Ben Hills

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 among 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 definitely petrified wood … and look at this (he scoops up some pebbles). Wouldn’t you say they look like fossilised kangaroo shit?”

He straightens up, brushing the dust from his jeans, and scans his field-glasses over the dessicated landscape of stony russet dunes sparsely spiked with stunted acacias.”The evidence is overwhelming – we are standing among the remains 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 true, 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 the 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 its 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 Bourke or lecturing to 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 to discredit what they see as the cult of “Young Earth Noah’s Flood Creationism” which has been barn-storming 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 is 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 dis-covery at Tibooburra is not the real ark, just explain how the blind marsupial mole got from Turkey to Australia.”

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 has 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 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, plung-ing 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 recog-nisable 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 archeological discovery of the millennium … (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 dis-covered that his doctorate is in fact a correspondence 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 calls it.

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 the international talk circuits and author of Evolution – The Fossils Say No and other creationist gospels.

The confrontation took place at Sydney University before an audience of about 1,000, many of them believers who were bussed in from around NSW.

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 evo-lution 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 business card, and asked whether he could ask a question when the meeting resumed. He and one or two other Skeptics who had independently 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 across it.”

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 de-clined 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 having recently 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 on October 21 at 1 o’clock in the morning(2 am if daylight saving time 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 Education.

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 archeologist” – 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 the story going for three weeks until Roberts (and the others), unharmed apart from a swollen ankle, was released and made his way home 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 subsided.

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 has something to do with the powerful images of creatures trooping two by two on to 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 Ararat.

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 thus verifying the truth of 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 – that 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 to 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 intel-ligence” 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 archeologist 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 of 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 the remarkable Ron Wyatt, and in fact are acknowledged as such in the fine print at the back of Roberts’s 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, archeologists, 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 teeter-ing 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 and 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. Its 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 Wyatt/Roberts “discovery”.

“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 has been misled. We are very sorry he has put himself on the mat like that.”

This setback would not, 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 cornfields?

“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,”says 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 wild-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 per cent, one in eight, believed that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within 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 unexpectedly 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 effect 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 Parramatta 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 it.

Father Brian Lucas, media spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney, says that there is no evidence 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 Sunday school”.

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 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 10 years since it was founded, its propoganda mill has grown into a sizeable corporation, with branches in all States, a monthly magazine and a mailing-list for books, and video casettes 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 ministry is daily touching hearts and lives”. It has a sophisticated $40,000 computer mailing system to control an annual turnover of more than $600,000. It operates a travelling roadshow from a specially equipped bus which is currently touring more than 50 towns in South Australia and Western Australia with its “11 tonnes of gospel impact”.

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.


Creationists believe that the Bible (as they interpret it) is the written word of God. It is the “supreme au-thority in all matters of faith and conduct”. All its assertions are “fact-ually true in all the or-iginal autographs”.

The books of the Old Testament, particularly Genesis – which is regarded by the mainstream churches as a mixture of history, prayer, poetry, parable and allegory – are treated by creationists as scientific texts rather than religious tracts. This brings them into conflict not only with most established religions, but with every branch of science, from astronomy to archeology.

They believe, for example, that the entire universe was created by God in six working days between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Cosmologists now mostly agree with the “Big Bang” theory, but they say it happened 10 billion to 20 billion years ago, and that the earth is around 4.6 billion years old.

Because of this “young earth” doc-trine, creationists are forced to reject the entire body of geological and palae-ontological science – all the evidence acquired over the centuries about how the earth was formed, and the fossil record of the animals which once inhabited it.

Creationists believe that the geo-logical ages of the earth between the Cambrian and the Quaternary periods – which span most of the last 500 million years – occurred during the 382 days of the Noachian flood, which occurred around 2,000 BC.

During this one year, most of the earth’s mountains and oceans were formed, the con-tinents split and drifted to their present positions, all the world’s coal and oil reserves were deposited and so on.

Geologists have calculated that if the earth was really this young, a cata-strophic earthquake would need to have occurred every six minutes, a huge volcanic eruption every 12 minutes (ejecting so much dust into the atmosphere that there would have been a permanent nuclear winter) and a gigantic tidal wave every 18 minutes.

Because, according to creationists, no creature died before Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, nearly all fossils must also have been laid down during this same short period. The most primitive fossil protozoa -the dinosaurs – and modern man are all the same geological age – therefore evolution could not have taken place, they argue.

For creationists, Adam and Eve were historical figures … although fierce debate rages on the subject of whether or not the first humans had belly buttons.

Publishing Info

Pub:  Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 15 August 1992
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 28
Word count: 4858
Keywords: Biography Ian Plimer Allen Roberts
Photography: Joseph Lafferty
1. Anti-creationism campaigner Ian  Plimer in the heat of Tibooburra, site of many geological formations  similar to ‘Noah’s ark’ in Turkey.
2. Plimer’s targets include Allen Roberts, pictured opposite in Turkey with what some believe to be the anchor of Noah’s ark.
3. The ‘arkeologists’ believe this boat-shaped formation in Ararat, Turkey, is Noah’s fossilised ark.
4. Ian Plimer.
Diag: Cross-section of a plunging syncline (drawn by Dr Colin Murry-Wallace)