This ought to be the first rule of “Biblical Archaeology” (via Bad Archaeology)

An article on Bad Archaeology makes some good points about some recent archaeological claims:

“Biblical archaeology” is in “scare quotes” because it’s a highly problematical concept, but more of that later. What I want to address first is what ought to be a first principle for anyone reading about claims for discoveries that are supposedly to the Bible (Hebrew or Christian) or any religious text, for that matter. It’s this:

If a discovery confirms your pre-held religious beliefs, then it’s wishful thinking at best and even more likely to be a fraud.

As a principle, I think it’s a good one. But it’s one I have rarely, if ever, encountered in so-called “Biblical Archaeology”, which is a sub-discipline that is characterised by a distinct lack of skeptical thinking. Why is that?

Let’s answer that by looking at some recent claims: the “Jesus family tomb”, the “lead codices” from Jordan and the interminable searches for “Noah’s Ark”.

Read detailed discussion of Jacobovici’s “Jesus Tomb,” Elkington’s “Lead Codices,” hunts for Noah’s Ark, and other fake archaeological claims here.

a note on how new discoveries *should* be announced to the public

Given all of the debunking and criticism of pseudoscientific claims and sensationalist headlines I do on this blog, I thought I’d take a moment to mention a recent discovery and the team of real scientists who released their discovery to the public the correct way. In particular, I’d like to highlight two things: 1) the team’s reaction to a potentially earth-shattering discovery, and 2) how they presented it to the media.

A monitor showing the first ultra high-energy collisions is seen at the CMS experiment control room at CERN in 2010. Courtesy CNN.

A team of scientists are reporting that a recent experiment conducted as a part of the so-called “Opera experiment,” based at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, appears to show that neutrinos (electrically neutral sub-atomic particles) potentially traveled at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light – a result that would defy the laws of nature and undermine Einstein’s long accepted Theory of Relativity. The laws of physics state that nothing is supposed to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. The experiment challenges that assumption.

This discovery is potentially HUGE, and would force every physics textbook to be rewritten, as well as force us to rethink our entire universe.

But rather than rush out and leak their tentative results to the media, and write a press release, and sign a book or documentary deal to capitalize on their latest “discovery” as so many pseudoscientists, archaeological hucksters, amateur ark hunters, and relic seeking religious zealots do before scholars can critique and refute their obviously bogus claims, this team did two things that all scholars and real scientists always do.

First, they opened up their peculiar findings to other scholars. Rather than rush to the press with their unexpected discovery to make a quick buck (and potentially soil their names and reputations forevermore), they asked other trained scholars to examine their findings and attempt to explain or refute their conclusions.

And when this scholarly review was offered, other scholars gave their cautious input:

“It is premature to comment on this,” Professor Stephen Hawking, the world’s most well-known physicist, told Reuters. “Further experiments and clarifications are needed.”

Professor Jenny Thomas, who works on neutrinos at CERN’s friendly rival Fermilab near Chicago in the United States, commented: “The impact of this measurement, were it to be correct, would be huge.”

That is, the research team maintained a disposition of skepticismeven toward their own research methods and conclusions – and invited academic peers to review their work. In doing so, they made their potential academic rivals into collaborators, and allowed them some confirmatory participation in the discovery. (Many of them are even named as co-authors on the paper.)  What’s more, they did this before they went public.

Second, when the research team finally did reveal their findings to the public, they reported their findings with an abundance of caution. While the media usually gives potentially game changing stories like these sensational headlines (to attract eyeballs with the hopes of selling papers and attracting advertisers), proper scholarly dissemination of research and findings to the media can do much to prevent journalists from misunderstanding or intentionally twisting the findings into saying something that they do not. By downplaying the discovery, the research appears far more credible, and therefore will be received far more readily if the results are confirmed and the research turns out to be the real deal.

Here is a scientific research team in Switzerland that did it properly: they opened their odd findings to scholars and asked them to refute the findings, researched their findings further and published an academic article on the findings, and only then did they go to the media with an abundance of caution.

