Anatomy of a Hoax: The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark

Now that Noah’s Ark has been discovered for the umpteenth time, let’s review a classic Ark hoax from the ’90s.

In the early ’90s, CBS aired a string of Bible documentaries produced by Sun International Pictures/Sunn Classic Pictures: Ancient Secrets of the Bible, Ancient Secrets of the Bible II, Mysteries of the Ancient World, and The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark. The films combined low-budget reenactments of Biblical events with spurious evidence that all this stuff really happened exactly as depicted in the Bible. Yes, millions of animals (14 of each species) really did walk/swim/fly/crawl to the Middle East, where they allowed themselves to be herded onto a wooden boat roughly three times the size of Titanic. Srsly, this happened, guys. Would CBS lie to you? Well, a few skeptics thought so. In particular, Professor Gerald Larue was dismayed that an interview he gave for Ancient Secrets had been extensively edited (each documentary featured a token number of skeptics, to make them appear balanced and thorough). Luckily for him, Larue had an ace up his sleeve: He was friendly with the discoverer of Noah’s Ark.

Back in 1985, Californian/Israeli actor George Jammal punked creationist Duane Gish by convincing him he had been hunting for Noah’s Ark since 1972 – and that he literally stumbled upon it in ’84 near the village of Nakhitchevan, Turkey. Mt. Ararat and environs have been a hot spot for ark-hunters since the early nineteenth century, and the site Jammal explored was possibly the famous “Ararat anomaly“. Sadly, the ship was so encrusted with ice that the Polish man assisting him, Vladimir Sobitchsky, plunged into a crevasse and died.
As proof of his discovery, Jammal told Gish, he had taken a smallish chunk of old wood.
Gish was too busy ignoring the fossil record to pay much attention to this, so he passed the info on to fellow creationist John Morris. Morris quizzed Jammal intensively. Having been to Turkey in search of the ark himself, he spotted a few problems with the story (first off, Nakitchevan is in Russia). Jammal’s account was so weak, in fact, that Morris didn’t even mention it in his ’88 book Noah’s Ark and the Ararat Adventure (Master Books). Yet, incredibly, he believed Jammal really had been to Ararat. In 1992, when Sunn Classic Pictures approached him for good ark material, he gave them Jammal’s name. Jammal, with Larue’s help, decided to see his hoax through to its logical conclusion.

Sunn Classic Pictures is best-known for the ’70s TV series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, but its more typical fare consists of family-friendly movies with production quality so poor they make C Me Dance look like a James Cameron epic. It also cranked out a few horror flicks, to stave off the inevitable bankruptcy. In 1976 it produced the documentary In Search of Noah’s Ark, and its ’93 film was meant to be basically a remake of it. But it blossomed into a much juicier project after the producers learned Noah’s Ark had actually been found by one George Jammal.

David Balsiger was the chief researcher for all four of the films aired by CBS, and later co-authored companion books for Ancient Secrets of the Bible and The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark. Balsiger was so dazzled by Jammal’s story, and the chunk of ark he was shown, that the director placed Jammal at the center of the film.

But other arkeologists weren’t fooled, and had their warnings about Jammal been heeded, this hoax would never have happened. Reviewing Jammal’s interview with Morris, Bill Crouse of Christian Information Ministries International quickly realized that Jammal was confused about the geography of the area, claimed to have done and seen things that couldn’t have happened, and hadn’t produced one scrap of evidence other than a hunk of wood – which hadn’t even been dated. David Fasold declined to be on the show after being presented with Jammal’s “evidence”, because he immediately recognized a hoax.

After the broadcast of The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark, Larue and a small group of skeptics, including Michael Shermer, outed Jammal as the hoaxer. Larue’s intent, of course, was to show that Sun films were poorly researched and biased. If anyone had examined the “ark fragment”, they might have realized that it was an ordinary chunk of wood marinated in various spices and baked in an oven to give it an aged appearance. If they had carefully examined the ’86 Morris interview, as Crouse did, they probably would have concluded that Jammal hadn’t really been to Ararat.

David Balsiger issued an indignant press release, defending the overall integrity of Incredible Discovery and complaining that uppity humanists were just trying to keep Bible documentaries off the air (if you want to know how thorough Balsiger typically is in his background research, note that he’s a co-author of Mike Warnke’s “autobiography”, The Satan Seller, which he continued to defend after it was exposed as a crude hoax).

In the end, however, Incredible Discovery debunked itself. In addition to Jammal, it featured a whack of other hoaxers and unverified ark stories that have since been exposed. There was the testimony of Fernand Navarra, a French explorer who produced a chunk of ark-wood much like Jammal’s. It was ultimately found to be only a few hundred years old – and some of Navarra’s expedition team members claim he purchased it from a Turkish village.
Navarra’s book Noah’s Ark: I Touched It was co-authored with David Balsiger.

All of this misses a central point: It’s extraordinarily unlikely that if the Ark existed, it would still be intact on a mountaintop somewhere. Noah and his descendants surely wouldn’t have let all that perfectly good lumber go to waste. Hell, even the Mayflower may have became a barn. Not to mention that all of the alleged chunks of ark, added together, would equal a whole fleet of ships. Maybe Noah was running a booze cruise. He was the world’s first alcoholic, after all.

Sunn Classic Pictures remains in business. Pinnochio in the Hood is currently in pre-production.

Other sources:

– “Sun Goes Down in Flames: The Jammal Ark Hoax” by Jim Lippard. Skeptic vol. 2, no. 3, 1994, pp. 22-33.
– Sunn Classics Pictures Inc. website

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2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Hoax: The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark

  1. Nakhchevan was not in Russia. It was in the USSR. It is now an exclave of Azerbaijan.I know, big deal. The main thing of course was that it was not in Turkey, which anyone with a world atlas would know.

  2. It's painful that people look for things like the Ark and Atlantis. I know everyone needs a hobby, and minute fragments of history can be encased in the amber of myth, but ouch.I happen to think no one is truly beyond being hoaxed, fooled or scammed – we all have areas where we're more vulnerable because of what we don't know or are desperate to believe. But people's desire to believe in the literal truth of the bible seems to lead them down some extraordinarily weird paths, and make them acutely gullible.Though, is it possible, given the warnings and warning signs, that they decided to go with it because it might make good entertainment/gain believers? It’s tricky to disentangle stupidity and cynicism. I tend to come down on the side of stupidity, but I’m not sure with this one.

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