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Searching to Noah Vale

Skeptical Inquiree

Ben Radford

Volume 30.6, November / December 2006

Q: I recently came across a Christian publication which claimed that Noah’s Ark had been found. I don’t believe it. What is the truth?

—M. Andrade

A: In this world there are things that seem on the verge of being discovered every so often, yet never quite materialize. The “Lost City” of Atlantis, for example, has been claimed to have been found at least a half dozen times. One researcher is pretty sure it is in Bolivia; another says it is Antarctica; a third claims that Bimini beachrock may be from the lost civilization (see Eugene Shinn’s article in the January/February 2004 SI). So it is with Noah’s Ark.

The difference is, of course, that the implications of Noah’s Ark actually being found extend far beyond archaeology. The weight of all the world’s animals is nothing compared to the religious freight that the Ark carries.

The Ark story is implausible on the face of it; there simply wouldn’t be enough space on the boat to accommodate two (or seven, depending on the source) of every living animal (including dinosaurs), along with the food and water necessary to keep them alive for over six months. Still, biblical literalists—those who believe that proof of the Bible’s events remains to be found—have spent lives and fortunes trying to validate their beliefs.

Before discussing the recent claims regarding the whereabouts of Noah’s vessel, a history of Ark “finds” is instructive. Violet M. Cummings is the author of several books on Noah’s Ark, among them Noah’s Ark: Fable or Fact? (1975), in which she claimed that Noah’s Ark was found on Turkey’s Mount Ararat. According to the 1976 book and film In Search of Noah’s Ark, “there is now actual photographic evidence that Noah’s Ark really does exist.... Scientists have used satellites, computers, and powerful cameras to pinpoint the Ark’s exact location on Mt. Ararat.” This is a rather remarkable claim, for despite repeated trips to Mt. Ararat over the past thirty years, the Ark remains elusive. Undeterred by a lack of evidence, in 1982 Cummings issued a book titled, Has Anybody Really Seen Noah’s Ark?, published by Creation-Life Publishers. The subtitle, “An Affirmative Definitive Report,” hints at Cummings’s conclusion.

Interest in Noah’s Ark resurfaced in February 1993, when CBS aired a two-hour primetime special titled, The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark. (Little did CBS know that they were using incredible in its accurate, proper meaning: “not credible.”) As Ken Feder describes in his book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, the special “was a hodgepodge of unverifiable stories and misrepresentations of the paleontological, archaeological, and historical records.” It included the riveting testimony of a George Jammal, who claimed not only to have personally seen the Ark on Ararat but recovered a piece of it. Jammal’s story (and the chunk of wood he displayed) impressed both CBS producers and viewers. Yet Jammal was later revealed as a paid actor who had never been to Turkey and whose piece of the Ark was not an unknown ancient timber (identified in the Bible as “gopher wood”) but instead modern pine soaked in soy sauce and artificially aged in an oven. Red-faced CBS, which had not done a whit of fact-checking for their much-hyped special, said that the program was entertainment, not a documentary.

So the matter stood until June 2006, when a team of archaeologists from the Bible Archaeology Search and Exploration (B.A.S.E) Institute, a Christian organization, claimed to have found Noah’s Ark at 13,000 feet in the Elburz mountains of Iran. “I can’t imagine what it could be if it is not the Ark,” said team member Arch Bonnema. They brought back pieces of stone they claim may be petrified wood beams, as well as video footage of the Ark (and by “the Ark” I mean “a large dark rock formation”).

The team believes that within the rock they can see evidence of hundreds of massive, hand-hewn wooden beams laid out in the presumed size and shape of the Ark. They seem to have experienced pareidolia; seeing what they want to see in ambiguous patterns or images. Just as religious people will see images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in toast, stains, or clouds, they may also see images of Noah’s Ark in stone cliffs. (In New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest there is a large rock formation called Battleship Rock, which—from a certain angle—does indeed look like a battleship. One wonders what the B.A.S.E. team would make of that.)

Noah’s Ark enthusiasts are in the somewhat awkward position of deciding which (if any) of several alleged Ark finds is the real one.

The B.A.S.E. claims have yet to be proven. Ultimately, it may not matter, because, as founder Bob Cornuke states, “I guess what my wife says my business is, we sell hope. Hope that it could be true, hope that there is a God.” Yet the question is not about faith, hope, or God; the question is whether Noah’s Ark is real and has been found. Like Atlantis, the Ark will continue to be “found” by those looking for it— whether it exists or not.

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.