[Book Review] The Science of Noah’s Flood


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In reviewing the book, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History (Ryan and Pittman, 1998), it must be first noted that the text itself is pleasurable to read. The story of William Ryan and Walter Pittman’s in depth study of the Black Sea is one that gives wonderful insight into the process of developing hypotheses based on observed phenomena as well as the joys and tears of testing those hypotheses. Ryan and Pittman write of mystery, intrigue and even occasional suspense as their journey to discover the secrets of the geologic and anthropological history of the Black Sea, a journey that begins at the height of the Cold War and continues through the present day.

Their book prologues with a speculation of what it may have been like to witness the sudden joining of an ocean with a lake and the havoc wreaked by the volume of water; the sudden necessity to grab what one could and relocate self and family for survival; and the effect that witnessing such a violent and catastrophic act of nature may have had on a people for whom the land and water were under the control of gods or deities. Without question, this prologue is gripping and effective at gaining the interest of the reader.

Early Archaeology in the Near East
The earliest chapters of Noah’s Flood focus on the history of archaeology and geology in the Near East and include relevant anecdotes regarding discoveries of 19th century figures such as Henry Rawlinson and his work on the Behistun Rock in the Zagros Mountains (Ch. 1) and eventual decipherment of the cuneiform code, Austen Layard who excavated the Assyrian palaces (Ch. 3), and George Smith, who pieced together the Gilgamesh epic (Ch. 4). during his restorations of tablets recovered by Layard in Mesopotamia. Ryan and Pittman then leave the 19th century for the early 20th and describe Leonard Woolley’s excavation at Ur (Ch. 5) and the controversy and buzz he began “around the globe” by interpreting a 10-foot silt layer as evidence of biblical flood. This silt layer, of course, is not present at other tell sites near Ur. Ryan and Pittman tell us that it is regarded as a breach in the levee of the Euphrates and considered a “splay deposit” by modern hydrologists (p. 55).

Woolley’s misidentification notwithstanding, the common thread for each of these scientists, including Ryan and Pittman, is the hypothesis that Noah’s flood originated from a Jewish adaptation of the flood tale in Gilgamesh, which, in turn, has its origin in the Atrahatsis. Each of which are motifs of a man in favor with a god, being spared the deluge that consumes the remainder of humanity by escaping in boat (pp. 48-51). Woolley sought to confirm the historicity of the Bible (p. 55), while Ryan and Pittman set out to explain through science an event that may have had a profound effect on the human past.

The Core Hypotheses of Ryan and Pittman
William Ryan and Walter Pittman suggest several hypotheses relating to a change in sea level of the Black Sea during human prehistory. Their first contention is that the change in sea level occurred abruptly and rapidly at around 7150 years BP (Ryan and Pittman, 1998:149-150; Ryan and Pittman, 1997). Ryan and Pittman also suggest that this deluge was the progenitor for regional myths of great floods including those found in Gilgamesh as well as the book of Genesis in the Bible (1998:248-249). This contention would also imply the hypothesis that oral tradition can sustain a myth until such time that a written record could be established with the advent of the technology of writing, at least two thousand years later.

Finally, Ryan and Pittman suggest that the deluge may well be responsible for the spread of farming as a practice into Europe, Egypt and the Near East (1998: Ch. 17; Kerr, 1998). In support of this hypothesis, Ryan and Pittman have cited the sudden appearance of specific civilizations in the archaeological record and speculated that their habitation patterns were a result of cultural fears and norms as a result of their distrust for living in close proximity to major water sources such as rivers and oceans.

In support of the primary hypothesis that the deluge of the Black Sea occurred abruptly and rapidly, Ryan and Pittman cited several key pieces of evidence, most of which were obtained in exploratory expeditions to the Black Sea itself (Ryan and Pittman, 1998: Ch. 11-12; Jones, 1994). Even many opponents of their hypotheses appear to agree that the level of the Black Sea was significantly lower during the prehistory of humans who resided in the area (Deuser, 1974). Disagreement arises, however, in how fast the lake flooded to become an inland, saltwater sea. Some opponents even argue that it wasn’t necessarily fresh or significantly lower prior to 7000 years BP (Aksu et al, 2002).

