Snelling On The Ark, Part 1

It’s an odd DpSU today. It’s called Top Geologist Releases Data on Noah’s Ark Claim and has no author. It’s rather short:

One of the top geologists in the creation science community recently released data and analysis of wood samples allegedly taken from a structure on Mt. Ararat last year. Dr. Andrew Snelling, Director of Research at Answers in Genesis, released his findings regarding C-14 dating of these samples provided by the Hong Kong group claiming to have discovered Noah’s Ark in 2010.

Read Dr. Snelling’s report here.

Dr. Snelling is formerly a professor of geology at the Institute for Creation Research and is author of the book Earth’s Catastrophic Past.


Well this is interesting, mostly because of the use of 14C dating by creationists. I don’t care about the ark itself so much – ark hunting of the kind practised by John D. Morris et al is just pareidolia with wood. But, considering the prevailing views on radiocarbon dating by creationists, what does he intend to prove? If I read their ideas right, anything from a period near the flood (and especially before) should give an older date than it really is. From this I get the impression that Snelling can only be trying to prove the ark find wrong, by retrieving a much younger date – let’s see if that’s the case.

But before that here’s (most of) RationalWiki’s article on Andrew A. Snelling:

Andrew A. Snelling is an Australian geologist and, nevertheless, young Earth creationist. He is also the first, only, and hopefully last, editor of the Answers Research Journal. He is the founder of the Journal of Creation.

His creation research has centred around dating methods, with his pet hobby horse being polonium halos, which according to Answers in Genesis, he has used to demonstrate that most rock layers and fossils were deposited by a global flood 4,300 years ago. He has been repeatedly overlooked for a Noble prize despite the enormity of this discovery.

For his excellent publication record Snelling has became an Associate Professor of Geology at the Institute for Creation Research, a title as meaningful as being a Discordian Pope.

There you go. I offer now a stream of consciousness, as-I-read-it review of the article, because I’m bored with studying.

(Note – due to lack of time this will have to be the first of two posts on the subject)

The AiG article is rated by them as ‘semi-technical’ – though even a creationist “technical paper” has nothing on a real journal article. Translations into Chinese and Simplified Chinese are offered. The English version begins:

On April 25, 2010, a press conference was held in Hong Kong to announce to the world the potential discovery of the remains of Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat in Turkey by a joint Chinese–Turkish team of explorers. Both before and after this press conference, representatives of the discovery team had cautiously been seeking to make contact with sympathetic scientists whose positive support they hoped to enlist.

And then, under the heading “A Skype Conference Call”:

Consequently, on April 20, 2010, I participated in a Skype conference call (early morning in northern Kentucky, USA) with several Chinese members of the discovery team (late evening for them in Hong Kong). During that conference call I was shown video footage of the team’s exploration on Mt. Ararat, footage that was subsequently released at the press conference. Photos of a wooden structure purportedly buried on Mt. Ararat, and of the inside of it, were also provided (for example, Figure 1).

Figure 1 is of a collection of wood, and not fresh wood either. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty hard sell to claim that this wood is 4000+ years old, and has survived an extended period of time as part of a large boat, and has endured a large amount of nuclear radiation and the several ice ages demanded by the creationists model of the flood and its after effects. On the other hand, I wouldn’t know how to distinguish irradiated wood from any other kind without a Geiger counter, so I can’t draw any conclusions here beyond Occam’s Razor. Consider, even if the ark was known – nay, even proven – to have existed, the chances that a “wooden structure” found somewhere in the “Mountains of Ararat” actually being the ark. They aren’t good. On a related subject, I’d like to see if the tree rings on the wood can be matched to the known dendrochronology – we have 11000 years of records for that.

As a scientist I am always cautious and somewhat skeptical of bold and spectacular claims, especially when made in defense of the Bible, yet as a Bible-believing Christian the thought of this wooden structure being the remains of the Ark was tantalizing. Friends in Hong Kong who helped arrange this confidential conference call were equally cautious but excited. We were all looking for the unequivocal evidence that would convince us that this was indeed the remains of the long-sought-after Ark. Such a discovery would be another powerful witness to the truth and authority of God’s Word.