This is how real scholars present real evidence to the public. Devoid of academic peer review, openness, transparency, and careful, cautious scholarship, any new claim of “lead codices” or “nails of Jesus’ cross” or “Noah’s Ark” should be viewed with complete skepticism, and those making these so-called “discoveries” should be thoroughly scrutinized with increasingly suspicious eyes.

the latest on the search for noah’s ark

who does one root for on this one?

first, noah’s ark ministries international announced to the world via press conference that they were ‘99.9% certain’ that they had discovered noah’s ark.

many of us responded, rejecting the claims.

dr. randall price of liberty university also responded. however, since he had previously worked with nami, he had information (revealed by paleobabble’s michael heiser and the christian science monitor’s stephen kurczy) that the whole thing may have been fake.

dr. price also did an interview for fox news where he said the following:

btw, dr. paul zimansky, professor of archaeology at the state university of new york, stony brook, makes a wonderful point in his interview. he states:

it happens every year that somebody finds an ark. i don’t know of many expeditions that have gone off and failed to find an ark. but within a year, everybody’s forgotten it and they do it again. they never refer to previous discoveries.

now it appears that noah’s ark ministries international has put together a video response to the smackdown (see also here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here) that scholars worldwide, including randall price, have sent to the media since nami told the world they discovered the ark. nami attempts to answer the following questions:

  1. are rumors more scientific than solid evidence?
  2. did the expedition team witness and examine the wooden structure in noah’s ark?
  3. is it possible to deliver large wood beams to an elevation of 4000 meters?
  4. is the wooden structure at an elevation of 4000 meters is no more than a fake set?

these videos do little to answer the questions. but perhaps the most telling video released by the media evangelism, ltd. is one entitled do we believe in the noah’s ark or the god behind it?

in the video the speaker explicitly states that he became a christian after a previous bogus ark discovery claim (at the 3:50 mark). he goes on to state that whether or not nami‘s claim is verified in the end, as long as people come to jesus, it is worthwhile (view from the 4:25 mark). watch the video. in fact at the 5:13 mark, the speaker amazingly states:

Therefore as mature Christians, we should be accurate in speaking. When we talk about it from news or scientific aspects, we are just making use of it. The thing itself is not the truth. It is prone to change. Even today when i say that this is 90% sure to be the Ark, assume that one day the 10% rest showed that it is not to be the Ark, even then I don’t think it matters. Because what people believe is not only Noah’s Ark itself, they should believe the God who worked behind Noah’s Ark.

the speaker goes on to compare this find to the claims made about the shroud of turin, which he says brought many people to believe in jesus, even though it was later shown to be a fake. what matters to the speaker is that people believe in jesus, not whether or not the ark they claim to have found is real.

if this is not the most egregious, blatant, irresponsible misuse of archaeology to intentionally fool people into believing in christianity, then i don’t know what is. it’s just wrong.

for his part, dr. price has responded on his world of the bible ministries website. and he pulled no punches.

randall price shot back with a press release and an extensive explanation complete with email evidence – evidence that shows the collaboration between him and nami, and evidence that shows dr. price sent 60,000 euros to nami, about 2/3 of which was refunded to dr. price after he quit.

you can read it all here.

i think that as the fallout from this entire debacle continues, it will become quite clear that the entire mission was a premeditated campaign of deception intended to use something that will appeal to people – noah’s ark, and a lie at that – in an attempt to get them to convert to christianity. it is unthinkable that a group of christians would think that this is an acceptable form of evangelism, much less an acceptable form of science.

does this look like styrofoam to you?

Styrofoam Ark

The 'snow' on the 'ark' appears to be decorative styrofoam packing beads.

the noah’s ark ministries international folks have released a video and are standing by their claim of their so-called ‘discovery’ of noah’s ark. [ht: jim west]. i have documented the problems with their dubious claim here and here and here.

let me ask you, and be honest: does this ‘snow’ in the ‘ark’ look like styrofoam to you?

bigcitylib thinks so, and has a post to explain why.

see for yourself. watch the video about the 1:40 mark and tell me.

and what’s with all the knocking on wood?? are you wishing for luck that no one finds out that while you’re video taping your ‘exploration,’ that no one notices you can’t see your breath in the snowy altitude at the 0:50 mark or that the ‘snow’ you sweep away at the 1:50 mark is perfectly round and not wet? and where is the water dripping on the floor? it was wet at the beginning when you filmed the ‘entrance.’ and what’s with the hazmat suits? i didn’t see those guys come in…

from jason boyett – noah’s ark found! robert cargill debunks!

