Phony Arkaeology

  • "This piece of wood is so precious -- and a gift from God." These moving words were spoken reverently by George Jammal as he displayed the relic that he said had come from Noah's ark. His appearance was one of the highlights of The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark, a two-hour prime-time special that aired on CBS in February. What the network didn't know -- and didn't bother to find out -- was that Jammal was a hoaxer and that large segments of its program were based on blatant and ludicrous pseudo science.

    Jammal had obtained the wood, he unblinkingly told the network audience, during a 1984 search for Noah's ark on snow-covered Mount Ararat in Turkey. With his companion "Vladimir," he had crawled through a hole in the ice into a wooden structure. "We got very excited when we saw part of this room was made into pens, like places where you keep animals," he recalled. "We knew then that we had found the ark!" To prove he had been in the fabled vessel, Jammal hacked out a chunk of wood.

    Then, he went on, tragedy struck. As Vladimir backed up taking photos of Jammal and the site, "he fell, and that made some noise, and there was an avalanche . . . and that is where he died." The film was lost, and Jammal was so distraught, he had been unable to tell his story -- until now.

    In fact, Jammal is an actor who has been telling versions of this story for years but has never been on Mount Ararat. Vladimir is a fictitious character, and the supposedly venerable hunk of "ark" wood is a piece of contemporary pine Jammal soaked in juices and baked in the oven of his Long Beach, California, home.

    The prank apparently fooled Utah-based Sun International Pictures, which produced the show and sold it to CBS. But Jammal's tall tale was not the only misleading part of the special. Sun filled the two hours with a mixture of fact, conjecture, fantasy and arrant nonsense, while offering no clues as to which was which. "Eyewitnesses" who claimed to have seen or even touched the ark paraded in front of the camera. Unfortunately, the audience was told, an earthquake, attacks by terrorists, the Russian Revolution and other inopportune events had frustrated various attempts over the years to bring back clear pictures or other definitive proof of the ark's existence.

    Actor Darren McGavin, host of the special, called it "an archaeological quest." Indeed, one conventional archaeologist and a few other skeptics were allowed a sentence or two expressing doubt about the reality of the ark and the Deluge. But their views were quickly swept away by another deluge -- of dubious testimony by "experts," many of them creationists who take the Bible's revelations literally and reject much of modern science.

    Without presenting evidence, these experts, most of them unknowns, made some startling claims. Among them:

    -- Biblical-era people developed batteries, used electroplating and benefited from air conditioning.

    -- The Deluge occurred when water in subterranean chambers burst through the earth's surface with an energy exceeding "the explosion of 10 billion hydrogen bombs."

    -- Fossils of animals "buried in swimming positions" and "fish found in positions of terror, fins extended and eyes bulging," provided proof of the Deluge.

    Host McGavin acted impressed: These demonstrations "support the biblical story of the Deluge in every detail." One viewer who had good reason to doubt that statement -- and many others -- was Gerald Larue, a professor emeritus of biblical history and archaeology at the University of Southern California. A member of the Skeptics Society, an organization devoted to investigating pseudo science, Larue had been interviewed for an earlier Sun International production and, after seeing that show, felt he had been set up as a straw man. It inspired him to coach George Jammal, an acquaintance, to perpetrate the hoax, intended to expose the shoddy research of Sun International. "Carbon-14 testing would have revealed that the wood was a modern forgery," says Larue.

    Frank Zindler, a Columbus, Ohio, biologist and biblical scholar, was furious after seeing the special. He had been asked to appear in a subsequent Sun International production called Ancient Secrets of the Bible II, which aired on CBS in May. Zindler backed out of his taping appointment and fired off a letter to CBS, calling the ark program "an attempt to show that modern science is wrong and Bronze Age mythology is correct." Earlier, Zindler began having qualms about his interview when he received instructions from Sun International revealing that "most of the pro-con arguments are pre-scripted and are already approved by the CBS-TV network."

    CBS defends its role. "When we bought the special," says a spokeswoman, "it was as an entertainment special, not a documentary." Says Sun International executive producer Charles E. Sellier: "We just presented a variety of people saying the different things they knew about Noah's ark." That excuse will hardly mollify discriminating TV viewers. And it will not defuse the anger of archaeologists like Richard Fox, of the University of South Dakota. Writing in the current edition of Free Inquiry, a secular humanist publication, Fox charges, "The program abused my profession and insulted its practitioners. And CBS is responsible."