As I exited Interstate 75 in central Kentucky and drove westward up the small rise toward the Ark Encounter theme park, my first impression of the large boat perched atop the distant hill—a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark—was, “Wow! It is really huge!”
Built per the Biblical specifications in Genesis 6:15: “The length of the Ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits”—or as translated into modern dimensions, 521 feet from bow to stern, an 81-foot beam, rising 51 feet from keel to top cover—this Ark is the world’s largest freestanding timber construction, comprising over three million board feet of lumber imported from New Zealand and Colorado.
As an engineer with a lifelong interest in ancient technology, I was visiting the site of “Ark Encounter,” the Bible-based theme attraction designed and operated by the Answers in Genesis (AiG) Corporation, whose CEO, Kenneth Ham, a Creationist Christian from Australia, previously founded The Creation Museum, located in Indiana, some 45 miles north. As Ham unabashedly states in his blog and throughout the Ark exhibits, “The Creation Museum and the Ark direct people to the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Setting aside any discussions of theology or of Creationism versus Science, I wanted to view for myself the actual physical magnitude of the Ark, to examine its construction, its internal configuration, and the details of its shipboard operations, and then to evaluate possible explanations of its iconic mission, namely the rescue, husbandry, and subsequent release of the world’s entire population of animals and birds—along with any possible mention of extinct species such as dinosaurs.
Entering the Ark
After a mile-long bus ride from the ticket building to the park itself, I stood a few hundred yards from the recreated Ark, marveling at its size, taking photographs to encompass its dimensions. According to the historical record, the only other wooden ship approaching it in size may have been one of the world-spanning vessels of the legendary Chinese explorer, Admiral Cheng Xe, who traveled to Africa and perhaps even to the Americas in the 1400s. Today it would be a moderate-sized transport, but in ancient times it may have been the largest ship ever built.
Entering the Ark at its stern, I first saw a large wooden panel displayed in the style of an ancient carving, showing the Ark, Noah, and representations of animals of all kinds—including two kinds of dinosaurs. Following the designated path, I entered a maze of small wooden cages from which animal noises of all kinds could be heard, hundreds of cages, all with sloped catchments and troughs below them, presumably for waste collection, many with terra-cotta-like feeders on the front, much like those found for sale in pet stores today.
Upon entering the main deck area, the enormous size of the Ark was apparent: nearly 500 feet in length inside; polished floors, massive beams, columns of thick timber; an awesome display of ancient construction materials and construction. Along the walls, in row after row of shelves, stood amphorae for food and water for animals and the eight people aboard, plus other shelves of bagged grain, pots, and clay vessels. All in all it was impressive, though in some ways seemingly austere. This may have been intentional, to stress the grave importance of a ship that would have to save the human race and all land animals.
Ramps for visitors took up much of the floor space as I went up the three deck levels, but the impression of the ship’s vast size assuages any doubts as to adequate provisions for the care and feeding of the thousands of animals and birds carried aboard this version of the Ark. Given the physical size and attention to detail inside the ship, visitors may be left with the feeling that the story of Noah and his holy mission could be literally true, which of course is the intent of the boat and its many supportive exhibits. Life-sized, moving animatronic figures of Noah added to the realism.
After announcing his intention to construct a full-scale replica of what Noah’s Ark may have looked like, Kenneth Ham came under criticism from Biblical scholars and nonbelievers alike, for various theological or scientific reasons. But seen strictly as an attempt at “experimental archaeology,” Ham’s effort to recreate the Ark does have intellectual precedents. There have been numerous projects attempting to re-create ancient technologies and discoveries, from prehistoric voyages to building pyramids.
In probably the most famous examples of such “experimental archaeology,” the late renowned Norwegian scientist-adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl, replicated ancient sailing technologies to demonstrate possible transoceanic migrations. In 1947, he sailed from Peru to Tahiti in his Kon-Tiki raft, showing that ancient South Americans could have made that voyage. Then in 1969 and 1970, in first the ill-fated Ra and then the successful Ra-2 reed boats, he proved that ancient Egyptians and others could have crossed the Atlantic to South America.
