Noah's Ark: Impossible for Ancient People?    Home   Menu

TIM LOVETT MAY 2004

  

 

IMPOSSIBLE TASK

Ancient people could not achieve such an engineering feat. 

Adequate marine technology was not available until modern times.

CAPABLE ANCIENTS 

Ancient people had plenty of engineering expertise.
Marine technology was highly advanced in various ancient cultures.

 

 

 

  Ignorant Farmers?

Mission impossible for a bunch of ignorant farmers? Such a slur on the intellect of ancient people can hardly be justified. Not long after the flood the Egyptians were machining granite, building the great pyramids, writing and calculating, and organising mass labour for irrigation projects. 

If civilization really did start from Noah, what would the descendents be like?  Ambitious builders fascinated with the spirit realm... Seafaring adventurers telling tales of a global flood...  

"With spectacular suddenness, an architecture sprang up that was suitable for kings and gods...stone monuments that rank with the most impressive of any age" (Ref 7). Stone monuments endure, so everyone can see we never really got any better at it. Wooden ships decay, so there has been little evidence to confront the opinion that shipbuilding improved  over time from the dugout to the Queen Mary. More recent discoveries and the growth of underwater archaeology have begun to paint a different picture.  

The work of early Egyptians runs counter to the evolutionary mindset. Right from the dawn of 'recorded history' they were masters in metalwork, construction, literature and mathematics, producing high quality articles in granite and flint - extremely difficult materials to work with... The list goes on and the picture is clear, no mere cattle breeders, these ancient people were advanced. See Ancient Technology. Likewise, other ancient civilizations had similar obsessions with monuments and grand constructions (Babylon, Greece, Maya, China). Even the ubiquitous tale of the flood seems as global as the real thing. 

The explosion of civilization a few millenia BC is like the 'Cambrian explosion' in the fossil record - an anomaly to gradual evolution but exactly what you would expect if the Bible is history. Likewise, naval architecture has not been a gradual progression, but sudden, sporadic, often with periods of decline. In most cases the development of impressive shipbuilding technology required nothing more than the right conditions - a stable government, a motive and several centuries of development. Loss of technology is clearly demonstrated in the decline of the Greek / Roman empires and in China's seafaring regression. 

 

Big Ancient Ships

In support of statements like "ancient people were incapable of building the ark", claims are made regarding the need for modern technology to make Noah's ship function. But even the little we know of ancient maritime achievements is enough to demonstrate a potent array of maritime expertise. This includes the way they addressed the bending induced stresses of large hulls using simple (though clever) technology such as strake edge jointing.  

Big boats are not a recent invention. The achievements of ancient shipwrights are impressive, however a timber ship does not survive as does a pyramid in the desert. So our understanding of the ship building expertise of ancient people is very limited. The relatively recent field of underwater archeology has filled in much of the picture. There are two chapters of maritime history that are well known today - both indicating that large timber ships are feasible and that ingenuity and ancient technology were sufficient for the task. 

Greek Trireme
The plank shear issue was more directly addressed in the ancient practice of mortise and tenon jointed planks (strakes), which "certainly goes back to 14th century BC and very much likely before that". (Ref 1, p108) There are records of an oversized Trireme at 280 (Greek) cubits (Ptolemy IV 221-203BC). 280 Greek cubits = 420 feet. (Ref 2, p29) The average trireme was well short of this scale of course, but then the average trireme was meant to be fast in the water and light enough to be hauled up on the beach by the crew. Naturally the enormous sizes of these ancient timber vessels were a bit hard to swallow for the modern scholar expecting to find a nice progression from the primitive dugout to the Queen Mary. They dismissed as exaggeration various accounts of oversize timber ships, including the writings of the 2nd century AD Greek historian Athenaeus describing the Ptolemy IV vessel. The cloud of doubt evaporated somewhat when the scale of ram castings was determined from a monument that once displayed them. The sockets of the largest far surpassing the sceptic's imposed limitation of what these ancient people could achieve. 

The oversize catamaran galley of Tessarakonteres, a three banked catamaran galley built for Ptolemy IV 210 BC in Alexanderia, Egypt, measured 128 m 420 ft. The dual hull arrangement with a central working platform was designed for sea battles with catapults and could carry 3 to 4 thousand marines.    
Noah's Ark, around 2500 BC. Far simpler than the racing hull of the Greek warships, the Ark was technically an ocean going barge. To handle big waves the hull needs to be strong, and the form somewhat streamlined. 

 

 

Compare Ships

Chinese Junks
Then there were the sea going Chinese junks of the 1400's. Zheng He's treasure ships had a length of 444 chi (Chinese foot) which, by the Ming gong bu chi = 450 ft, Huai chi = 494ft, or at the very least a shorter shipbuilding chi = 390 to 408 ft. Like most Chinese ships of the day, they were quite wide for their length - a ratio of 44:18 zhang (=10 chi). This makes a very large vessel by anyone's reckoning, entirely of wood with metal fastenings, and it sailed the open sea as far as Africa. (Ref 3. p80). The sheer scale of the vessels (40 percent longer and 65 percent wider the best Western efforts) have been too much for the Euro-centric scholars, with claims the Chinese scribes were exaggerating. Some, like Richard Gould (ref 4) suggest they were "a grandiose dream" or "perhaps...the ships...were built...but never sailed." The unearthing of a rudder post in the same Ming shipyards in 1962 lends support to the credibility of the figures. The scale of the 36ft long and 1.25 ft diameter post calculated by Chou Shih Te using accepted formulae to a vessel length of 480 to 536 ft. "The discovery of the rudder post shows that the Ming texts are not 'spinning a yarn' when they give dimensions at first sight hard to believe for the flagships of Cheng Ho's (Zheng He's) fleets. (Ref 5). More recent work by Professor Xi Long Fei of Wuhan University of Technology, who has written extensively on the subject, is currently being translated. (Ref 6).  

These 2 cases demonstrate what can be achieved in timber. Both Greece and China were known to have used mortise and tenon strake jointing unknown or ignored in Europe. In fact the Greek workmanship was more like 'furniture joinery' than the rough work of later shipwrights. (Casson Ref 2).  It has been suggested that no timber ship ever repeated the technical perfection of the best triremes, which flies in the face of the evolutionary 'upward and onward' theme, but fits very nicely into the Biblical worldview.   

Yet the feasibility of Noah's Ark does not stand or fall on the historicity of these examples. The ark was different in many respects. However, it is worth noting that there were 4 separate times in history when shipwrights attempted the largest timber ship ever, and in every case they achieved a fairly similar scale - somewhere near 400 feet long. The problems with the large ships of the late 1800's do not disqualify the ark, but indicate that we are working near the limit for a timber hull. So the imagined need for steel in a hull over 300 feet might be just that - imaginary.

References:

1. The Ancient Mariners : Lionel Casson 2nd Ed. Princeton Univertsity Press 1991

2. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World : Lionel Casson. John Hopkins Univ Press 1995 

3. When China Ruled the Seas : Louise Levanthes, Oxford University Press, 1994 

4. Asia's Undersea Archeology : Dr. Richard Gould, Professor of Archeology at Brown University. PBS Nova (Nova Online) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sultan/archeology2.html

5. Science and Civilization in China; Vol 4 Part 3 Section 29 Nautical Technology. Needham 1971. p482. 

6. DW Chalmers, Letters to the Editor, RINA Affairs, Newsletter of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects Sept 2003. http://www.rina.org.uk/rfiles/rinaaffairs/rinaaffairs_sep03.pdf

7. Ancient Egypt: Lionel Casson, Leonard Krieger, Time Life Books 1966