The Genesis Flood (3/4)
The Genesis flood record is not an embarrassing mess of unlikely circumstances and implausible descriptions like the other Mesopotamian flood stories. It is an accurate account of a genuine historical event. It is superior to the records of the 3rd millennium flood left by other Mesopotamian cultures, showing a direct knowledge of the events and careful attention to detail.
The information in the Genesis flood record is reliable, and is proved so by archaeological findings. There was a real Noah, a real ark, and a real flood. There was a real judgment, sent by a real God.
In this third article (of four), the following questions are addressed:
* Could ships this size be built with the Early Bronze Age technology which was available to Noah?
* Even though this technology was available in the Early Bronze Age, is there any physical evidence that it was used to make such large ships?
Could ships this size be built with the Early Bronze Age technology which was available to Noah?
Skeptics objecting to the size of Noah’s Ark frequently point to 19th century wooden ships which were unseaworthy due to their large size. It is argued from such examples as these that Noah’s Ark was too large to be practical for a wooden ship. However, it must be noted that the comparisons being made are not entirely valid. The Ark was a barge, whilst it is frequently compared with sailing ships, or even ships with steam engines. A barge is not subject to the same stresses as a sailing ship. It does not have to bear the weight of sails and rigging, and it is not subject to hull stresses caused by the wind bending the masts. The Ark did not have to carry the tremendous weight of cannon which burdened the wooden ships with which it is often compared, and nor did it have to deal with the weight and stresses of a steam engine or steam bilge pumps. In addition, the Ark was not a sea or ocean going vessel, it stayed within the Mesopotamian flood plain.
One of the largest wooden ships, the Appomattox, is often compared with the Ark. Measuring 97.2 metres long (319 feet), with a beam of 12.8 metres (42 feet), it had to be reinforced with steel bracing just to stay together, and pumped continuously by steam bilge pumps in order to battle constant leaking as stresses on the hull caused the timbers to separate. Skeptics frequently point to this as an example of the vulnerability of wooden ships over 300 feet long, and argue that this demonstrates Noah’s Ark (carrying no steel bracing or steam bilge pumps), could not possibly have been practical. However, the Appomattox was designed completely differently to the Ark, being a steam powered ship not a barge. It was also subjected to other stresses caused not only by a cargo load but also by having to tow a large unpowered barge behind it.
It is noteworthy that whilst much is made of comparisons between the Appomattox and the Ark, the unpowered barge which was towed by the Appomattox is never mentioned. This is particularly odd since this ship (the Santiago), is a far more relevant vessel with which to compare the Ark. Like the Ark it was made entirely of wood, carrying no steel bracing. Like the Ark it was not powered either by steam or sail. Like the Ark it was built as a barge. Not only this, but its dimension are even larger than those of the Appomattox, being 102.4 metres long (336 feet), with a beam of 14 metres (46 feet).
Unlike the Appomattox, the Santiago did not suffer from leaking problems. It served on the Great Lakes as a towed barge for almost 20 years (1899-1918), before finally being swamped in a gale. This wooden ship (though not as large as the Ark), was larger than the Appomattox which towed it, but suffered from none of the structural defects and had a service history over twice as long as that of the Appomattox, despite serving on the Great Lakes, notorious for their storm conditions and unpredictable waters. This is a far more accurate comparison to draw with the Ark, and demonstrates that wooden barges over 300 feet long are entirely practical.
Turning to the Ancient Near East, we find records of large ships comparable to this size (and larger), being built centuries before the age of 19th century industrial technology.