Previous studies of the Black Sea sedimentology and modeling of the evolution of anoxic conditions indicated a slow progression of fill beginning 9000 years BP and ending at around 7000 years BP (Deuser, 1974). Core samples that Ryan and Pittman recovered during their expedition in the Glomar Challenger in the early 1990s contained mollusk shells at sampled from depths ranging from 123 m to 63 m (Ryan and Pittman, 1998:149; Ryan & Pittman, 1997; Jones, 1994:550). The radiocarbon dating of these samples became the main supporting evidence for the hypothesis that the Black Sea flooded suddenly rather than over a period of 2000 years. The dates of the samples were statistically the same, indicating that anoxic conditions arrived at each of the sampled depths at the same time, killing off the mollusks.

Robert Ballard and the Black Sea
In support of Ryan and Pittman’s hypothesis of a sudden filling of the Black Sea, Robert Ballard, Dwight Coleman, and G. Rosenberg (Ballard et al, 2000) discovered and documented an ancient shoreline near Sinop, Turkey at a depth of 155 m, which consisted of typical beach morphology of beach berm, a low-tide terrace, and longshore sandbar (255). Ballard et al concluded that the consistency of the shoreline as well as the lack of other shorelines in 100 m to 180 m survey range support the hypothesis that its drowning was sudden to the current shoreline. Ballard et al also sampled mollusks from depths between 140 m and 170 m, which were dated by 14C analysis (257-260). Several species each of both freshwater and saltwater mollusk were recovered, demonstrating a clear transition from a lacustrine to a marine environment. The youngest freshwater mollusk was dated to 7450 years BP and the oldest saltwater mollusk at 6820 years BP. Ballard et all concede that the gap of 640 years between mollusk types could be an artifact of sampling or may even indicate the length of time needed for a new species to immigrate (260).

Opposing Views
In opposition to Ballard, Coleman, and Rosenberg’s findings, however, Irena Popescu et al (2004) have examined the ancient shoreline of the Danube Canyon region on the opposite shore from Sinop and have concluded that the lowstand depth was 90 m and not 155 m (258). Their finding was based on the observance of both fluvial channels on the shelf that disappear below 90 m depth and a wave-cut terrace between 90 m and 98 m.

Dwight Coleman, in a personal correspondence (2004), responded that the possibil
ity exists that the shoreline off the coast of Sinop is slightly older than the date of the flood and that the mollusks may have originated from “a shallower, younger shore.” Coleman also pointed out that an ancient shoreline appears to exist off the coast of Bulgaria at around 140 m with something evident at 90 m as well. He suggested that slumping and subsidence due to the Anatolian fault of northern Turkey could explain the discrepancy between shoreline depths.

Criticism was raised (Burkhard, 1998) that in order for the Black Sea to have been a freshwater lake, it must have had a significant outflow as with the Mediterranean Sea, otherwise evaporation would have created a salt lake. Ryan and Pittman responded to this criticism (1998, 24 April) that the existence of a freshwater lake prior to 7500 years BP is confirmed by faunal assemblages and salinity tests of seabed sediments. They also concluded that slight increases in salinity that would come from modest allowances for river discharge would be consistent with observed increases evident in carbonate mud and mollusk shells.

Ali E. Aksu is perhaps one of the more persistent and credible critics of Ryan and Pittman’s hypothesis of catastrophic infill of the Black Sea and has written or co-written no fewer than nine papers that call attention to problems with it. One of Aksu’s more convincing refutations (Aksu, et al, 2002) includes evidence of Black Sea outflow into the Marmara Sea, citing palynological data that supports an outflow hypothesis of the Black Sea across the Bosporus sill to the Marmara Sea. Aksu, et al, also points out the evidence of a delta formed in the Marmara Sea by outflow which contains the sapropel mud of the Black Sea. Sapropel is a “sludge (rich in organic matter) that accumulates at the bottom of lakes or oceans” (Cognitive Science Laboratory, 2005). This, they argue, proves that a connection existed between the two bodies of water for at least 10,000 years.

Part II with references cited in both parts

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About Carl Feagans 313 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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