Noah’s Ark is among the best known and most captivating of all Old Testament stories: After creating humans, God became so displeased with them that he struck Earth with an all-encompassing flood to wipe them out—with one noteworthy (and seaworthy) exception: the biblical patriarch and his family, accompanied by pairs of each of the planet’s animals, who rode out the deluge in an enormous wooden vessel.
For people who accept the religious text as a historically accurate account of actual events, the hunt for archaeological evidence of the Ark is equally captivating, inspiring some intrepid faithful to comb the slopes of Armenia’s Mt. Ararat and beyond for traces of the wooden vessel.
In 1876, for example, British attorney and politician James Bryce climbed Mount Ararat, where Biblical accounts say the Ark came to rest, and claimed a piece of wood that “suits all the requirements of the case” was in fact a piece of the vessel. More modern Ark “discoveries” take place on a regular basis, from an optometrist’s report he’d seen it in a rock formation above the mountain in the 1940s to a claim Evangelical pastors had found petrified wood on the peak in the early 2000s.
But searches for the Ark draw everything from exasperation to disdain from academic archaeologists and biblical scholars. “No legitimate archaeologist does this,” says National Geographic Explorer Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, of modern searches for evidence of Noah.
“Archaeology is not treasure hunting,” she adds. “It’s not about finding a specific object. It’s a science where we come up with research questions that we hope to answer by excavation.”
Flood or fiction?
Stories of destructive floods and those who survive them predate the Hebrew Bible, the oldest parts of which are thought to have been written in the 8th century B.C. Legends about a deluge that destroys civilization at the behest of a supernatural deity can be found in multiple Mesopotamian texts, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written around the early second millennium B.C., to a recently deciphered Babylonian cuneiform tablet from about 1750 B.C. describing how the ark was built.
Could these flood myths be based in fact? “There does seem to be geological evidence that there was a major flood in the Black Sea region about 7,500 years ago,” says National Geographic Explorer Eric Cline, an archaeologist at George Washington University. But scientists disagree on the extent of that event, just as historians of the era differ on whether writings about a deluge were inspired by real life. It seems likelier that floods were simply experienced in different places and at different times—and that those events naturally made their way into the world’s oral and written lore.
Complicating the issue even further, scholars differ on the precise location of Noah’s Ark according to the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Genesis, the ark came to rest “upon the mountains of Ararat” located in the ancient kingdom of Urartu, an area that now includes Armenia and parts of eastern Turkey and Iran—not the single, iconic peak that bears its name today.
“There’s no way we can determine where exactly in the ancient Near East it occurred,” says Magness.
And both Cline and Magness say that even if artifacts from the Ark have been or will be found, they could never be conclusively connected to historical events.
“We have no way of placing Noah, if he really existed, and the flood, if there really was one, in time and space,” says Magness. “The only way you could determine that would be if you had an authentic ancient inscription”—and even then, she points out, such an inscription could refer to another Noah, or another flood.
That hasn’t stopped the proliferation of pseudoarchaeology that upholds the Bible as literal truth. The fruitless searches are often aligned with adherents of “young-earth creationism,” the belief that, despite evidence to the contrary, Earth is only thousands of years old.
Same evidence, very different conclusions
Such groups use secular archaeological evidence to bolster their literal interpretation of Scripture—and simply disregard or attempt to disprove evidence to the contrary. But they don’t all share the same tactics. Answers In Genesis, a self-described apologetics ministry that focuses on scientific issues and even runs a Noah’s Ark-themed amusement park in Kentucky, acknowledges the ubiquity of flood-related myths beyond the Old Testament story of Noah, and even concedes that the Ark could never be found.
“We do not expect the Ark to have survived and been available to find after 4,350 years,” says Andrew A. Snelling, a geologist and Director of Research for Answers in Genesis who has spent decades attempting to prove Earth’s youth.
Snelling differs from archaeologists, however, about why the vessel’s remains will never be found. “With no mature trees available for Noah and his family to build shelters after they got off the Ark, there is every reason to expect they dismantled the Ark (which they didn’t need anymore) to salvage timber from it,” he says. While the ministry does not rule out the potential of one day finding the Ark, Snelling rues what he calls “questionable claims” by Ark-seekers that “blunt the potential impact of a true discovery.”
For Magness, who currently leads excavations at a late-Roman synagogue in Galilee. the search for Noah’s Ark not only confuses the public, but diminishes excitement about actual archaeological finds, even ones that offer support for parts of the Bible such as the existence of the House of David.
“We know a lot about the biblical world, and it’s very interesting,” she says.
Setting the record straight
Part of the problem, says Cline, is that the public has unrealistic expectations of the discipline of archaeology—and popular media highlights the thrill of the chase instead of the slow accretion of archaeological knowledge. “We’re not like Indiana Jones,” he says. “It’s a scientific procedure. It’s painstaking. But what excites us does not necessarily excite other people.”
In his younger years, says Cline, he spent significant time and energy attempting to rebut the purported biblical evidence that enchants the public year after year. Eventually, though, he quit—and now focuses his time on both his expeditions and translating his research for those willing to accept the results of the scientific process. “People are gonna believe what they want to believe,” he sighs.
That won’t change any time soon—so in the meantime, he’s focused on unearthing an 18th-century B.C. Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri in what is now northern Israel. Following a pandemic-related pause on fieldwork, he anticipates returning next summer to continue excavating a painted plaster floor at the Old Testament-era site. “For us, [the floor] is incredibly important, because it shows international relations and contacts from almost 4,000 years ago,” he says.
“It’s not Noah’s Ark, but it’s a painted floor,” the archaeologist says, “which is good enough for me.”