posted on May, 2 2010 @ 05:10 PM
(May 2) -- When Robert Cargill got word this week that a group of Chinese evangelicals had uncovered Noah's Ark atop a Turkish mountain, the
archaeologist's reaction was a familiar one.
"I thought, here we go again -- another fake 'ark-eologist,' " says Cargill, an adjunct assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures
His skepticism may prove well founded: A former member of the joint team from Noah's Ark Ministries International and Media Evangelism Ltd. that
announced the find has circulated an e-mail suggesting that the discovery might have been staged. And if that's the case, it would be just the latest
in a series of hoaxes surrounding the much-searched-for vessel.
Indeed, it was word of two previous ark expeditions that helped prompt the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading professional
organization of American Middle Eastern archaeologists, to take action.
Fed up with the exposure these types of stories were getting in the media, the group last year launched a committee tasked with taking aim at
"We really just decided that it was time to take back our field," says Eric Cline, a George Washington University archaeologist. He and Cargill
co-chair the committee, whose membership also includes the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society of Biblical Literature.
'A Spade in One Hand and a Bible in the Other'
In the past, biblical scholars and archaeologists rolled their eyes when claims of a blockbuster find emerged, preferring to keep quiet rather than
dignify them with a response. But scholars now worry that their silence has allowed such claims to breed, damaging the whole field's credibility.
"We said, 'We have got to find a way to respond to these amateurs,' " Cargill says. "We can have a coordinated response on behalf of the academy
and say, 'No that's not true, and here's why.' And we do it in the public media and not some obscure journal that nobody reads."
Now, whenever a suspect archaeological discovery hits the headlines, the committee and its associated scholars churn into action -- reaching out to
journalists, writing blog posts, sending out Twitter and Facebook alerts, and dispatching op-eds to newspapers and magazines.
Last year, the committee geared up when media began reporting that a German archaeologist was claiming a link between the site of Göbekli Tepe in
Turkey and the Garden of Eden. Members blogged about the claim, with one calling it "unnecessary and unscientific." Later the group held a
conference titled "Archaeology, Politics and the Media" at Duke University, with sessions including "Scholars Behaving Badly: Sensationalism and
Archaeology in the Media" and "The Lure of Proof and the Legacy of Biblical Archaeology: Scholars and the Media."
Then Cargill went after a former Oklahoma arson investigator's claim to have "broken the code" on an ancient copper Dead Sea Scroll that purports
to be a list of buried treasure.
And he minced no words this week when he tore into the new ark claims on his blog. Cline, for his part, got himself on "Good Morning America" and
Fox News and was quoted in Time.
The latest Noah's Ark report highlights a larger issue that has faced the field of Near Eastern archaeology since its early days.
The problem, scholars say, emerges when religious believers -- largely evangelical Christians, but some from other faiths as well -- head out into the
field seeking physical proof for articles of faith. "A spade in one hand and a Bible in the other" is a common sobriquet for their efforts.
While there's nothing to prevent well-trained believers from being good archaeologists, Cline says it becomes a problem when "amateur enthusiasts"
organize expeditions to hunt for specific biblical artifacts.
"When you call yourself Noah's Ark Ministries and you go out looking for the ark and you find it -- boy what a coincidence," says Cline, author of
"From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible." "If we [scholars] find something, we will evaluate it on its own merits rather than
jumping to the conclusion that we found what we're looking for. But the evangelicals or fundamentalists of whatever faith don't have that training
and cannot separate the science from the faith.
"It's not that we professional archaeologists are more elitist or better than they are," Cline adds. "But we're trained to separate our beliefs
from our science."
'Publishing by Press Conference'
But Randall Price isn't so sure.
The former ark-hunting team member who has now cast doubt on the recent find, Price says that in a scientific age, faith often is not taken seriously
-- and objects like Noah's Ark, which are associated with supernatural events, are therefore labeled as myths. Scholars who accept the historicity of
the Bible, he says, see it as the historical documentation of biblical events and artifacts, and view archaeology as a means to demonstrate the
plausibility of biblical accounts.
"If the Bible is real history, it can be confirmed by real discoveries of the past," says Price, who directs the Center for Judaic Studies at
Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. "For this reason, it is both acceptable, and desirable, that archaeology and other means of the scientific
investigation be employed as handmaids to biblical faith."
There's a well-established history of faithful seekers flocking to sites where famous relics are thought to be buried.
"There are certain biblical artifacts -- like the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark of Noah -- that just seem to bring out a lot of amateur
searchers," says Bill Crouse, president of Christian Information Ministries, who has spent years searching for Noah's Ark. "My concern is that
well-meaning Christians jump the gun, and this thing becomes viral on the Internet. A lot of Christians are confused because they thought the ark was
found two years ago, or two years before that."