Dr. Robert R. Cargill

Dr. Robert R. Cargill

here’s a piece from a friend and colleague, jason boyett. the picture’s a little older (beard is thicker w/ fewer grays), but the interview is new. he interviewed me about the recent claims of the discovery of noah’s ark and other issues of archaeology and faith. read it.

no, no you didn’t find noah’s ark

A member of the Noah's Ark Ministries International claims to be examining Noah's Ark in Turkey.

A member of the Noah's Ark Ministries International claims to be examining Noah's Ark in Turkey.

about this time every year, something sensational happens…literally. every spring, as dig season approaches, we are treated to a little hoax disguised as hope. every spring, faith is once again used to sell something, and every year, science pays the price in the form of a reduced credibility at the hands of pseudo-scientists, who peddle their claims and cheapen the name of science.

i am speaking, of course, about the annual, sensational claims by some group that purports to have discovered the ark of the covenant, noah’s ark, the true cross of christ, or some other biblical relic that is supposed to prove once and for all that the narratives recorded in the bible are true. this year is no exception, but this time it appears that something far more sinister may be at work. late-breaking news indicates that the whole thing may be a hoax.

an evangelical group out of hong kong calling itself noah’s ark ministries international, and its partner organization, the media evangelism limited are claiming to all who will listen (except scholars) that they have discovered noah’s ark. their claim is based upon their ‘discovery’ of wooden ‘rooms’ or compartments atop turkey’s mt. ararat. they claim that it must be the ark because no one would possibly build a building at that altitude. they claim to have carbon-14 samples, but won’t reveal who performed them. and of course, they can’t tell us where the secret location of the site is, because, well…it’s a secret. still, according to the sun, group member yeung wing-cheung says:

It’s not 100 per cent that it is Noah’s Ark, but we think it is 99.9 per cent that this is it.

well, allow me to explore that .1%. in fact, let me just come right out and say it:
no, no you didn’t find noah’s ark.

richard bartholomew and jim west have already commented upon this nonsense, but let me add my simple comments:

this group was put together to do one thing and one thing only: make money and spread ideology by pimping both archaeology and religion. let me explain:

the media evangelism limited is a media company which states on its website that its background, vision and mission are:

Background

  • In 1987, a group of young Christians in Hong Kong envisioned a society where multi-media businesses would proliferate, and they saw the chance to capitalize on the advance technologies to serve the society. Their vision gave birth to an organization, known as “The Media Evangelism” (TME). The Media Evangelism Limited was officially incorporated in Hong Kong in 1991.

Vision & Mission

  • The Media Evangelism Limited is a charitable Christian organization committed to building a Christian media presence by using every modern means of communication to promote the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our missions are:

  • To take the message of our Lord Jesus Christ to all by means of high quality audio and visual products and services.
  • To foster biblical standard and Christian values in Chinese communities worldwide.
  • To enhance the moral and spiritual fabric of our society through creative media.
  • To pull together the collective wisdom of Evangelical Christians who are talented and gifted in media arts, and to collaborate with other Christian groups for the advance of the Kingdom of God.
Lost in the Noah's Ark

Lost in the Noah's Ark

as one might expect, the group filmed the expedition and now has a documentary movie to sell (note the director’s name: yeung wing-cheung). it is also interesting that noah’s ark ministries international runs a noah’s ark theme park and needs to sell tickets. of course, you could make even more money if you host an exhibition entitled, ‘lost in the noah’s ark’ and advertised it with bizarre posters. and, of course, the whole marketing must be kicked off in a coordinated manner. according to their web site:

March, 2010
The “We Touched Noah’s Ark: The Search for A Carpenter’s Heart” Evangelistic Campaign was launched. Worldwide press conferences, exhibitions and sharing are carried out to spread the Gospel through the Noah’s Ark discovery.

follow the money and follow the ideology. every ark expedition is about the same thing: raising funds and spreading a fundamentalist christian ideology. this may all be well and good if you’re a ministry, but for a group feigning to be archaeologists, it’s a dead giveaway.

