Flavin's Corner


Atlantis in the Black Sea?

Bob Ballard, renowned underwater investigator, received permission last week from the Turkish government to begin removing ancient artifacts from the bottom of the Black Sea. National Geographic, the sponsor of Ballard's expedition, advertises this is as "The Search for Noah's Flood." While science has known for a while the Black Sea area underwent considerable changes over the course of the last Ice Age, it was only recently the Noahic tradition was suggested as having a connection. Okay, so the Black Sea flooded c. 5200 BCE and maybe some people drowned. Maybe… Why not associate this with Atlantis? Why bring in biblical myths? Are we bored with Plato? Whatever the answers to these silly questions, I'm profoundly disappointed with National Geographic and what I regard as a cheap attempt to entice Christians to open their wallets. I expected better…

At issue are the following:

Dating and significance of changes in the Black Sea water level.

Specifics concerning the eustasy (global sea-level elevation) from which the Mediterranean overflowed through the Bosporus and into the (Euxine) Black Sea were few and vague when "An abrupt drowning of the Black Sea shelf" (W. B. F. Ryan, W. C. Pitman III, et al., Marine Geology, 138, 119-126, 1997) was published. The authors argued for a sudden inundation of the Black Sea area based on original seismic profiles and the study of sediment cores. With suggestive aplomb, the paper concludes with:

"The bedrock cross-sections of the SOI-Bosporus and SOÇ-Dardanelles observed at dozens of points along their lengths present a flume capable [of] delivering a flux in excess of 50 km3 per day, initially filling the lake at a rate approaching 10's of cm/day.

At this time (7550 calendar years BP), farming, which had already been established in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and along the coast of the Marmara Sea (Özdagan, 1983; van Andel and Runnels, 1995), spread rapidly inland along the major river valleys of southeastern Europe (Greg, 1988; Hodder, 1990). The light plow and simple irrigation appear abruptly in the Transcaucasus (Glumac and Anthony, 1991). Such 'wave-of-advance' population movements (Sokal et al., 1991) could have been induced by the permanent expulsion of inhabitants which had adapted to the natural resources of the formerly-emerged Black Sea periphery -- namely, its arable loess, alluvial soil, and the moist loam of the freshly exposed bed of its shrinking shoreline."

Once regarded as an event which occurred over a period of perhaps two thousand years, the expansion of the Black Sea to its modern size is suggested by the authors to have taken place in a relatively short time. Unlike such later catastrophes as Thera, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, it would seem the rising waters would be something humans could have walked away from. Actually the authors mention the "expulsion of inhabitants," rather than claim a tragedy of many deaths.

As c. 5150 BCE is now mentioned (see: "Early Holocene Marine Flooding of the Black Sea, " E. Uchupi and D. A. Ross, Quaternary Research, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 68-71, July 2000), and coincides with many well investigated cultures (Vinca, Hamangia, etc.), I find it interesting these Neolithic folk would continue to build near rivers and streams if …they possessed some tradition of a catastrophic water event. Just an observation…

Ballard's initial proposal of investigation.

In "Design and Implementation of Advanced Underwater Imaging Systems for Deep Sea Marine Archaeological Surveys" (available online through the Institute for Exploration, Mystic, CT), Ballard and his co-authors, Coleman and Newman, tout several new underwater vehicles and associated systems. They believe these could assist in discovering both potential artifacts from when the Black Sea was "an inland lake," that is to say over seven thousand years ago, and later shipwrecks resulting from trade between Turkey and southern Ukraine, perhaps from the time of the Argonauts (c. 1250 BCE) through periods of Thracian commerce (c. 700 BCE - 46 CE).

Known to the general public as the builder of the robot which viewed the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985, Ballard has many other accomplishments to his credit (I personally like the discovery of giant marine worms in 1977), and will probably continue to do many cool and important things in the future. As a marine geologist and deep-sea explorer, Ballard seems a media successor of sorts to Jacques Cousteau. That National Geographic believes in his expedition is a wonderful thing; that somehow a marine geologist and a society founded in 1888 for the "increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge" have become experts on biblical exposition, textual criticism, and Near Eastern mythology is a scary development. Why bring the myth of Noah's flood into an otherwise worthwhile scientific expedition?

