What follows is an article published in the Australian 'Good
Weekend' magazine published on Sundays with the 'Sydney Morning Herald'
newspaper, August 15th 1992.
The article is titled 'The Boat People', written by Ben Hills of
Re-written by Scott Mackenzie, Newcastle Australia
" An eminent Australian geologist is spearheading a campaign to sink the
claims by amateur archaeologists that they've found Noah's ark. Ben
Hills reports. "
' OVER THERE, ' Ian Plimer shades his eyes against the glare
of the desert sun with one strong, brown hand and points with the other
to a cleft in the bosom of the next range of hills. 'It's about the right
size and shape ... see how the sides taper together at the bow.'
He squats and pokes amongst the shards of ferricreten shale at
his feet with a geologist's hammer. 'Here are some rivets,' he cries,
dropping some odd round bits of what look like rust into a calico sample
bag. 'That is definately petrified wood ... and look at this [ he
scoops up some pebbles]. Wouldn't you say they look like fossilised
He straightens up, brushing the dust from his jeans, and scans
his field-glasses over the dessicated landscape of stoney russet dunes
sparsely spiked with stunted acacias. 'The evidence is overwhelming -
we are standing amongst the ruins of Noah's ark.'
He pauses for a while, deadpan, then throws his head back and
laughs long and loud, frightening a flock of galahs into flight.
Ian Plimer has come to this desolate corner of the Outback not
to discover the ark, but to sink it; not for evidence that the Biblical
story of Noah is untrue, but for scientific proof that claims of its
discovery are foolish, or fraudulent, or both.
We are on the outskirts of a bush hamlet known to most
Australians only as a name on a weather map, a name that usually has
numbers beside it such as 45C, or the notation that it is two years
since the last decent rain. Tibooburra is not far from the notional
spot where a kangaroo could stand with one leg in Queensland, one in NSW
and it's tail in South Australia; the 'big smoke' is Broken Hill, four
axle-busting hours away, and if you're travelling here from Sydney or
Adelaide, you'd get to Hong Kong quicker.
Melbourne, Ian Plimer's home when he is not breaking boulders
out back of Burke or lectruing on international scientific symposia in
Stockholm and Vienna, is 1,200 kilometres away. He is professor of
geology at Melbourne University, and it is from there that he has
spearheaded a remarkable campaign by a group of eminent Australian
scientists to try and discredit what they see as the cult of 'Young
Earth Noah's Flood Creationism' which has been barnstorming the country.
Their immediate target is a retired teacher named Allen Roberts,
who has been lecturing audiences several hundred strong from Perth to
Sydney and Hobart about his 'discovery' of Noah's ark on a mountainside
in Turkey. To support his claims, he has been exhibiting pieces of
'petrified wood', 'rusty rivets', 'fossilised animal droppings' and
photographs of a boat-shaped structure on the mountainside which he says
is the size of the ark ... the same sort of 'evidence' that Plimer has
discovered closer to home at Tibooburra.
'If it's not Noah's ark, what is it?' Roberts has been asking
his audiences, as he attempts to raise several thousand dollars for a
return expedition to the site.
Scoffs Professor Plimer, 'If my discovery at Tibooburra is not
the real ark, just explain how the blind marsupial mole got from Turkey
Plimer and his colleagues - who hold university chairs in
biology, palaeontology and geology - say that Roberts is deluded. His
'ark' is nothing more than a common geological formation called a
syncline, a fold of the rocks in the earth's crust which have been
weathered away over the millennia. The shape on the hillside at
Tibooburra is a typical example - in fact, the hills between here and
Broken Hill are alive with them, scores if not hundreds of synclines, a
veritable armada of arks.
So the battle has been joined - and a great deal more hinges on
it rather than whether or not Allen Roberts has found Noah's ark. It is
a battle that pits science against fundamentalist Christianity in a way
not seen since the great Darwinist debates of 150 years ago. Writs have
been issued, security guards called in, death threats are flying, Satan
has been invoked ... but that's getting ahead of the story.
The lights are snapped off, plunging the church hall into
darkness. There is whispering and scuffling of feet as the audience
cranes its neck in anticipation. Suddenly, projected on to the overhead
screen, splashes a picture of a barren beige mountainside somewhere in
Turkish Armenia, with a striking oval-shaped rock formation outlined on
it by shadow.