my colleague and co-chair of asor‘s media relations committee, dr. eric cline of george washington university, appeared on good morning america wednesday, april 28, 2010 and later on fox news on thursday, april 29, and discussed the group’s claims. dr. cline mocked the ‘99.9%’ claim, incurring the wrath and claims of bias and unfairness over at cbn (which means he’s got it right).

rather than ridicule or bash them, dr. cline addressed the fundamental archaeological methods that are lacking with noah’s ark ministries international (the name still cracks me up). they are keeping the location of the find secret, haven’t invited any scientists to provide outside verification, and haven’t revealed the source of the carbon-14 data they claim they have. as i said in an interview with rich buhler on 740 am kbrt this afternoon, any credible excavation knows that it must do the following:

  1. reveal the location. all credible excavations publish when and where they will be digging. in fact, they are usually begging for volunteers. but, this group has not yet even revealed the location of their find. here’s a rule of thumb to live by: any time someone promises you, ‘i have evidence that will prove that the bible is true, but i can’t show it to you,’ be suspicious.
  2. publish your data and get outside verification and corroboration. all credible excavations publish their data and make it available for peer-review and cross-examination. this is usually done at a professional conference. this is how scholarship works. this group has not done this.
  3. announce to scholars first. it is not enough to make a press release direct to the public. those who publicize their finds with direct-to-the-media marketing campaigns and bypass scholars do so because they rely on the buzz of the media and know that the scholars will end their 15 minutes of fame before it starts. they prey on the curiosity of the public, and hope that no one pays attention to scholars’ rebuttal on the back pages of the same newspapers and websites that ran the initial story in the headlines. (see: foxnews, msnbc, nat geo, abc, etc.)

this is how the academy works. and this is how it should work. there should be a system of checks and balances between the academy and institutions of faith. it keeps both groups honest.

archaeologists look at these untrained, amateur, evangelical groups doing archaeology and making claims about noah’s ark with well-deserved suspicion. it is the exact same suspicion that evangelicals would show towards a group of untrained, amateur hindu explorers claiming to have found a mace, a chakra and a conch shell in kurukshetra that prove the existence of the hindu god vishnu. just because you find reindeer bones at the north pole does not mean you have proved the existence of santa claus. and, just because you find a boat doesn’t mean you’ve proved the flood. and in this case, noah’s ark ministries international hasn’t even demonstrated that they’ve found a boat! they’ve found wood. finding a wooden structure on a mountain in turkey does not mean you’ve discovered noah’s ark. it means you’ve found a wooden building. it could be a barn. it could be a small cottage. it could be a tool shed.

however, this story may be even more sinister than a simple sensationalist claim. there is evidence that it may have all been a hoax. an article by stephen kurczy in the christian science monitor is now claiming that fellow ark hunter, dr. randall price of liberty university, who once worked with the noah’s ark ministries international group and was the archaeologist on the chinese-led team in 2008 when this alleged discovery was first made, may have been participants in an elaborate hoax. according to the article:

“If the world wants to think this is a wonderful discovery, that’s fine. My problem is that, in the end, proper analysis may show this to be a hoax and negatively reflect how gullible Christians can be,” he says. He says he has “difficulties with a number of issues related to the evidence at hand.”

Price declined to elaborate. However, a leaked email from Price – which he confirms that he wrote – shows that he has reason to believe that a group of local Kurdish men trucked wood up to the mountain and staged an elaborate hoax for the Chinese team.

A group of Kurdish workers “are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area (where the photos were originally taken) at the Mt. Ararat site. … During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 (I was there at the time and knew about the hoax) and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film,” Price writes in the email.

michael heiser at paleobabble.com offers even more details. he writes:

I also got an email today from one of Randall Price’s students. The email contains a message from Dr. Price about this expedition. (Dr. Price, as some of you may recall, has been doing a lot of searching for the ark lately.) Here is an excerpt from his message:

I was the archaeologist with the Chinese expedition in the summer of 2008 and was given photos of what they now are reporting to be the inside of the Ark. I and my partners invested $100,000 in this expedition (described below) which they have retained, despite their promise and our requests to return it, since it was not used for the expedition. The information given below is my opinion based on what I have seen and heard (from others who claim to have been eyewitnesses or know the exact details).

