For most of the past 200 years, archaeologists have struggled to discover any evidence that one of the greatest stories in the religious anthology is more than just tribal myth.
The biblical flood and Noah's building of the ark harks back to the earliest days of Western religion, providing a link between the account of creation and the rise of the patriarchs.
Yet attempts to ground the Bible's words in archaeological proof proved unsuccessful, and the absence of geological evidence to support such a global catastrophe convinced many that Noah's flood, if it occurred at all, was a local event writ large through the prism of oral history.
New research along the Black Sea coast of Turkey, however, has led two geologists to theorize that they have found evidence of the event that spawned the Old Testament story. The find is actually a part of a broader project to study the history of the Black Sea basin, and it in no way proves the existence of Noah or his ark.
Yet it is one of several archaeological discoveries giving credence to claims that some the events and people chronicled in the Bible might indeed have a basis in historical reality. In the past decade, scientists have discovered in Israel a 9th century BC inscription mentioning the "House of David," as well as a crypt some believe contained the remains of Caiaphas, the priest who called for the arrest of Jesus.
As for the current find near the ancient Black Sea port of Sinop, the evidence of a major flood - biblical or not - was bolstered by sonar data released last week. Robert Ballard, who has made a name for himself by finding long-lost shipwrecks, confirmed that there is a sunken beach 15 miles off Sinop and 550 feet beneath the sea surface - precisely where two Columbia University marine geologists had expected it to be.
William Ryan and Walter Pitman say that beach disappeared when the neighboring Mediterranean Sea breached a natural dam at the Bosporus 7,600 years ago, resulting in a flood that may have destroyed numerous villages and sparked a major diaspora.
"The event they have documented is on the scale of the destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius," says archaeologist Andrew Moore of the Rochester Institute of Technology. "It would have had an impact every bit as great on the people who were living in the basin of the Black Sea at the time the flood occurred."
Beginnings of the theory
Dr. Pitman and Dr. Ryan began building their flood hypothesis in the early 1970s, when they first collected core samples a mile beneath the Mediterranean loaded with odd salt crystals. The samples suggested that the level of the Mediterranean dropped dramatically during the last Ice Age.
As a result, the theory went, the Black Sea had been cut off from the world's oceans. Over thousands of years it shrank into a brackish freshwater lake. After the last Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago, though, the oceans - and the Mediterranean - rose.
Around 5600 BC the waters of the Mediterranean rose high enough to breach the Bosporus, which had separated the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. The breach created a flood that inundated an area the size of Florida and forever altered the basin.
"The rate of the water coming through the gap would have been about 200 times the rate of water flowing over Niagara Falls," says Pitman. "It would have been an absolutely devastating event."
Pitman and Ryan further theorized that the salt water pouring into the Black Sea rapidly sank, creating an oxygen-free layer where virtually no life exists. This layer would act as a protective capsule that would preserve evidence of the flood, they added.
At first greeted with skepticism, this flood theory has gained acceptance thanks to a rising tide of research. Dr. Ballard's recent data are the strongest proof yet of a major flood. Radiocarbon dating of shells Ballard's team collected from the site this summer placed them at the exact time period when Pitman and Ryan said the flood occurred. Among these shells were extinct freshwater and saltwater specimens. This likely indicates a rapid change from fresh to salt water.
Back to Sinop
Next summer, Ballard and company will return to the waters of Sinop with high-tech remote-operated submersibles and sophisticated sonar devices.
"We want to find some evidence of human occupation at the bottom of the Black Sea," says Fredrik Hiebert, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who is overseeing the archaeological effort. "To try to survey for a shipwreck is one thing. But to survey for a campsite or chipped stone or a hearth is another. We are going to have to develop new tools and strategies."
But the technological equipment Ballard brings to the table gives the project unprecedented firepower. "Even with people's houses that are today 150 feet under water, we should be able to use our robots to tell us what kind of house they lived in," says Dr. Hiebert. "That's very cool."
To be sure, there are still some nagging questions about Pitman and Ryan's theories on what effect such a flood had on the region. And finding any direct connection between a flood and biblical accounts may prove impossible.
"If we can show there were a lot of people who were living around the Black Sea at that time, I don't have any problem saying this kind of flooding would have had an imprint on human memory," Hiebert says. "For a lot of the questions, such as 'Is this the biblical flood?' we are not going to be able to prove that."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society