In recent years, archaeologists and engineers have re-created and evaluated the inner workings of the Antikythera Device, a 2000-year-old mechanical computing mechanism that showed planetary motions and even solar and lunar eclipses. And modern 3D scanning and computer analyses have enabled the conceptual reconstruction of ancient Egyptian temples and pyramids. Engineer Christopher Dunn, in his book, Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt (Inner Traditions, 2010), demonstrates how modern measurement technologies, when applied to the markings on ancient artifacts, suggest that the ancients possessed advanced machining. And as witnessed in recent television documentaries, engineers around the world have also reconstructed ancient siege machines, trebuchets, flamethrowers, Greek trireme ships, and even Archimedes’ reported solar mirrors for burning up ships at sea—which worked!
Design and Construction of the Ship
Given the numerous Flood legends in widely separated cultures around the world, a reconstructed Ark, one that could have been built to survive a catastrophic deluge, is of historical interest to Bible believers and non-believers alike, all with the same question: Could Noah’s Ark be a real story?
In one exhibit an animatronic “Noah” figure explains that he and his family worked for decades to build their ship. As an aside, he half-jokingly says, “Some people claim that my story resulted from a localized flood. But if it had not been a worldwide Flood, God would have simply told me to move. And all the animals and flying creatures could have just gone elsewhere.”
As Ham and others state in the AiG booklet, A Pocket Guide to Noah’s Ark, the Bible’s description of the Ark is very brief. And though many have thought its shape to be a rectangular box, it is most likely that it would have been designed more like that of a seagoing vessel, not a box. A study performed by Korean ship researcher Dr. Seot Won Hong found that the Bible’s dimensions were optimal for sea-keeping (behavior and comfort at sea), hull strength, and stability, capable of withstanding waves up to 30 meters (100 feet) high. “It is no surprise that modern ships have similar proportions—those proportions work.”
The Ark Encounter designers also considered that to survive a year or more at sea, the vessel most probably resembled ocean-going ships, with a raised fin-like bow for catching the wind. A fixed rudder, or “skeg,” protruding at the stern, would also aid in alignment. These features help minimize the ship’s cross-section against the wind, which would be a primary concern for an unpowered boat floating freely on a deep ocean.
An exhibit in the Ark itself shows how the chosen Biblical design stacks up against other legendary Flood boats—the cube boat of Gilgamesh, the flying-saucer-shaped coracle of Akkadian legends, and the various rafts, canoes, and kayaks of other cultures. In these comparisons, the Ark design appears to be the most practical for surviving the Deluge and its many months of turbulent oceanic aftermath.
Ark Encounter pays specific attention to details not often considered when visualizing Noah’s project, taking into account the realistic problems of lighting, ventilation, water supply, waste disposal, and crew quarters. In posters and videos, several exhibits detail possible solutions for each of these existential problems. For illumination, the Bible says (Genesis 6:16) “A window shalt thou make to the Ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above.” The new Ark designers provided a window the length of the ship that can be opened and closed depending on the weather. They also assumed that tallow lamps and other such light sources would have been provided. (In the Ark Encounter version, of course, electrical lights work best.)
Animal waste collection and disposal means would have been constructed so that eight people could readily care for the needs of about 16,000 animals, with various methods for pumping out the effluent into the surrounding world ocean. Ventilation could be accomplished by natural convection, by an animal-waste-burning furnace system, or by animal-operated fans or bellows. Crew quarters for eight human beings are represented by full-sized mannequins in spacious quarters, probably luxurious by the standards of Noah’s day, with a kitchen and separate food supplies (although some animals could have been food sources, too).
As creationist researchers point out, barns are a relatively modern invention; in olden times people lived intimately with their animals, and the Ark crew would have been no different. (Fortunately, although supplying animal and bird noises, Ark Encounter does not add realistic animal odors!)
Exhibits include a workshop with primitive but efficient woodworking tools, and posters show the ancient use of cranes, pulleys and ropes that could account for moving and lifting the construction components of the Ark. Illustrations of the “later” building of the Great Pyramid in Egypt and of Stonehenge in England are used to demonstrate that other ancients had as-yet-unknown construction techniques as well.