To the trained eye - and there is more than one skeptical
scientist who has paid his $4 and infiltrated the meeting at the South
Blackburn Baptist church this April evening - the structure is instantly
recognisable as a common geological syncline. But the congregation, 300
or 400 strong, is mostly made up of true believers, and this is not what
they have come to hear.
The man at the dais adjusts his glasses and consults his notes.
He talks about the 'scientific measurements' that have been made at this
site, the finds of fossilised remains, the metal detector readings which
show a pattern of buried rivets.
'We have here, it seems, fossilised under mud, a gigantic boat
which is similar in size to the Biblical Noah's ark.' He pauses for
effect. 'If it is, this will be the most significant archaeological
discovery of the millenium ... [ it will ] challenge popularly accepted
theories of evolution.'
The lights go on amid applause, and the audience takes a closer
look at the speaker. In appearance at least, 'Dr' Allen Roberts is
closer to the stereotype of the dotty don than the suave Ian Plimer. He
is a slightly stooped man in his 60th year, with metal-rimmed glasses, a
grey beard and a soft, punctilious style of speech.
In fact, although most of the audience does not know this,
Australia's most prominent 'arkeologist' is not a scientist at all - his
degrees are in teaching and history - and some sleuthing has discovered
that his doctorate is in fact a correspondance degree from a clapboard
Bible college in Florida, the self-styled Freedom University.
Taking in the hour-long lecture from a seat at the back of the
hall is Ian Plimer, who has driven out to the bellbird suburb of
Blackburn because the television program that night was 'uninspiring'.
Actually, that's not the whole story. For more than seven years Plimer
has been seeking out and confronting creationism, or anti-science as he
Plimer is no stranger to meetings like this. His finest hour -
a stunt which earned him the first of many threats, physical as well as
legal - came in 1988 when he took on Duane Gish, head of the San Diego-
based Institute for Creation Research, star of international talk
circuits and author of 'Evolution - The fossils say no' and other
the confrontation took place at Sydney University before an
audience of about 1,000, many of them believers who were bussed in from
Plimer did not content himself with the scientific debunking of
creationism: he tackled Gish head-on, citing a US study which appeared
to show that school children taught creationism were more likely to
become atheists. 'Here is Satan,' Plimer cried, pointing at the
astonished Californian evangelist. 'He wants God's blessing for the
Devil's work.' The climax of the performance came when, to ridicule
the claim that evolution was 'only a theory', Plimer donned a pair of
insulated gloves, plugged a cable into a power point, and thrust the two
live wires at Gish, inviting him to test the theory of electricity. The
audience erupted and Gish returned to the United States muttering about
suing for defamation.
What was to happen in Melbourne was less dramatic, typical of
the trouble Plimer and a flying squad of like-minded academics, many of
them members of the Australian Skeptics, have been provoking at Roberts's
meetings around Australia. Plimer introduced himself at 'half-time',
handed over his busines card, and asked whether he could ask a few
questions when the meeting resumed. He and one or two other skeptics
had independantly made their way to the hall in Blackburn were told to
leave. The police were called, and amid shouts of abuse, Plimer was
forced to exit.
'I am not out to destroy their beliefs, and I am not
anti-religious, as they would make out,' says Plimer. 'But I am out to
stop them teaching creationism as science. If you want to accept what
they say, that the earth was formed 10,000 years ago, that Noah's ark
physically existed and so on, then you have to throw not only all
geology, but all astronomy, all physics, all biology, into the garbage
can. It is anti-science, and as one of the shareholders of knowledge I
am employed by the community to rigorously attack it wherever I come
So who is his foe, Allen Roberts, this studious old man with the
grey goatee who has brought down on his head the wrath of the entire
Australian scientific community?
Unfortunately, Roberts himself declined to talk to 'Good
Weekend', citing variously the need to meet a publisher's deadline for a
book about his 'arkeological' adventures, and his humiliation at
recently having been awarded the Australian Skeptics Bent Spoon award
(for the 'most preposterous paranormal piffle' of the year), beating a
world-class field which included the Briton Colin Andrews, who lectures
on the extra-terrestrial origins of crop circles, a US Hopi indian
called Robert Morning Sky, who predicts aliens will come to earth later
this year, and an obscure Australian sect which is girding itself for
the world to end October 21 at 1 o'clock in the morning ( 2am if
daylight saving is in force ).