To make a long story short: this is all reported to be a fake. The photos were reputed to have been taken off site near the Black Sea, but the film footage the Chinese now have was shot on location on Mt. Ararat. In the late summer of 2008 ten Kurdish workers hired by Parasut, the guide used by the Chinese, are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area (where the photos were originally taken) at the Mt. Ararat site. In the winter of 2008 a Chinese climber taken by Parasut’s men to the site saw the wood, but couldn’t get inside because of the severe weather conditions. During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 (I was there at the time and knew about the hoax) and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film. As I said, I have the photos of the inside of the so-called Ark (that show cobwebs in the corners of rafters – something just not possible in these conditions) and our Kurdish partner in Dogubabyazit (the village at the foot of Mt. Ararat) has all of the facts about the location, the men who planted the wood, and even the truck that transported it.

so it appears that the whole thing may have been rigged. an ark-eologist got duped by other ark-eologists. this is simply sad.

the problem with this is that both religion and science lose. people of faith look like a bunch of liars that will do or say anything to prove their faith, including lie, cheat, steal, and rig an elaborate hoax to raise money and spread their faith. but because they use science to make their claim, religious fundamentalists will claim that scientists are elaborate tricksters that manipulate data in an attempt to prove the bible is false. and somewhere in between these two extremes are honest people of faith and honest scientists trying to have an honest debate about the feasibility and historicity of a flood and an ark, questioning why different numbers of animals on the ark are given in the bible, (gen 6:19 vs. gen 7:2), and how wood could have survived and not decomposed over time. these arguments are lost because both extremes-the religious fundamentalists and the militant agnostics-retreat to their extreme positions, and the media loves extreme anything.

science and faith both lose. both can co-exist, but episodes like this one don’t help.

this unfortunate episode also reveals that there are two levels of ‘sensational’. the first is the sensationalism that we find when someone makes an unsubstantiated archaeological claim. whenever someone finds a piece of wood on top of a mountain in turkey, someone is always sure to claim they’ve found noah’s ark. there is no evidence, but this speculation is sure to raise eyebrows, and so someone always irresponsibly makes that claim. but, there is a far more egregious form of sensationalism: the hoax. this is when evidence is planted so that said sensational claim can be made. this hoax should be met with outrage, and both noah’s ark ministries international, their sponsors, and the local turkish government officials should be sanctioned for their participation in the charade.

Hong Kong people are recognized as Honorable Citizens in Agri Province of Turkey for the first time

Hong Kong people are recognized as Honorable Citizens in Agri Province of Turkey for the first time

so no, you didn’t find noah’s ark. but you did get to be honorable citizens for the day. and you got your name in the paper. and you got you picture taken. and you’ve become the latest chapter in the seemingly never ending story of the quest for things that we’ll never find, if they ever existed at all.

and one more thing: my hat is off to all of the scholars and the cadre of bloggers that came forward to research this story and expose this charade. hats off to the news organizations that quickly posted responses to the initial story like time and the christian science monitor. and hats off to randall price, whom i previously ripped in this very space, for admitting his mistake and exposing this nonsense. you did the right thing and i respect that.

devry university, itt tech, and university of phoenix announce acquisition of dead sea scrolls

Dead Sea Scroll Fragment

A fragment (4Q51) of a Dead Sea Scroll

in a stunning development just one day after southwestern baptist theological seminary announced (blog) it had acquired three fragments of dead sea scrolls, the assassinated press is reporting that three more prominent american universities have acquired fragments of the dead sea scrolls and other well-known jewish cultural heritage objects from unnamed antiquities dealers.

in what has become a race of archaeological one-upsmanship, several universities have begun purchasing fragments of the famed dead sea scrolls and other jewish antiquities that have previously been in private collections. prior to last year, princeton theological seminary and the university of chicago were the only american universities to have portions of the dead sea scrolls in their private museum holdings. then late last year, southern california academic powerhouse azusa pacific university surprised the world by announcing (blog) they had purchased fragments of the dead sea scrolls from a southern california antiquities dealer. then just yesterday, southwestern baptist theological seminary announced it had also acquired fragments of the scrolls from an undisclosed antiquities dealer for an undisclosed amount of money.

