For over a century, the vessel that the Old Testament describes as having survived the great flood has been sought. But most archeologists claim it is just a waste of time. Who is really right?
The story of Noah’s ark is one of the best known and most fascinating accounts of the Old Testament: after creating humanity, God was so displeased that he struck the Earth with a great flood to wipe them all out, with the sole exception of the biblical patriarch and his family, who along with a pair of every animal species on the planet survived the flood aboard an enormous wooden vessel.
For those who believe in the religious text as a historically accurate account of real events, the search for archaeological evidence of the ark is equally fascinating, enough to lead some intrepid believers to sift through the foothills of Mount Ararat in Armenia and beyond in search of traces of the famous ship.
For instance, in 1876, British jurist and politician James Bryce climbed Mount Ararat – the location according to the biblical account where the ark came to rest. Upon his return, he claimed to have discovered a piece of wood with “all the characteristics” necessary to deem it a fragment of the vessel.
Regularly reported modern “discoveries” about the ark include an optometrist in the 1940s claiming to have seen it in a rock formation on the mountain, and evangelical shepherds in the early 2000s declaring finding fossilized wood on the peak.
But among academic archeologists and biblical scholars, searches for the ark evoke exasperation and dismay: “This is not an archeologist’s approach,” says Jodi Magness, an archeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about modern searches for proof of Noah’s existence.
“Archeology is not a treasure hunt,” she adds, “it is not the search for a specific object. It is a science in which we ask questions that we hope to answer through excavations.”
A real or fictional flood?
Destructive flood stories and related survivor accounts predate the 8th century BC writing of the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible. Many Mesopotamian texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh written around the early 2nd millennium BC and a Babylonian cuneiform tablet from around 1750 BC, vividly illustrate legends of a flood unleashed upon civilization by a supernatural deity, highlighting the construction of the ark.
Could these narratives be based on real events? “There seems to be geological evidence of a major flood that occurred in the region of the Black Sea around 7,500 years ago,” says Eric Cline, an archeologist at George Washington University. However, scientists disagree about the extent of that event, and historians of the time fail to reach a consensus on whether the flood writings may have been inspired by real-life events. It seems more likely that simply more floods occurred in different places and times, naturally entering global oral and written tradition.
Archaeology and Skepticism about Noah’s Ark
“There is no way to determine the exact location corresponding to that described in ancient Near East,” says Magness. Both Cline and Magness assert that even if researchers find artifacts resembling the ark (or find them in the future), they will not be able to definitively link them to historical events.
“We have no way of identifying Noah in time and space, assuming he really existed, nor the flood, assuming there really was one,” explains Magness. “The only way to substantiate these events would be to have an authentic ancient inscription,” and even then, the researcher emphasizes, such an inscription could refer to another Noah or another flood.
But this skepticism has not stopped the proliferation of so-called “pseudoarchaeology” research, a theory that considers the Bible a reliable historical document. These fruitless activities often pair with the thinking of “young Earth creationism,” the conviction that – despite proof to the contrary – Earth is only a few thousand years old.
Same evidence, different conclusions
These groups use secular archaeological evidence to support their literal interpretation of the Scriptures, simply ignoring or seeking to refute contrary evidence. But not all share the same tactics. Answers in Genesis, an apologetic ministry centering on scientific matters and operating a Noah’s Ark themed amusement park in Kentucky, acknowledges and explores the diverse range of flood myths, including the Old Testament Noah story, and openly concedes the possibility that the ark may never be definitively located.
“We do not expect the ark to have survived 4,350 years and be discoverable,” says Andrew A. Snelling, geologist and director of research at Answers in Genesis who has spent decades trying to prove the young age of Earth. Snelling, however, disagrees with archaeologists on why the ship’s remains will never be found: “Without suitable trees available to build shelters after disembarking from the ark, it is likely that Noah and his family took the ark apart (which they no longer needed) to recover the timber,” he says. While not ruling out the possibility of someday finding the ark, Snelling laments what he calls “debatable claims” by ark hunters that “dampen the impact a real discovery could have.”
According to Magness, who directed excavations at a late Roman-era synagogue in Galilee, ark searches not only confuse the public but reduce enthusiasm for real archaeological finds, even those in line with biblical narratives like the discovery confirming the existence of King David’s house.
“We know a lot about the biblical world and it’s very interesting,” she says.
Setting things straight
Part of the problem, explains Cline, is that the public has unrealistic expectations of archaeology, and the media plays up the thrill of the “hunt” rather than the slow accumulation of knowledge. “We’re not like Indiana Jones,” he says, “ours is a scientific procedure, meticulous work; but what excites us may not excite others.”
In his youth Cline invested much time and energy trying to refute purported biblical evidence that year after year continued to fascinate the public. But then he stopped, and began dedicating his efforts to both his expeditions and translating his research for those willing to accept the results of the scientific process. “People believe what they want to believe,” he sighs.
The archaeologist has focused on discovering an 18th century BC Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri in what is now northern Israel. During excavations there, he concentrated on studying a painted floor found at the site mentioned in the Old Testament. “For us [this floor] is very important because it shows international contacts and relations from nearly 4,000 years ago,” he explains.
“It’s not Noah’s ark, but it’s a painted floor,” says the archaeologist, “and for me it’s an important find.”