Science and popularization at all costs.

The main authors of the paper quoted above ("An abrupt drowning of the Black Sea shelf"), Ryan and Pitman, were not comfortable with merely pushing science along and helping to better understand the effects of a change in global sea-level, and went on to publish a popular book, Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event That Changed History (New York: Simon & Schuster 1998). Nearly every major review of the book has complimented the authors on the scientific data the book presents, but take the authors to task for excessive imagination and linking a biblical myth to the Neolithic Black Sea. The authors, as scientists, did not let the evidence "speak" for itself, but rather imposed their own belief in a global flood and that the Hebrew people recorded a tradition concerning it sometime between c. 1000 to 500 BCE (the accepted range for the various changes in Genesis). How does one go from sediment core samples to a study of a Caananite religion with Sumero-Babylonian and Egyptian influences? Faith, not science…

Some years back the geoarchaeologist, Eberhard Zangger, released The Flood from Heaven: Deciphering the Atlantis Legend (New York: William Morrow & Co. 1992), which claimed Troy was Plato's Atlantis. Zangger's efforts to draw attention to Troy as a strategically placed city with complex ports was applauded by many, including such notables as Colin Renfrew, but extending Troy to Plato's protreptic of Atlantis proved too much. It seems investigating Troy wasn't sufficient, Zangger required the sensational, got it, and …his theory currently collects dust on the shelf of misfit ideas.

Speaking of misfits, when the infamous neo-Nazi and convicted pederast, Frank Collin, was serving time for taking indecent liberties with young lads from Chicago, he began work on his first book, The Destruction of Atlantis by Frank Joseph (Chicago: Adams Press 1987). Later, after his release from jail, he became interested in a small pile of rocks at the bottom of a lake in Wisconsin, and wrote Atlantis in Wisconsin (Minnesota: Galde Press 1995). Some ignore allegory in Plato's writing and see signs of Atlantis everywhere. Still others ignore centuries of biblical scholarship and see signs of a global flood everywhere. It remains to be determined why Bob Ballard and National Geographic have committed themselves to such a silly position.

Noah's Flood? Well, there's no easy answer, but I'll take a skinny approach. Flood myths are common around the world and point to diversity and individual origins rather than support a single occurrence. Genesis attracted the interest of the so-called Reformed Theologians between 1540 and 1740, but it wasn't until the late nineteenth century that scholars put forth the Documentary Hypothesis and began to argue for more than one author (or version) of Genesis, a model which eventually enlarged to four (or more) different authors. Two versions (one by "J," after usage of Jehovah/Yahweh, and the other by "P," or someone representing a "priestly" tradition) are combined in the Genesis account of Noah's Flood (available here). Whether Noah's Flood is a literary metaphor, a continuance of Near Eastern and Mesopotamian myth-cycles based on seasonal flooding, or the unique creation of its authors to enforce a description of a wrathful deity, is anyone's guess. After advancements in geology, physics, archaeology, and textual criticism, the Catholics regard Noah's Ark and Flood as "matters of faith and morals." Not a bad position…

I remain interested and hopeful of Ballard's efforts in the Black Sea. Perhaps something major will be discovered which will add to what is already known about Neolithic life from Çatalhüyük to Karanovo, the spread of agriculture, and related areas. I seriously doubt evidence will be forthcoming which will support Noahic tradition as recorded in Genesis, though some commentators (such as Brian Fagan) apparently allow for the possibility.

In these days of political correctness, I don't imagine we'll see many more photographs of semi-nude women from around the world in the pages of National Geographic. Though, honestly, the material on Noah's Flood took me by surprise. Now, if they'd claimed it was Atlantis in the Black Sea, then maybe… No, that wouldn't have worked either. Science should remain science and sensational claims belong in the National Enquirer, not National Geographic.

Getting out my waders,


Return to main page