the desire for christian universities and seminaries to boost their academic reputations by purchasing fragments of the enigmatic scrolls has apparently started a trend among other institutions of higher learning also seeking to gain overnight credibility by purchasing classical jewish inscriptions. this morning, online education powerhouse devry university announced that it has acquired a fragment of the great isaiah scroll discovered in cave 1 near qumran. the fragment is a .5 cm x .3 cm wide and contains a single letter: aleph. despite the fragmentary nature of the fragment, professor roger smoak, who holds a joint appointment in accounting and northwest semitic palaeography, assured devry’s board of regents that the fragment was authentic and worth every bit of the 2.3 million dollars it paid for the single letter.

This fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, although small, shows DeVry’s commitment to being a leader in the online university/alternative education market. Big things come in small packages, and this single aleph is the ‘A’ for effort that will make DeVry a major player in the world of higher education. Look out Harvard! DeVry knows a little about the Bible too. In fact, we now own a part of it.

immediately after devry’s announcement, online technical school itt tech announced that it had acquired an inscribed piece of pottery, or ostracon, from an antiquities dealer in jerusalem for an undisclosed sum. the dealer claims the ostracon is from the famed ‘samaria ostraca‘ collection, which comprises a number of ancient tax receipts for items brought to an israelite palace in samaria. the sherd acquired by itt tech contains three hebrew letters: bet, yod, and taw. while most scholars agree that this fragmentary ostracon simply contains the hebrew word bayit, or ‘house,’ itt tech associate professor of information systems security and hebrew bible, jeremy suriano, said:

While most scholars believe this ostracon says ‘house’ or ‘house of,’ I believe it is the earliest known reference to the computer term ‘bit,’ the foundational building block of bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes. In this sense, this simple ‘byt’ inscription must be considered a prophecy of the technology boom we are now experiencing today. And now we own this piece of prophecy!

A purported silver sliver of the backside of the Ketef Hinnom inscription shown next to a penny for scale.

not to be outdone, the university of phoenix has announced that it has acquired a fragment of the ketef hinnom inscription from a pawn shop in the silwan valley. matthew nam, professor of international trade and systematic theology, believes the silver sliver of text could be the centerpiece of the online university’s new masters program in international business and theology.

Obviously, the acquisition of a piece of history this significant is no small thing. Despite the fact that it contains no actual writing, the 1.1 million dollars we spent on this sliver of the Ketef Hinnom amulet’s backside shows our dedication to establishing our new program in international business and theology and establishing ourselves as the world’s premier online business degree for those who also love the Bible. Because we have made this purchase of a mere fragment of an archaeological object, we must immediately be recognized as a legitimate and major player in online theological education.

still other institutions are rumored to be in the hunt for valuable jewish antiquities in an effort to improve their academic reputations overnight. in an effort to solidify its place atop the field of agribusiness education,  fresno city college is said to be near the completion of a deal to purchase a 2 cm x 2 cm portion of a bar kokhba letter that mentions a piece of fruit. thousand oaks high school has partnered with local temple etz chaim preschool to acquire a coin minted by herod the great. and, liberty university is in talks with the jordan archaeological museum to acquire one segment of the copper scroll, which liberty university will then trade to the istanbul archaeology museum in turkey in exchange for the siloam tunnel inscription, a purported piece of noah’s ark, an artifact to be named later, and cash considerations.


these recent acquisitions of archeological objects by universities all go to show that a lack of status in theological education within the academy can quickly be overcome with a few dollars and the purchase of sensational archaeological objects. while most top schools waste their time educating their students with literary critical techniques and objective assessments of history, bible-based colleges can circumvent the scientific method while maintaining their sectarian doctrinal stances by simply purchasing objects that the public revere but do not understand. in this rough economy, why hire more faculty to educate students when a school can use that same money to purchase antiquities and sell tickets to its museum? thus, it makes great business sense for bible colleges to buy publicity by purchasing artifacts rather than producing scholars who truly understand them.

(n.b. check the ‘filed under’ category below)

%d bloggers like this: