In Search Of Noah's Ark

Ten thousand years ago, the Black Sea was a freshwater lake in the middle of a vast, low-lying basin. Its fertile valleys and lush pastures would have given Neolithic hunter-gatherers a perfect opportunity to make the leap to a more settled, agricultural society. But then disaster struck. About 7,500 years ago the ice age ended, the world's climate warmed and the seas rose. The Aegean Sea breached a narrow strip of land, where the Strait of Bosporus is today, like a dam bursting. Seawater poured into the basin with the force of 200 Niagara Falls', raising the water level six inches each day and sending the human settlers scurrying to the hills. The story of the Great Flood was told and retold, eventually in Genesis: "In the six hundredth year of Noah's life... the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was on the earth forty days and forty nights."

Did Noah's Flood really happen this way and in this place? Some people think it did. In August, underwater explorer Robert Ballard intends to put this theory to the test. To do it, the 60-year-old Connecticut-based geologist--better known for his elaborately publicized ship-hunting escapades, including the discovery of the Titanic in 1985--is going to have to push the state of deep-sea technology. He's designed a remotely piloted submersible, Hercules, which he claims can excavate for signs of human civilization at depths of 300 meters with a precision approaching what archeologists can muster with human hands.

The Noah's Flood theory has plenty of detractors, some of whom say Ballard is less concerned with science than public relations. As an explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society, his voyage this summer is shaping up to be a media event. He's taking along a film crew, and there'll be a television series coming out next year. Although Ballard has a knack for publicity, he's no flake. A former commander in the U.S. Navy, he's a leading hunter of sunken ships, including ancient Roman and Phoenician wrecks and PT 109, JFK's torpedo boat sunk in the South Pacific in WWII. His work in the Black Sea, though, is arguably his most audacious yet.

It started when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, opening the Black Sea to archeologists for the first time in decades. Ballard took his first trip in 1997 to look for shipwrecks and found an archeologist's paradise. The Black Sea was a crossroads of many of the world's most ancient cultures--Mesopotamians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Mycenaeans and others. The Phoenicians plied its waters to trade wine, olive oil, honey and fish. And the oxygen-poor water also tends to preserve ships and other artifacts -- fresh water from rivers forms a top layer that doesn't mix with the deeper, saltier, less oxygenated layers below. "I am convinced that there is more history in the Black Sea than in all of the museums of the world combined," he says.

By the time marine biologists Walter Pitman and William Ryan published "Noah's Flood" in 1999, Ballard had already become their Flood theory's chief "investigative reporter." "Was there a mother of all floods?" he says. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence. Even today, many Caucasians and Armenians declare themselves descendants of Noah, and Armenian paintings of Mount Ararat (now in Turkey) often include Noah's Ark perched at the top.

Ballard took another trip to the Black Sea in 1999 to search for signs of the shoreline of the ancient freshwater lake -- specifically, rocks that had been eroded smooth from waves. Using Pitman and Ryan's calculations, Ballard estimated that such an ancient shoreline, if it existed, would be about 150 meters underwater and would --ring the basin. Using an unmanned submersible, Ballard indeed found the telltale rocks. He also scooped up some fossilized shells, which an expert in the United States confirmed were remnants of freshwater mussels that went extinct 7,000 years ago--around the time of the putative Flood. "He told me, 'Bob, these shells shouldn't be there'," says Ballard. "Bingo."

The trip, though, didn't uncover evidence of human settlement, so Ballard went back in the fall of 2000 to have another look. He started by assuming that early humans would want to live where a river emptied into the lake. He and his team sailed in 100-meter-deep waters, over what before the Flood would have been dry land, looking for channels carved out by ancient rivers. They sent out a small submersible, which sent back images of manmade wooden beams, ceramic shards and stone tools.

Ballard and his colleagues were delighted, then disappointed. Radiocarbon dating showed the materials to be too recent, from after the region had flooded; they had probably drifted from another site. But Ballard also found a suspiciously human-looking structure -- quarried stones arranged in a 10- by 12-meter rectangle built on a rock outcropping--that is similar to the foundations of Neolithic dwellings found elsewhere in the region. "Mother Nature does not make square stones," says Ballard. "Humans make them."

Ballard would have liked to excavate, but this was impossible: the site was too deep--about 150 meters--for divers, and robot vehicles could do little more than send back images. After the trip, Ballard assembled collaborators from several institutions and came up with Hercules. It has cameras and lights, for the all-important task of filming. It also has sonar, so it can "see" like a porpoise in murky water. It has two arms, each with a pair of aluminum fingers. The left arm is powerful but clunky, while the more delicate right arm is designed to work with a "force feedback" glove, which imparts to the operator back on the ship a simulated "feeling" for the texture of objects that the robot's right hand touches. "Human hands are better," says Jim Newman, an engineer at Ballard's Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and a collaborator, "but once you get past a few hundred feet human hands are no longer an option."

Some scientists think all this effort will come to nothing. "The Noah's Flood idea is a very sexy one," says marine geologist Ali Aksu of Memorial University of Newfoundland. "But it's wrong." Earlier this year his group published findings that 7,500 years ago the Black Sea was already full, and that water sloshed back and forth through the Bosporus-- no big flood, only an endless trickle. He also doesn't think humans would have irrigated the Black Sea region for agriculture. Ballard's freshwater mussels, he says, could have lived in a semi-saltwater environment. And he accuses William Ryan, a scientist at Columbia University and co-author of "Noah's Flood," of fitting the data into a "preconceived idea." Ryan accuses Aksu of studying the wrong parts of the Black Sea, and dismisses his theory that the Bosporus flowed both ways.

Whatever Ballard finds, it's certain not to settle the matter. If the stone structure turns out to be a pre-Flood settlement, it will be a serious find. But Ballard will still need to prove the occurrence of a catastrophic flood, and that it was indeed Noah's. He may not succeed, but in trying he might make some great television.