Most Curious of Seas

Richard Fortey

  • Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History by William Ryan and Walter Pitman
    Simon and Schuster, 319 pp, £17.99, February 1999, ISBN 0 684 81052 2

When the water started to rise, all the fish floated to the surface of the lake, bloated and dead, or convulsively dying. The people of the lakeside watched their livelihood disappear within a few days – there was no stopping the inundation. One of the tribal elders noticed the water had taken on a salty taste. Soon, it was lapping at the skimpy foundations of the wooden huts: there was nothing to do but flee before the onrush with what could be carried. Terrified refugees from tribes to the east reported a great roaring sound. Those who delayed were drowned. In a matter of weeks the water level rose four hundred feet.

Those who took part in the desperate diaspora fled westwards along the Danube valley, or southwards and eastwards at the foot of the Caucasus. Others crossed the wild terrain far to the east, eventually to find haven around a lake that once lay between Tien Shan and the Tibetan plateau. A few tribes, luckier or more daring, penetrated the Taurus Mountains and escaped into the plains beyond into what is now known as Mesopotamia. Wherever the survivors settled, the dreadful inundation became a staple story to warn and terrify the next generation, an event so profoundly traumatic that its retelling lasted for more than a thousand years, handed down in the oral tradition before it was ever inscribed in clay. Even today, guslars still sing it. This, Ryan and Pitman tell us, was the true Flood, the historical event that we know as the Noachian Deluge.

The Flood was the result of an inundation of a huge freshwater lake which became, in a matter of weeks, the Black Sea. It is black because below the top few metres it is lifeless – lacking oxygen – and the sea floor is covered with fetid, dark mud where nothing but bacteria can thrive. Fish flourish only in the top water layer, suspended above depths where they would suffocate in seconds. The change from lake to this most curious of seas happened when the Dardanelles was breached more than seven thousand years ago. The Mediterranean rushed through a canyon into the lowlands beyond at the moment when a land barrier gave way. This in turn was a consequence of the sea-level rise at the end of the last glacial epoch. It was a catastrophe as complete as the breaching of a giant dam, with a force 400 times greater than that generated by Niagara Falls. The torrent carved a huge gash in the eastern end of the Black Sea floor. Unlike some of the events that have shaped Earth history – meteorite impacts, or colossal volcanic eruptions – it was not globally traumatic. Comparatively few species died out, and new ones invaded the newly salty sea from their Mediterranean stronghold.

The flooding of the Black Sea is a geological fact. Ryan and Pitman brilliantly describe the evidence that led them to identify the catastrophic transition from lake to sea. It still has a legacy. At the surface, currents flow along the Dardanelles from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, but at depth there is a dark memory of the Flood – for a counter-current still flows in the opposite direction. Mariners knew this in the old days: they could navigate against the surface current if they sank a weighted net to plumb these contrary depths – the deep force pulled their boats against the drift.

During an intense phase of research in the early Nineties, oceanographic vessels went back and forth across the Black Sea taking soundings and collecting cores from the sea floor, where sediments had accumulated a history of the inundation. The research ships – with the authors on board – discovered fossils of animals that once revelled in fresh water: the creatures that had formerly fed the shore-dwellers. The sediment cores showed that these molluscs were blotted out by dark muds. Once flooded with saltiness, the water was drained of oxygen and has remained so ever since. The explorers discovered the drowned shorelines and mapped out the edges of the former lake. When the sea flooded in, freshwater shells were replaced by cockles and mussels. Had the tribesmen waited they might have dined on moules marinières. Fossil shells also provided the materials that made it possible to carbon-date the catastrophe. Something like 7500 years had passed since the sea had roared through the Dardanelles and severed Asia from Europe. The people that had lived in peace there for centuries fled, but took with them a culture developed in times of plenty.

In a dozen sites in Central Europe and the Middle East there is a sudden appearance of new artefacts in middens and tels. The broken fragments of lost cultures – potsherds and jettisoned ornaments – speak of a time of immigration. Why did the ‘linear band ceramic’ farmers suddenly spread across Europe from the River Dniester, at about the same time as new cultures appeared in the archaeological stratiography of Bulgaria and Dalmatia?

Legends of a great flood permeated many traditions. In 1876, George Smith published his translations of the cuneiform writing preserved on baked-clay tablets from Mesopotamia – which recorded what we now call the Epic of Gilgamesh. These fragments from the great library of Nineveh spoke, in a language known as Akkadian, of a time that was ancient even when the first scribes composed their records. Gilgamesh recounts a flood. Smith was convinced that it was a real event, doubtless the same as that described in Genesis. A tragedy of such magnitude and terror was woven into the cultural fabric of all those who had once lived along the Fertile Crescent. It still seems astonishing that clay tablets so painstakingly reconstructed from the third millennium BC should confirm a story which many 20th-century children learned first at the last remnant of our own oral tradition – their Sunday School classes.