That paragraph starts great, but then goes rapidly downhill. He wants this to be real, which presents a problem when it comes to objective reason. But he is “skeptical” – whatever he takes that word to mean.

These Chinese members of the discovery team wanted to determine if I would be sympathetic to their claims, and able to participate with them in their planned press conference, to appear as an “expert witness” to corroborate their potential discovery. I would have seriously considered their request if they could convince me that this discovery was genuine. I was already skeptical though, because the Bible tells us the Ark landed on “the mountains of Ararat” halfway through the Flood on day 150 (Genesis 8:4), rather than on Mt. Ararat itself, which is mostly a recent volcano that has erupted numerous times in recent history.

I would say that he’s probably using “skeptical” as “doubtful” – but that’s not to say that he mightn’t be almost doing it right here…

Even so, during our conference call I asked whether any scientific tests had already been conducted. It was quickly indicated that samples of wood from the structures on Mt. Ararat had been tested for radiocarbon (C-14). My curiosity was naturally aroused, as such tests would potentially be a good indication of the structure’s possible antiquity. So without any hesitation on their part, these Chinese members of the discovery team tabled their full compilation of C-14 test results, and sent me a copy.

Now, what Snelling should be doing is saying what results would support and refute the argument that the wood is really from the ark – and, of course, provide an explanation for the confused reader who thought radiocarbon dating was total bullshit anyway – before he provides his interpretation:

What I saw immediately convinced me, that if these C-14 test results were obtained on wood samples from the structure they had discovered on Mt. Ararat, then they had definitely NOT discovered the Ark. I graciously sought to explain this to our conference call hosts, giving the reasons for my coming to that conclusion. I also strongly urged them to have further C-14 testing done on their wood samples, and other scientific tests performed on samples of a rope and white pellets we’d seen in the video footage and photos. I even suggested that they delay their press conference until such time as extra scientific tests had been done.

That conference call ended amicably. It wasn’t clear whether our Chinese hosts had understood my explanations as to how and why their C-14 tests proved their wood samples are NOT from the remains of the Ark. They had asked that the C-14 test results remained confidential.

Ok – on to “The Press Conference and Its Aftermath”:

The discovery team went ahead with their planned press conference in Hong Kong on April 25, 2010, and announced to the world’s media that the Ark had been discovered on Mt. Ararat. At the press conference, wood, rope and white pellet samples were on display (Figure 2). The five-page press release was entitled: “Exploration team successfully ventures inside 4,800-year-old wooden structure on snow-capped Mt. Ararat. Experts and Turkish officials believe artefact is Noah’s Ark.” Yet all that appeared in the press release concerning the dating of the wood was: “Wood specimens were dated as 4,800 years old.” That simple statement was understood to mean that more than one sample was dated at 4,800 years old, but no mention was made of what dating method was used.

Ok, so far it seems that I’m correct in thinking that Snelling is trying to prove the discovery to be incorrect, but wrong in saying that the dating shows it to be too young. Figure 2 is here.

In response to the ensuing media blitz, AiG posted on its website a brief report on April 27, 2010, and brief comments on April 29, 2010, followed by a lengthier news item on May 1, 2010, in the weekly News to Note feature. Only in the latter news item was the radiocarbon dating of the wood samples briefly mentioned, with incomplete details (I was incommunicado in the Grand Canyon at the time!). But the AiG news item did briefly explain why the radiocarbon dates obtained from the discovery team’s wood samples were problematic, if indeed this was pre-Flood wood from the Ark.

Now we’re getting to the meat. Are they going to say that the date should be even older?

Rather than engage in a public discussion over the C-14 dating of the wood samples, efforts continued to be made behind the scenes to convince the discovery team to fully disclose the C-14 test results they had obtained, and to undertake further C-14 testing of their wood samples, plus scientific testing of the samples of rope and white pellets. Those efforts seem to have failed, as to my knowledge the full details of the C-14 testing of their wood samples have never been publicly disclosed by the discovery team. Nor am I aware that any scientific testing of the samples of rope and white pellets has been done and publicly reported.