Until he sprang into the international headlines a year ago,
Roberts lived a life of pious obscurity with his family in a brick
veneer ranch-house in bosky Baulkham Hills, on Sydney's north-west
fringe. He was brought up in a strict Baptist family in Broken Hill and
became a primary teacher. In 1969 he moved to Sydney, where he taught
English at Westmead Teachers' College (now the University of Western
Sydney) until around 1980 when he left to found his own religious school
at Baulkham Hills, the now-defunct Australian College of Christian
Roberts has always held strong fundamentalist Christian beliefs,
and has been in close contact with creationist organisations in
Australia and overseas for a number of years. He has, in particular,
been obsessed with the idea that Noah's ark might actually exist since
the early 1960s, when he saw an aerial photograph of that ship-shaped
formation on a Turkish mountainside in Australian Pix magazine.
Neither Plimer, nor any of the other Skeptics, had heard of
Roberts until August last year when news agencies carried a story that
this 'Australian archaeologist' - along with three Americans and a
Briton - had been kidnapped by Kurdish guerillas in south-east Turkey,
whilst on their way to search for the ark. The Telegraph-Mirror,
predictably, christened him Indiana Jones and kept his story going for
three weeks until Roberts (and the others), unharmed apart from a
swollen ankle, was released and made his way hom to the Hinch show.
Roberts was by no means the first, nor the ten thousandth and
first, 'arkeologist' to make his way to the ancient biblical lands of
eastern Turkey, the mountains of Ararat near the modern border with
Armenia, where Genesis says the ark came to rest after the flood
Just why finding the remains of the ark - and not, say, the
tower of Babel - should have become the holy grail of creationism
puzzles scientists. They wonder whether it hads something to do with
the powerful images of creatures trooping two by two on the strange
wooden vessel, etched in the subconscious from childhood Bible studies.
Whatever the reason, for 22 centuries before Allen Roberts came along,
people have been searching the snowy flanks of Ararat and discovering a
whole flotilla of arks of varying veracity.
As early as 275 BC - possibly the first ark 'sighting' - a
Babylonian historian recorded that the ark was still to be seen in the
mountains, and Kurdish souvenir-hunters 'scrape off bitumen and carry it
away and make use of it by way of alexipharmic and amulet'. Some
centuries later, in the time of St Gregory the Enlightener, a monk who
attempted to climb the mountain was given a fragment of the ark which
can be inspected today in the monastery at Echmiadzin, near the foot of
In 1876, an intrepid Englishman named Lord Bryce discovered a
gopherwood spar on a rocky ledge, and hacked a small piece off for a
souvenir. Twenty years later one, Archdeacon Nouri, a dignitary of the
Chaldean Church, discovered the whole thing, preserved remarkably
intact, and reported that he was 'overcome ... the sight of the ark
thusverifying the truthof the scriptures'. In 1916 a Russian pilot
spotted it from the air, and the Tsar dispatched an expedition which
located and explored it.
Each 'discovery' has its loyal adherents among the various
feuding schools of 'arkeology'.
The most recent ark-rush was inspired by another pilot, Francis
Gary Powers - the US U2 spy pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in
1960. A totally fraudulent claim was put about - unsubstantiated by any
of the archives of that period - tha Powers filmed the remains of the
ark 1,900 metres up on the flanks of a mountain near Ararat called
al-Judi, while searching for Soviet missile sites.
Since then, no fewer than 60 expeditions, most of them financed
by eccentric fundamentalists from the American Bible Belt, have headed
off into the hills of eastern Turkey, spawning half a dozen 'I
discovered the REAL ark' books, complete with photos, drawings and
diagrams ... everything bar the exclusive interview with Noah, which has
been reserved by 60 minutes anyway.
Never a nation look a gift horse in the mouth, the bemused Turks
(although prudently attributing everything to 'American Researchers')
have decided to cash in on the credulous creationists, declaring the
area a national park called Nuh'un Gemisi (Noah's Ark) complete with
roadside stalls, a viewing platform and a hotel to cater for the
pilgrims. It has become a sort of Biblical Big Banana. This, then, was
the place Allen Roberts came to make his great discovery.
To meet the man who can be said to have started Roberts off on
his crusade from Baulkham Hills to Nuh'un Gemisi, you have to travel to
Nashville, Tennessee, a state famous not only for its country music, but
(appropriately enough) for the notorious 'monkey trial' in which John
Scopes was convicted of the crime of teaching evolution in school. If
Ron Wyatt was on the jury, you would get the same verdict in 1992 as was
handed out in 1925.