• An obelisk barge built in Egypt for Queen Hatshepsut (about 1,480 BC, Late Bronze Age), estimated at 95-140 metres long (311-459 feet), and 32 metres wide (104 feet). A large contemporary Egyptian relief depicts the barge in the process of carrying two obelisks end to end. Given the size of the obelisks, if the barge carried them end to end as depicted in the relief, its length would be well over 100 metres. Even estimates made on the basis that the obelisks were carried side by side (rather than end to end, as the relief depicts), have ranged between 84 and 95 metres (Björn Landström, ‘Ships Of The Pharoahs’, 1970)
• The Thalamagos, a large pleasure barge built Ptolemy IV Philopater (around 200 BC), which was around 114 metres long (377 feet), is described by the Greek historian Athenaeus (2nd-3rd century AD), quoting earlier sources (‘The Deipnosophists’, Book 5). Lionel Casson’s ‘Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World’ (1995), says ‘It was over 300 feet long’ (page 342). Michel Robert’s ‘Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity’ (2000), says the Thalamegos is ‘well known from historical sources’ (page 347). George Sarton’s ‘Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries B.C.’ (1993), says ‘Athenaios does not indicate his sources for the second ship, [the Thalamegos] but it must have been an eye-witness or a person who obtained measurements and other details from a contemporary’ (page 121)
• The Tessarakonteres, a timber warship built for Ptolemy IV (around 200 BC), which was 128 metres long (about 420 feet), is described by the Roman historian Plutarch (‘Life of Demetrius’, chapter 43, sections 5-6). Recognized as a historical vessel by authorities such as Lionel Casson’s ‘Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times’ (1994), and ‘Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World’ (1995)
• A 3rd century BC timber warship which was around 100 metres long (about 300 feet), is described by the Greek historian Memnon (reference to it is found in Photius’ 9th century ‘Myriobiblon’, book 9, capter 8, section 5, quoting the 13th book of Memnon’s ‘History of Heracleia)
• The ‘Nemi Ships’, two timber barges built for the Roman emperor Caligua in the 1st century AD, measuring 70 metres long (229 feet), and 18 metres wide (60 feet). The precise dimensions of the ‘Nemi Ships’ are known because the vessels themselves have been found, largely intact
• A large cargo barge also built for Caligula, measuring 104 metres long (about 341 feet), and 20.3 metres wide (66 feet), used to transport an obelisk from Egypt to Rome. Gregory Aldrete’s ”Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia’ (2004), says of this ship ‘Atop one of these was erected a lighthouse that used as its foundation the giant ship that had been built to transport the obelisk of Heliopolis from Egypt to Rome under the reign of Caligula’ (page 206)
It can be proved that the technology used by these cultures was capable of building such large vessels. Successful wooden ships of this size require nothing more sophisticated than such timber technology as mortise and tenon joinery, tension cables (‘hogging trusses’), and bulkheads or internal bracing, such as transverse lashing and lateral or longitudinal strength beams. In some cases, only three out of these five techniques were used, whereas Noah’s ark demonstrably used at least four of these techniques, and most likely five (excepting the bulkheads).
Timber pleasure barge built for Caligula, around 37-41 AD (source)
Importantly, these ships were built using the same construction techniques used in the Early and Middle Bronze Age, including mortise and tenon joinery and a ‘hull first’ construction method, rather than the ‘frame first’ construction method used by later Western maritime engineers.
Even more significant is ‘Caligula’s Giant Ship‘, previously mentioned. It had six decks, displaced between 7,000 and 8,000 tons, and carried a crew of 700-800. It was built using the same construction method as the two pleasure barges. The dimensions of this ship are not contested, since its physical remains have been found at Port Claudius in Italy (near Rome International Airport), where it was sunk and filled with stones to create a foundation for the port’s lighthouse.
Prior to this discovery, mention of super barges in Roman historical literature (such as Pliny the Elder), had been dismissed as either legend or wild exaggeration. Not only was it considered impossible to build such a large vessel from timber, it was also considered impossible that the Romans had the technology necessary for such an achievement. But the physical evidence overturned these preconceptions. It became clear that the simple maritime techniques known not only by the Romans but by the Ancient Near East in the Early Middle Bronze Age, were more than enough to construct sea going vessels larger than any Western timber ship up to the mid-19th century. Even more startling was the fact that this super barge of Caligula’s was a reliable sea-going vessel, unlike many 19th century timber ships over 90 metres long (295 feet).
It is therefore clear that the technology required to build a timber ship the size of Noah’s Ark was already available long before the 19th century, and had been used to construct vessels almost as large as the Ark. These techniques were reliable, and widely used. The Greek warships described by Memnon and Ptolemy used mortise and tenon joinery with hogging trusses, to provide strength to the hull, and the Romans used the same technique to construct their super barges. Egyptian tomb reliefs as early as Dynasty IV (2,613-2,494 BC), show tension trusses being used, and they are known to predate this era.
Egyptian inscriptions as early as the reign of Khufu I (2,589-2,566 BC), show ships built with internal bracing techniques such as lateral and longitudinal strength beams, and transverse lashing. Longitudinal strength bulkheads are found in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom era (between 1,991 BC and 1,648 BC), showing that this technology was used from a very early date in the Ancient Near East.
In Mesopotamia, copper was used to make hammers and nails, adzes, chisels, axes, and drill bits from before 3,500 BC, mortise and tenon joinery was used from at least the same time, whilst timber boats using sails and copper nails appear as early as 3,500 BC.
Noah was a Mesopotamian, who would have used contemporary Mesopotamian construction techniques, meaning the Ark would have used mortise and tenon joinery, longitudinal strength beams, tension trusses, and hogging trusses, just like other ships built in the Bronze Age. The Ark was also built with internal compartments which may have acted as primitive bulkheads:
14 Make for yourself an ark of cypress wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and out.
Here the text from a tomb inscription in Late Bronze Age Thebes:
‘I inspected the erection of two obelisks built the august boat of 120 cubits in its length, 40 cubits in its width, in order to transport these obelisks. (They) came in peace, safety and prosperity, and landed at Karnak of the city.’
