christian who believes that the remains of Noah’s Ark may some day be found on the mountain, so we must take his accusations of fraud very seriously indeed: he has an interest in the discovery of a genuine Noah’s Ark.
So what is the moral of this story (as if it needs one like some episode of Doctor Who)? It’s not a moral about Noah’s Ark or the gullibility of religious believers. It’s not even a moral about money-grabbing evangelists who are economical with the truth in their efforts to spread the message. It’s a moral about the way the world’s press is prepared to hype sensational ‘discoveries’, repeating the claims of press releases without even doing the most basic checking. This is a practice I’ve already criticised on this blog, known as ‘churnalism’. But the really worrying part of this is that those readers of The Daily Mail, The Daily Express or any other of the so-called ‘newspapers’ that published this ludicrous story will have come away with the impression that Noah’s Ark really has been found. Even if it doesn’t make a vast difference to their lives, it’s there, in the backs of their minds, reinforcing the Religious Education (myths) they were taught as children. Even if, as a nation, we English aren’t especially religious in terms of formal church going, I suspect that there are a lot of people who believe that “there has to be something more”, that the Bible “can’t just be all stories”. That’s the danger: the reinforcement of a superstition-based mindset that underpins western culture.