Wyatt is a creationist (he says it is an 'insult to the
intelligence' to accept that man is descended from the apes) and the
most flamboyant of the American ark-trekkers. His book 'Discovered -
Noah's Ark' was published in 1989 after more than 20 years of research
during visits to the Middle East, and if you accept his account, Wyatt
(whose only professional qualification is as a nurse/anaesthetist) is
the most accomplished archaeologist who has ever lived. Indiana Jones
is a wimp by comparison.
As well as the ark - and in between being beaten, robbed,
kidnapped and shot at by terrorists - the intrepid Wyatt claims to have
discovered the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, chariot wheels in the Red
Sea where Moses once parted the waters, the 'real' Mt Sinai, the 'real'
site of Christ's execution and burial, and (one of a number of
discoveries made while Wyatt was under the influence of divine
direction) the ark of the covenant. Wyatt, has, of course, 'scientific
proof' of all this.
It was to Wyatt's home in Tennessee that Allen Roberts made his
first pilgrimage two years ago, and it was from Wyatt's treasure-trove
of 'arkabilia' that Roberts borrowed much of the 'proof' that he has
produced at his lectures around Australia.
The piece of petrified wood (free of age rings, of course,
because seasons had not been invented before the flood), the taped
outline of the 'ship' measured by sub-surface radar, the rusty iron
'rivets,' the petrified pieces of poo (carpolites) ... these came from
the collection of remarkable Ron Wyatt, and are in fact acknowledged as
such in the fine print at the back of Roberts own booklet, 'If this is
not Noah's ark what is it?
Asked whether he believed Roberts had plagiarised his work,
Wyatt said he had no hard feelings, and in fact was planning yet another
visit to Turkey with Roberts later this year. 'Everybody I have taken
out there, archaeologists, philologists, professors of chemistry ...
after they came back they said 'they' had found the ark,' sighed Wyatt.
Although Plimer has not visited the al-Judi mountain where the
helpful Turks have constructed their ark-viewing platform, he is
familiar with the Turkey/Armenia borderlands, having mounted a number of
Geological expeditions there to search for gold. He and his colleagues
in Australia and overseas have compiled an impressive library of
documentation to show that the 'ark' and the artefacts are actually
common natural phenomena, and that the ark could not have existed.
And they have allies from an unexpected quarter - the mainstream
creation movement itself. You see, there is a second ark, which was
spotted years before the al-Judi discovery about 25 kilometres away,
buried under ice and snow, near the top of Mt Ararat itself. Accounts
of expeditions to this site, complete with fanciful drawings (and even
photographs) of the ark, festooned with icicles and teetering on the
edge of a precipice, had been convincing the credulous for many
generations before Wyatt and Roberts came along.
This second site is the favourite of the 'mother church' of
global creationism, the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego,
California, which was founded more than 20 years ago by a hydrologist
named Henry Morris. The institute has raised large amounts of money
over the years with a highly sophisticated print & video operation, and
has organised a number of expeditions to search for 'their' ark on Mt
Ararat - the idea that it is the wrong ark is anathema.
The Australian end of this 'ministry' is the Creation Science
Foundation, which operates out of Brisbane, and which claims to be the
second largest creationist organisation in the world. It's head is Carl
Wieland, a retired doctor who lives in Cairns when he is not travelling
around the country lecturing. He told 'Good Weekend' that the
foundation was shortly to publish a 'scientific paper' debunking the
'It is not the ark, but it is not a syncline either,' says
Wieland. The foundation's 'geological adviser' - a man named Andrew
Snelling who is one of the rare creationists with a genuine science
degree - later described the formation as 'just a hump of basement rock
which has been forced up and affected by faulting'. As for Allen
Roberts, 'We are not saying he is a fraud. He is a very likeable guy,
but we believe he ahs been misled. We are very sorry he has put himself
on the map like that.'
This setback would however, effect the faith of creationists in
the story of Noah's ark, says Wieland. 'There is no reason why an
8,000-year-old wooden vessel would have survived - in all probability it
rotted away. But just because this is not the ark makes no difference -
if I was still an evolutionist, I would not give that up when it was
shown that the piltdown man was a fraud.'