Snelling seems to be berating his colleagues here for incompetence…

Meanwhile, a dramatic, full-length feature film has been produced by the discovery team, publicizing their claim to have found the Ark on Mt. Ararat, proclaiming that the biblical record is therefore true, and sharing the Gospel on that basis. The film is also being used to raise funds for further exploration and documentary production, with the same evangelistic purposes. The premiere screening was in Sydney, Australia, with the film being subsequently shown in other Australian capital cities, including recently in Brisbane. Other film showings have occurred in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and now the film is being released in the USA.

That sounds like they’re jumping the gun faster than the Darwinius Masillae lot, and I shouldn’t have to remind you how that turned out.

Several U.S. Christian academics are shown in the film, portrayed as lending their support to the claim that the Ark has been discovered on Mt. Ararat. As a result, many Christians have been enthralled if not convinced by this purportedly incredible archaeological discovery. Consequently, many have donated funds towards the cost of further Ararat expeditions in the hope that other documentary films will be forthcoming to be used for evangelistic purposes.

John Morris will be pleased, at least. Next section – “The Undisclosed C-14 Test Results”:

However, the full details of the C-14 testing of the wood samples from this wooden structure on Mt. Ararat that is claimed in this film to be the Ark have still not been disclosed to film audiences. Neither do these results seem to have been disclosed to some of the U.S. Christian academics who feature in the film. If the results have been disclosed to these advisors, the implications do not seem to have been fully understood by those advisors. This is a very serious concern. These academic consultants and the film audiences are not aware that this crucial C-14 evidence actually undermines the Ark discovery claim.

Ok, here we go – maybe.

The Chinese–Turkish discovery team claims that they secured wood samples from wooden structures high on Mt. Ararat. While this certainly is attention worthy, what many find troubling is their assertion that subsequent C-14 testing of those wood samples buttresses their claim that those fragments are in fact part of the Ark. Furthermore, the discovery team has chosen not to make their C-14 test results publicly available for scientific scrutiny. Therefore, since people are being seriously misled, and are generously donating under apparently false pretenses, I have prayerfully concluded that I have a Christian responsibility and intellectual obligation to provide these U.S. Christian academics and the Christian public with the full details and implications of the C-14 testing undertaken by the Chinese–Turkish discovery team.

Basically, Snelling is revealing the results he was told to keep confidential, as he believes they contradict the assertions made about the wood.

A compilation of the C-14 test results for their wood samples is provided in Table 1, exactly as it was given to me on April 20, 2010 by the Chinese members of the discovery team, in the file they sent me. To ensure the reader will not miss their data, I have taken the liberty to clean up the layout to enhance clarity, readability, and comprehension. The results themselves have not been altered in any way.

The table is still pretty unreadable. I’m guessing that the comments in the “remarks” and “details” columns are from the original and not his own. One such comment suggests that dendrochronology was indeed used. I’m not going to reproduce the table here – read it yourself at the article if you wish.

It should be clear immediately from the table that four wood samples were C-14 tested, and three laboratories were used. We were not told the identity of these laboratories, so I have no way of assessing the quality of these C-14 analyses. Presumably, they are reputable laboratories, but no indications were given as to which analytical equipment was used to do the testing, whether by the older beta counting method, or by the newer (more sophisticated and accurate) accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) method.

He’s assuming good faith, which is nice of him. New section – “C-14 Dates of Samples A, B, and C”:

Sample A was analyzed by both Laboratory 1 and Laboratory 2, and both laboratories obtained essentially the same result. This wood sample came from a tree growing since 1955, because the wood had a C-14 activity level greater than the modern level, indicating contamination with C-14 generated by nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere. So obviously this wood sample A could NOT have come from any wooden structure that is the remains of the Ark, even if this wood was found on Mt. Ararat.

Sounds like a solid conclusion on his part, then.

Sample B was also analysed by both Laboratory 1 and Laboratory 2, and again both laboratories obtained essentially the same results. This wood sample is dated at 120±25 years BP and 135±30 years BP. Thus this wood sample possibly came from a tree living between 95 and 165 years prior to AD 1950, the zero reference point or datum for BP (Before Present). That is, the tree was possibly living sometime between AD 1785 and AD 1855. Thus wood sample B also could NOT have come from any wooden structure that is the remains of the Ark.

Again, it’s looking like B is too young.

