debunkers needed

(May 2) -- When Robert Cargill got word last week that a group of Chinese evangelicals had uncovered Noah's Ark atop a Turkish mountain, the archaeologist's reaction was a familiar one. 

"I thought, here we go again -- another fake 'ark-eologist,' " says Cargill, an adjunct assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA. 

His skepticism may prove well founded: A former member of the joint team from Noah's Ark Ministries International and Media Evangelism Ltd. that announced the find has circulated an e-mail suggesting that the discovery might have been staged. And if that's the case, it would be just the latest in a series of hoaxes surrounding the much-searched-for vessel. 
Robert Cargill
Courtesy Robert Cargill
Robert Cargill co-chairs a committee that aims to debunk archaeological frauds. Here, Cargill is shown during a visit to Israel.

Indeed, it was word of two previous ark expeditions that helped prompt the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading professional organization of American Middle Eastern archaeologists, to take action.

Fed up with the exposure these types of stories were getting in the media, the group last year launched a committee tasked with taking aim at archaeological frauds. 

"We really just decided that it was time to take back our field," says Eric Cline, a George Washington University archaeologist. He and Cargill co-chair the committee, whose membership also includes the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society of Biblical Literature. 

'A Spade in One Hand and a Bible in the Other'

In the past, biblical scholars and archaeologists rolled their eyes when claims of a blockbuster find emerged, preferring to keep quiet rather than dignify them with a response. But scholars now worry that their silence has allowed such claims to breed, damaging the whole field's credibility. 

"We said, 'We have got to find a way to respond to these amateurs,' " Cargill says. "We can have a coordinated response on behalf of the academy and say, 'No that's not true, and here's why.' And we do it in the public media and not some obscure journal that nobody reads." 

Now, whenever a suspect archaeological discovery hits the headlines, the committee and its associated scholars churn into action -- reaching out to journalists, writing blog posts, sending out Twitter and Facebook alerts, and dispatching op-eds to newspapers and magazines.

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