At the end of the day, why does it matter to Plimer and his
fellow dons that some people choose to believe in the ark and in the
literal truth of the Bible? Why should it be of any more harm or greater
significance than any other late 20th-century factoid - that the Kennedy
killing was a conspiracy, Elvis Presley is still alive or small green
men from Alpha Centauri amuse themselves by making patterns in English
'It matters because they want to teach creationism, not as
part of comparative religion where we would have no problems, but as
part of science,' say Ian Plimer. 'Creationists are lobbying to have
equal time in schools with evolution teaching, and we believe that is as
outrageous as giving witchdoctors equal time in medicine courses.'
Creationism is no longer a fringe cult, enjoyed in the privacy
of their own front parlours by wide-eyed Queensland Bible-bashers. Just
how pervasive the doctrine has become was illustrated a couple of months
ago, when the Australian Institute of Biology surveyed 4,255 biology
students at 17 universities around Australia and discovered that 12.6
percent, one in eight, believed that 'God created man pretty much in his
present form at one time in the past 10,000 years.'
John Skidmore, an associate professor at the University of
Technology, Sydney, who was responsible for the survey, is at a loss to
explain the unexpectably high figure, nor can he account for the fact
his own university came out on top with 20 per cent of true believers.
'We do have more nursing students than science students in our biology
classes,' he says. How could that affect things? 'They are dumber, if
you look at their HSC scores.'
In spite of intensive lobbying by various creationist groups,
Queensland is the only state where creationism is officially permitted
to be taught in State schools as part of the science curriculum - it is
banned in Victoria, and in NSW the former Education minister Terry
Metherell let it be known that anyone caught teaching it would be
dismissed. This has done little to discourage the creationists, and in
particular, Bruce Coleman, a research officer with NSW Legislative
Council member Fred Nile, who recently organised a public meeting in
Paramatta to call for the introduction of creation 'science' teaching in
government schools, and foreshadowed that Nile's Call to Australia Party
would introduce legislation to this effect in the NSW Parliament.
So if not in the schools, where is the renewed interest in
creationism coming from? Certainly some smaller evangelical religious
groups (Carl Wieland nominates the Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists,
Salvation Army, Presbyterians and Church of Christ) teach creationism,
at least in some of their churches. Some muslims also believe in the ark
- in the Koran's version of the story, Noah had a fourth son who was
left behind to drown. But the two largest Australian Christian
churches, the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics, are strongly opposed to
Father Brian Lucas, media spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese
of Sydney, says that there is no eveidence the ark ever existed - it was
' a theological story whose real purpose is to show the relationship
between God and man, in which the virtuous - Noah and his family - are
rewarded, and the wicked punished'. People who believed otherwise did
so out of 'ignorance or misunderstanding of something they learned at
As for creationism, 'It is absolutely contrary to everything the
Catholic church stands for. There is no conflict between scientific
truth and theological truth as they [ creationists ] are trying to make
out. We have no difficulty in accepting that the universe was created
in a big bang millions of years ago. We would ask, 'What made the Big
Bang?' and the answer is God'.
Probably the strongest influence in spreading the creationist
gospel is the Creation Science Foundation, based in Brisbane. in the
ten years since it was founded, it's propaganda mill has grown into a
sizeable corporation, with branches in all States, a monthly magazine
and a mailing list for books, and video cassettes in excess of 10,000.
The foundation has assets of more than $500,000 - it recently
completed, mortgage free, a two-storey headquarters building in the
suburb of Acacia Ridge, 'a throbbing, dynamic nerve centre from which
this minstry is daily touching hearts and lives'. It has a
sophisticated $40,000 computer mailing system to control the annual
turnover of more than $600,000. It operates a travelling roadshow from
a specially equipped bus which is currently touring more than fifty
towns in South Australia and Western Australia with its '11 tonnes of
Scientists such as Ian Plimer, says Carl Wieland, were 'hoping
to sink us along with the ark'. But for the time being at least, the
foundation has staved off the evil day by putting a clear distance
between itself and Allen Roberts's adventure in the mountains of Turkey.
Their mission continues, while Roberts retreats from the
limelight to lick his wounds.
The most fitting epitaph to the whole story is a quote from Mr
Ark himself, Ron Wyatt, of Nashville, Tennessee. 'The 40- to 50-year
history of the ark search has been a quagmire of misquotations, outright
lies, theft, fabrication and fraud.'
Ian Plimer and the Skeptics would second that. That syncline on
the outskirts of Tibooburra is all the proof they need.
* * *