Black Sea Flood Theory Put to Test

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Richard Stone
1999-02-01 20:30
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CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS--Scientists plan to mount a major expedition this summer to look for remains of ancient settlements submerged in the Black Sea, a team including Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic wreck, announced here on 30 January. The archaeological treasure hunt is meant to test a theory that fast-rising waters some 7500 years ago drove coastal dwellers inland at a dizzying 1 to 2 kilometers a day, a cataclysm that some researchers say could have spread farming into Central Europe and perhaps even account for the biblical tale of Noah's Ark.

In late 1997, oceanographers William Ryan and Walter Pitman of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, published evidence from sediment cores that about 5500 B.C., water from a rising Mediterranean began spilling over into the nearby Black Sea, raising water levels 15 centimeters a day; by the time the flood was over, the sea had risen about 150 meters (Science, 20 February 1998, p. 1132). Most oceanographers consider the duo's data--and the flood scenario itself--credible. But the possible implications of this deluge have provoked a big debate in the archaeology community. "I'm certain we have a flood," says Pitman. "But did it cause a diaspora? We can only speculate."

Now this theory will be put to test. In July, a team of scientists from several institutions--including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ballard's Institute for Exploration, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Archaeological Museum in Sinop, Turkey--plans to use sonar to plumb the murky waters off Sinop for signs of a settlement. The group got tantalizing hints that they are on the right track in a preliminary survey last summer, which revealed "shapes that are too large for a shipwreck and too regularly shaped to not be manmade," says expedition member David Mindell of MIT.

The researchers say they aren't out to prove the veracity of the biblical flood story, in which Noah and his family built an ark and rounded up two of every creature on Earth. "Noah's flood is not a testable hypothesis," says expedition member Fred Hiebert, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "We will test whether there was a strong level of occupation in the [Black Sea] basin when the sea level was low." Of course, there is one way to directly test the Noah story, jokes Mindell: "We could look for pairs of animal skeletons, too."

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