Reflecting on the engineering solutions to these challenges from a modern viewpoint, it appears that each of the technologies and methodologies could have been conceived of, designed, and implemented in ancient times without having to have recourse to miracles or other divine intervention. Ancient engineers would have been up to the task.
How Many Animals?
Taking the Biblical story literally, creationist analysts estimate that between 16,000 and 35,000 animals may have boarded Noah’s Ark. But as Ham states, “They may be as few as two thousand if the Biblical ‘kind’ is approximately the same as the modern ‘family’ classification.” Upon release from the Ark, natural selection and mutation would result in the enormous number of species that we see today. For example, Ham says, “Only two dogs were needed to give rise to all the dog species that exist today.” Similar reasoning applies to all the other ‘kinds,’ presumably including some species that at first multiplied into greater varieties but then went extinct.
In addition, “It is more likely that [Noah] took juveniles aboard the Ark to repopulate the Earth after the Flood was over. These younger animals also require less space, less food and have less waste.” And their breeding life would be much longer than if they were full-grown adults.
Using these estimates, creationists calculate that “less than half of the cumulative area of the Ark’s three decks needed to have been occupied by the animals and their enclosures.” The volume and space allocated to the animal cages and food storage supply shelves of the Ark Encounter reflect this estimate. The final design is quite spacious, easily accommodating hundreds of visitors at a time.
What About Dinosaurs?
The Ark Encounter exhibits feature dinosaurs extensively, from the panel at the entrance, showing Noah with dinosaurs, to paintings of dinosaurian creatures in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and with small life-sized creatures of various “kinds” caged in the Ark itself, along with more familiar species such as bears, pigs, and so forth. One scene shows a massacre of triceratops by savage humans, an example of the kind of abuse and wickedness that God chose to punish by the global flood.
Based on the events and genealogies described in the Bible, most creationists believe that the Universe, the Earth, and all life were created about 6,000 years ago. By this reckoning, Noah’s Flood was about 1,600 years later. This worldview, explained in some detail in the exhibits, dismisses claims by conventional science that Earth is billions of years old and that fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are millions of years old. Fossils in the geological strata accepted by conventional geologists are explained away by the catastrophic intermixing of stones and soil by actions of the Flood and by later localized earthquakes and upheavals. Ham and others attribute the breakup of an original single continent into today’s continents as the mechanism whereby God initiated the Flood, as described in Genesis 7:11 when, “all the fountains of the great deep broken up and the windows of heaven were opened.”
Thus, because all living things were created at the same time, it was only natural that dinosaurs and other “prehistoric” creatures existed on Earth contemporary with human beings and had to be brought aboard to survive global flooding. As an exhibit painting describes, “Noah didn’t have to take all of these [giant dinosaurs], he just needed to take these two [small juveniles].” All of the disappeared species, including the dinosaurs, are listed as “Presumed Extinct,” though I did not see an explanation as to why they have all disappeared by modern times.
The physical implementation of the Biblical dimensions of the Ark is a significant accomplishment; few persons have ever recognized the sheer size and detail that such a ship represents. Furthermore, while adhering strictly to a fundamentalist creationist worldview of a “young Earth” and a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, the Ark Encounter theme park accomplishes what Kenneth Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization set out to do: to show that such an Ark could have existed, that it could have accommodated both a small human crew and thousands of animals and birds in safety and relative comfort, and that it could have survived months or years in the turbulent waters of a world ocean.
From the viewpoint of modern science, while such an exhibit may be of interest strictly as an exercise in “experimental archaeology” in trying to account for the design and engineering details of a large ancient ship, to suppose a Creationist Universe only 6,000 years old is a nonstarter.
In short, for fundamentalist Bible believers, the Ark Encounter will reaffirm the reality of the Genesis story of Noah and the Ark. For the others, it may be merely an interesting day’s tour into an unlikely alternate reality.
The Unanswered Question: Because it is built adjacent to three large concrete structures and is anchored in concrete, the answer is this: this Ark would not float!