Tomb inscription of Aneni, official under Pharoah Tuthmos I, 1500s BC, translation in JH Breasted, ‘Ancient Records of Egypt’, Part Two, 326 & 328, 1906
This ‘august boat’ was around 63 metres long, and 20 metres wide (207 feet long, 60 feet wide), built using Early Bronze Age technology. This is already slightly longer than the 200 foot ‘limit’ of timber ships which was reached by early 19th century Western technology.
A still larger ship was built (also for transporting obelisks), during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (about 1,480 BC, Late Bronze Age), using Early Bronze Age technology (the overhead cables in the picture below are hogging trusses):
Obelisk barge of Queen Hatshepsut (about 1,480 BC, Late Bronze Age)
It carried two obelisks (each 29.6 metres long and weighing around 323 tons), and the ship itself is estimated at 95-140 metres long and 32 metres wide. The larger of these lengths is almost exactly the length of Noah’s ark (a little over, in fact). The broad barge shape of the ship is also very similar to most modern depictions of the ark.
It is also worth noting that although ships of this size were rare in the Ancient Near East, there was no difficulty in constructing them with this technology when the need arose. Despite the huge obelisk barges being immensely larger than all previously built ships, there is no evidence that the Egyptians were forced to spend years in experimentation, piling up nautical failures as they did so.
The outsized obelisk barges appear suddenly in the historical record, apparently without having required a lengthy process of trial and error before finally reaching the desired result. Proven design techniques were simply taken and scaled up as required. Ships of similar dimensions (though not quite as large), had been built earlier than 3,000 BC. Ancient Egyptian petroglyphs record ships estimated by some at 200 to 275 feet in length:
Ancient Egyptian petroglyph of sickle boat, possibly around 200 feet long
Ancient Egyptian petroglyph of square boat, possibly around 275 feet long
There are some 20 known reliefs and relief fragments illustrating Egyptian nautical technology from the Old Kingdom era alone (2,575-2,134 BC). But further back than this, in the pre-dynastic era, we have abundant evidence from boat graves as early as 3,800 BC.
From this evidence a high level of standardization of shipbuilding practices can be seen, dating from about 3,300 BC onwards. Standard techniques such as mortise and tenon joinery, transverse lashing, carvel shell construction, and edge to edge plank binding were used from the late pre-dynastic era right through to the New Kingdom, a duration of over 1,000 years.
It is therefore possible to describe with reasonable accuracy the dimensions and construction techniques of a large free floating cargo barge built within this era. Descriptions of Noah’s Ark do not have to rely on guesswork. There is abundant evidence for the shipbuilding techniques which were standard methods for constructing vessels for such purposes in Noah’s day.
Indeed, given the technology of the day, there were limited options available for building such vessels. This explains, in part, the consistency and standardization of Ancient Near East shipbuilding in regions such as Egypt, where carpenters kept to established techniques for well over a thousand years:
‘The feature is seen repeatedly on representations of other early Egyptian boats, and indicates ‘accepted practice’: the correct way to build and to portray a boat incorporated transverse lashing of major components.By the fifth millennium BC, some boats were able to move large loads because they relied on displacement rather than simple buoyancy.’
‘It can be suggested that the practices by which the transition was accomplished were rapidly standardised and can be traced through Egyptian boat-building for more than a thousand years. Examination of woodworking and standard boat-building techniques in the fourth and third millennia supports this hypothesis.’
‘It is possible to examine the development of woodworking skills through tools, artefacts and features in tombs at several sites. By the mid-fourth millennium, evidence for sophisticated woodworking exists, and specialised carpenters had probably become a part of ordinary life in regional centres such asMaadi,Nagada orNekhen.’
‘Grave enclosures in the Predynastic Naga-ed-Dˆer cemetery (Lythgoe & Dunham 1965; phase dates in Savage 1998) demonstrate an increased standardisation and complexity of woodworking technology.
‘Knowledge and control of raw materials, production and design are reflected in technological standardisation visible by the third phase of Nagd-ed-Dˆer burials [pre-dynastic era] when a limited range of techniques was repeatedly used to join individual planks of uniform thickness and width with lengths of 2m or more (Lythgoe & Dunham 1965: xiv-xv, 202-5).’
‘It was startling to realise that the strap shows the same weave and approximately the same dimensions as similar remains from Lisht planks created more than a thousand years later.’
‘Examination of the details of hull construction over a period of 1200 years indicates regularities in design, plank shape, plank fastenings and even the dimensions of individual components.
One explanation for the enduring tradition could be the establishment of communities of specialists with an extensive apprenticeship programme that maintained group practice over a very long period.’
Cheryl Ward, ‘Boat-building and its social context in early Egypt: interpretations from the First Dynasty boat-grave cemetery at Abydos’, Antiquity volume 80, pages 118–129, 2006