Titanic Archaeologist Says Noah’s Flood May Have Happened! Last week saw a flurry of headlines that were variations on that theme, mostly adorned with images of the Ark wallowing in the mighty waves of God’s global snit. The archaeologist in question was Robert Ballard, underwater explorer extraordinaire, discoverer of the Titanic, the Bismarck, the Yorktown, and dozens of lesser wrecks, and now – according to some of the news items – going after the great-granddaddy of them all, Noah’s Ark. Except, of course, he isn’t. Flood, yes. Ark, no.
But I’ll say right off that he is, so to speak, out of his depth with this one.
The Flood connection began with the publication in the late 1990s of the “Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis”, by geophysicist Walter Pitman and marine geologist William Ryan: the hypothesis that the Black Sea catastrophically flooded in about 5600 BC when the Aegean burst through a sill at the Bosporus, sending two hundred Niagaras-worth of water per day crashing through the gap for up to three hundred days. Ryan and Pitman went on to speculate that (a) the land thus flooded had previously been heavily populated, (b) the displaced survivors spread out across Europe, the Near East and even further afield, taking the Neolithic with them, and (c) folk memories of this catastrophe eventually morphed into the myth of the Great Noachian Flood.
Ballard, setting out to prospect for shipwrecks in the Black Sea, picked up on this idea with great gusto, and added the search for drowned Neolithic habitation sites – jokingly referred to as “Noah’s house” – to his research program. He found wrecks, all right, the earliest dating to 500 BC, spectacularly preserved in the anoxic waters and with cargoes of pottery jars still intact. More to the point, Ballard also announced in 2000 that he had found the remains of human-built structures 300 feet below the surface, on a paleo-shoreline claimed to be the pre-Deluge edge of the sea. Slam-dunk for the Deluge Hypothesis – that was Ballard’s position in 2000, and it appears to be his position in 2012.
But there are problems. The Ryan/Pitman hypothesis was controversial from the start, and there is now enough counter-evidence to – ahem – pretty much blow it out of the water. Any post-glacial rise in the level of the Black Sea appears to have been considerably earlier, gentler, and less extensive than in Ryan and Pitman’s (and by extension, Ballard’s) model. No sudden sill collapse, no terrifying multi-Niagara of water, no shocked survivors heading for the hills bearing their culture on their backs.
Another problem is the linkage of flooding in the Black Sea with Noah’s Deluge, i.e., the idea that the folk memory of this specific disastrous flood gave rise to the Sumerian and later legends. This was pure speculation on Ryan and Pitman’s part, untestable, simplistic, archaeologically implausible, and smelling of pseudohistory. Furthermore, it would make little sense to look for the roots of Sumerian myths so far away, in the region of the Black Sea. Better to look at the post-glacial flooding of what is now the Persian Gulf, which is right there. And even in that case, linking the event to the myth could still never be more than speculation. The same goes for the attractive but untestable idea that post-glacial flooding and marine transgression gave rise to flood myths all around the globe.
But what about Ballard’s evidence of human habitation, far below the present surface of the Black Sea? As far as I could find out, this claim is based largely on a locus called “Site 82”, discovered during the 2000 expedition, sampled in 2003 – and not mentioned much since then. Initially, it sounded very exciting:
Earlier this morning, the expedition team deployed its remotely operated imaging vehicle Little Hercules. They sought to visually inspect a target previously identified during their initial side-scan sonar survey—a rectangular site roughly four meters [13 feet] by 12-14 meters [40-45 feet] long—that did not resemble the sonar profile typical of rocks, trash, or shipwrecks.
At 11:52 a.m., as Little Hercules approached the site, monitors in the expedition control room displayed the first artifact: a notched, hewn beam. [The] chief archaeologist of the expedition said later that his “jaw literally dropped.” There was no question the object had been modified by human hands.
For the next 30 minutes, crew members piloted Little Hercules over the site. [The archaeologist] visually identified beams, sticks, and blocks of daub—elements of wattle and daub structures built by early Black Sea peoples millennia ago… [He] also identified bits of ceramic and stone tools. Lying clustered together were several rounded, oval-shaped implements of what appeared to [the archaeologist] to be highly polished stone, each drilled with circular holes. Also found was a chisel or axe head of worked or pecked stone. The later, [the archaeologist] said, bears a striking resemblance to one presently found in a Sinop museum just 40 miles away.
Alas, on the expedition’s return in 2003, the blocks of daub turned out to be chunks of local stone, and the polished stone artifacts turned out to be wood – wood, moreover, that gave radiocarbon dates of no more than 200 years. This was looking less and less like an actual site, but Ballard was not yet prepared to let it go: “Further sampling of Site 82 is clearly necessary to confirm its archaeological nature.” In 2007, however, a formal publication of Ballard’s Black Sea shipwrecks offhandedly dismissed Site 82 as “now considered to represent a geological rather than an archaeological feature.” So much for Site 82. And, since that was his only Black Sea habitation site, so much for his Noachian Atlantis.
But in a recent lecture, Ballard claimed the discovery of another submerged site – not in the Black Sea, but across the Bosporus in the Aegean, off Anzac Beach, and therefore nothing to do with the hypothetical Black Sea deluge. While searching (successfully) for a Great War wreck, he spotted a circular feature “45 metres across with some sort of structure in the middle…probably a site of human habitation 9000 years ago…a Neolithic site, one of the oldest now discovered.” His slides show something that looks remarkably geological to me, possibly a ring dyke or similar feature; at any rate, nothing that justifies Ballard’s blithe claim of a groundbreakingly early Neolithic site on the bed of the Aegean Sea. This does not increase my confidence in Ballard’s archaeological pronouncements.
Which brings me back to the news coverage last week. Essentially, it was a non-story. Ballard had nothing new to report. Rather, the release was PR for an ABC News special in which Christiane Amanpour plays tourist in biblical places, incidentally interviewing Ballard about Noah’s flood. In fact, Ballard spent much of the interview talking about post-glacial flooding, and specifically denied he was looking for the wreck of Noah’s Ark.
Nevertheless, Ballard’s ill-advised sound bite was merrily picked up by dozens of news outlets, and treated as actual news; in the process, the details were predictably mangled. Ballard was searching for the Ark. Ballard had discovered submerged villages and shipwrecks from the time of Noah. Ballard was proving the Bible was true. Etc. Some reports included descriptions of the “finds” at Site 82, but did not dig deep enough to realize those “finds” had been discredited. Very few mentioned that the Deluge Hypothesis was controversial, nor that it was largely falsified. Some Bible literalists criticized the hypothesis for not being sufficiently faithful to Genesis. Some Christian sites were smugly pleased with hard scientific support for the Bible’s historicity. The Atlantis/Lost Civilization crowd got into the act as well. The only area of agreement, and also the bit that will stick permanently in the popular imagination, was this: famous archaeologist proves the Great Flood really truly happened.
Thanks a lot, Bob.
Robert Ballard does wonderful work as an explorer and oceanographer. His genuine discoveries in the Black Sea and elsewhere – the wrecks – are hugely important. I admire him immensely. But – an archaeologist he is not.