The natural assumption made by archaeologists was that the Deluge was an exceptional flood of the Tigris and Euphrates – rivers which are unpredictable to this day – which devastated the Mesopotamian landscape. Ryan and Pitman’s extraordinary suggestion is that the Flood was the far more ancient drowning of the Black Sea lake, carried as a folk memory along with the diaspora, sung and resung by bards and guslars through more than a thousand years of pre-literary culture, before being set in clay by the first of those for whom memory required written support. It is a compelling idea, not least because it is a very simple one. It explains the appearance of new cultures after an archaeological hiatus; it explains the distribution of artefacts and the cultural spread of the Flood legend; it explains the lack of evidence for a sufficiently catastrophic event in the sediments which were laid down in Mesopotamia.

Geology has had a long and uneasy relationship with the Deluge. Geological evidence was used at first to demonstrate Biblical veracity. Dean Buckland recognised fossil bones preserved in caves in sites as un-Biblical as Yorkshire as tangible proof of the Noachian catastrophe; he recounted the details in a remarkable book, Reliquiae Diluvianae (‘Relics of the Flood’, 1823). Modern geology soon disproved such notions – the same cave skeletons were recognised as the legacy of Ice Age faunas. The Flood then became localised in the lands of the Bible. Not long after the astonishing discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh the great turn-of-the-century geologist Eduard Suess attempted to tie the Flood to a geological cause. He used a similar line of reasoning to Ryan and Pitman’s to finger a different kind of geological catastrophe, and he made a similarly bold, indeed pioneering, intellectual manoeuvre. Perhaps Ryan and Pitman should have given Suess a nod as their conceptual godfather – his name is not even mentioned in Noah’s Flood. Suess concluded that the Flood was nothing to do with a swollen Tigris and Euphrates. Instead, he invoked a massive incursion of the sea over Mesopotamia: perhaps the kind of tsunami associated with a major submarine earthquake.

Suess noticed that the Ark supposedly fetched up on Mount Ararat – to the north of the Fertile Crescent – in the opposite direction to what might have been expected if the Flood had originated from rivers choking with a glut of water on the plain, and draining towards the sea. When I first read Gilgamesh I was reminded of Pliny’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 and wondered whether the description of black, darkened skies might prove consistent with a volcanic eruption. Stephanie Dalley, the doyenne of Akkadian scholars, reminded me, however, that there was no convincing evidence in Mesopotamia’s archaeological record of an event so widespread and catastrophic (the explosive eruption of the island of Santorini, in the Mediterranean, was too late to be relevant). To be sure, local digs recorded Mesopotamian floods, doubtless distressing to those who lived by the banks of the Euphrates, but scarcely sufficient to provide the motor for a millennium of myth. Ryan and Pitman use this as further evidence that the memory of the catastrophe had to date to an even remoter period. In short, the Black Sea flood removes the Biblical Deluge from its religious homeland.

Geologists seem destined to lock horns with those who want to interpret the Bible story literally. Ian Plimer, a geologist at the University of Melbourne and an expert in Turkish geology, recently placed his livelihood in peril to challenge what he sees as Creationist nonsense. A group of local fundamentalists, led by one Allen Roberts, claimed to have found ‘scientific’ evidence of the remains of Noah’s Ark. Plimer counter-claimed that this alleged evidence is a natural geological structure, a syncline, located about 20 miles from Mount Ararat in Turkey – not far as the raven flies from the Black Sea. A syncline is a structure produced by gentle tectonic forces, a fold in strata, shaped like a cupped hand. If one developed in bedded rocks of the right thickness it might – just conceivably – resemble a crudely planked vessel. Roberts was presumably persuaded by such an occurrence near where the Ark was supposedly stranded. Two years ago, Plimer lost a case in which he had attempted to sue him under the Australian Fair Trading Act requiring traders not to make deceptive claims. He lost because Judge Sackville concluded that the issue was not ‘trade description’ at all but freedom of expression.

The identity of the Flood remains unproven. I am convinced by the evidence of the Black Sea catastrophe, which Ryan and Pitman have marshalled with exemplary clarity. A huge freshwater lake died over seven thousand years ago and a sea with poisoned depths was created in its stead. But a leap of faith is still required to link this event with the Biblical Flood, to allow for the mythic perpetuation of the event through so many generations and across such a wide geographical dispersion. There are details, like the Ark itself, and the identification of Mount Ararat, or somewhere nearby, as its ultimate landfall, which seem both too specific, and inappropriate for the Black Sea legend. But the most conservative explanation – a flood on Mesopotamia itself – also has its shortcomings. A historic event of such supposed magnitude should have left more direct evidence than there is. But surely the most foolish interpretation is the Biblical reading which claims that rocks are wood, and whips up evidence from dubious scraps to persuade the devout to betray their rationality.