In the Remarks column of Table 1 there is a note that Samples A and B “were practically collected from the same site.” A query was also made about “whether the samples were contaminated by moss and bacteria growth”. The laboratory evidently replied that “the older age of sample B might be due to Suess Effect of diluted C-14 by fossil fuel.”

What this comment regarding the Suess Effect is referring to is the observation that, as a result of the Industrial Revolution there was so much burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, the carbon dioxide produced by that burning diluted the C-14 in the atmosphere. Consequently, trees growing in the 1800s photosynthesized less C-14 than trees photosynthesize today, so the wood from the 1800s trees should give ages slightly older than their true ages.

Again, solid – it is not looking good for the sample. But, naturally enough, it’s sample D that holds the most promise, at least according to the table.

Sample C was only analysed by Laboratory 1, and yielded a C-14 date of 610±25 years BP. Thus this wood sample would appear to be from a tree living sometime between 585 and 635 years prior to AD 1950, that is, between AD 1315 and AD 1365. Once again, this third wood sample also could NOT have come from any wooden structure that is the remains of the Ark. Thus three of the four wood samples categorically do NOT support the claim the Chinese-Turkish exploration team has found the wooden remains of the Ark on Mt. Ararat.

But they are getting closer…

Interestingly, it was reported to Laboratory 1 that samples B and C belonged to the same wooden structure, so that laboratory was asked to try and explain the apparent great age difference between their two analyses (see Remarks column in Table 1): 120±25 years BP (sample B) and 610±25 years BP (sample C). The laboratory’s response was that, even though they did not know how and where the team collected these samples, they were able to determine that sample “C was from the inner part of the tree and (sample) B was (from) the bark.” If so, then the tree(s) from which these two wood samples may have come would have grown for at least 490 years. Nevertheless, such an interpretation by the laboratory is rather conjectural, at best, by their own admission.

On to the next, short section – “Contamination Can Be Ruled Out”:

The question of potential contamination is important to discuss here, as there is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion (including, perhaps, among the discovery team and its U.S. academic and scientific advisors) about how it might supposedly affect C-14 dating of samples. Obviously, samples need to be collected in the field with proper care to reduce the risk of contamination. However, such concerns are usually overstated by those who have little or no knowledge of how radiocarbon laboratories handle samples before the C-14 testing is performed. Any contamination due to field handling during collection and laboratory processing of samples can be effectively ruled out, due to the harsh chemical pre-treatment of samples in the laboratory prior to final preparation of the samples for the C-14 analyses.

Most laboratories typically follow a modified AAAOx pre-treatment to guarantee the elimination of any contamination, including that from any moss or bacteria. First, the samples are drenched in hot and strong hydrochloric acid to dissolve away any contaminant inorganic minerals, such as calcium, barium or strontium salts. Then the samples are soaked for at least a week in a hot and strong mixture of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids. After this, any acid-soluble humics are removed from what remains of the samples with an extended hot and strong hydrochloric acid treatment. Finally, this pre-treatment is followed by an extended cold and fresh alkali extraction.

Sounds legit. My question, though, is can he be sure that the group didn’t pick up unrelated wood in their search? Probably not, but you never know…

“The δ13C Parameter”:

One other detail in Table 1 needs commenting on here. In the Details column is the notation δ13C. This is an extra measurement Laboratory 1 performed on samples A, B and C, and Laboratory 2 performed on sample B. It also indicates that these two laboratories probably used the more sophisticated accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) equipment to do the C-14 measurements, as the C-13 to C-12 ratio needed to calculate the δ13C value is a by-product of C-14 measurements using that equipment.

For a technical discussion of this parameter, see the Appendix below. However, in summary, it can be concluded that the δ13C values measured by these two laboratories verify that the samples they were C-14 dating were indeed wood, because the δ13C values they measured were within the range for recent and fossil woods.

That will be why he assumed good faith, then.

And so I leave you on a cliff-hanger. Is the wood from the ark? Probably not – Snelling seems to know his stuff, at least here. We’ll find out about the final sample – the one that actually was given an age of 4800 years – tomorrow. Maybe. You know what I’m like with these two-parters…

[EDIT: Part 2 is here, and right on time too]


2 thoughts on “Snelling On The Ark, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Snelling On The Ark, Part 2 « Eye on the ICR

  2. Pingback: Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Us « Eye on the ICR


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