When archaeology conflicts with the Bible
Published: 1 November 2018 (GMT+10)
“Archaeology team finds 9,000-year-old artefacts in NewBo [Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA] neighbourhood” declares an article from a recent edition of The Gazette.1 As biblical creationists, we are used to seeing claims of ‘millions and billions of years’ for fossils and rocks. These supposedly tell of long epochs of time and evolution and we have become adept at putting such claims into biblical perspective. According to the Bible, there was no death or bloodshed of nephesh chayyāh life before Adam and Eve sinned. Hence, the fossils contained in rocks should be understood as post-Fall—mostly arising from the Genesis Flood—because fossils are preserved dead things.
But what of claims of civilisations that, according to the biblical timeline, would pre-date the Flood? Is it reasonable to accept that a wheel discovered in Slovenia is between 5,100 and 5,350 years old2, or that agriculture flourished and building projects were undertaken 12,000 years ago?3 Are these dates still in the biblical ‘ball-park’? Where do we draw the line when archaeologists claim that the oldest pottery is 18,300 years old, or the remains of “Mungo Man”, (the first reported Australian human), are 62,000 years old? Are these more recent ‘dates’ derived by more reliable methods than the highly questionable radiometric dating techniques used to argue that rocks are millions of years old?
How young? How old is young?
Gets a bit confusing doesn’t it? But we’re young earth creationists right? Wrong. Scripture never uses the phrase ‘young’ to describe the earth, or humanity. Let me give a few examples to put things in biblical perspective. Peter the Apostle, in 2 Peter 2:5, uses the Greek word ἀρχαῖος (archaios) to describe the world that was destroyed by the Flood of Noah. In our English Bibles that word is translated ‘ancient’ (in 20 versions4), or ‘old’ (in 6 versions5).
When Moses, in Deuteronomy 33:15, blessed the twelve tribes of Israel with their possessions of land, he described the hills using the Hebrew word קֶ֫דֶם (qedem) which is translated ‘ancient’ (in 25 versions6) and ‘old’ (in 1 version7). The Bible does not indicate ‘youth’ when referring to the earth, for example, the hills and mountains are described as being very old (e.g. Habakkuk 3:6; Ezekiel 36:2).
So according to the Bible, the earth close to the time of Noah’s Flood is described as being ‘ancient’ or ‘old’. The Hebrew Bible describes the nations which were considered to be old at the time of Israel’s exile—for instance Jeremiah 5:15 uses the Hebrew word עוֹלָם (olam), when referring to the antiquity of Babylon. 1 Chronicles 4:22 contains genealogical information relating to the Moabites which is described as being from ‘ancient records’ by the Hebrew word עַתִּיקִים (‘at-tî-qîm) which means ‘old’. So in conclusion, we can say that, according to the Bible, at 6,000 years old the earth and humanity are ancient, not young.
Earth history from the Bible
Genesis 5 gives chronogeneological information for human history from Adam to Noah, and the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 gives Noah’s three sons’ family history. Genesis 11 gives the account of the Tower of Babel along with Shem’s family line to Abraham. This has been extensively studied elsewhere, but it is useful to see the chronology of Adam to Abraham.
So we can see that the period from Creation to the Flood is roughly 1,650 years. Then from the Flood to the birth of Abraham is a further 350 years.
So the Bible gives us the chronological framework through which we can understand Earth history and the timing of major events. Believing Scripture to be inerrant, we judge the claims of secular historians and archaeologists against this record. Needless to say, this view is not popular in academia. Indeed, such a presuppositional approach would be considered heretical! The Bible as history was thrown out of academia post Darwin, first by liberal scholars in the secular universities, starting with a denial of Mosaic authorship of Genesis, and now, sadly, by most evangelical Bible colleges. Such a state of affairs has destroyed the faith of many.
So what of the claims of “9,000-year-old” artefacts found at NewBo, Iowa? This is clearly of an age far older than the biblical age for Earth itself, so must be rejected. The artifacts mentioned are hundreds of pieces of knapped flint, as well as a handful of intact spear points. According to the article, “Nine thousand years ago, a group of men sat around a fire in what now is the NewBo neighbourhood and repaired their hunting spears.”
The researchers, David Benn and his team from Bear Creek Archaeology, analysed the available evidence—ancient soil, charcoal fragments, flint shards and spearheads—and inferred their relationship to post-glacial (post-Ice Age) soil reported to ‘date’ from 10,000 BC. This was extracted from a test hole which turned up “an ancient projectile point, from a time when humans were first settling this part of North America”.
From a biblical perspective, we would place these finds as post-Flood, as the Flood was the cause of the Ice Age. We can narrow the date down further because humans first settled in North America post-Babel, an event which took place between 101–340 years after the Flood.8 As for biblical dates for the migration of people groups to their present locations, the details are still being worked out and research is ongoing.
Arriving at a date for the NewBo artefacts
The article mentions charcoal left by hunters which could offer the opportunity for carbon-14 dating. However, the article was not clear on the source of the 9000-year claim, and the final archaeological report is not available as of the date of this writing. The local geology is described as loess9, sands and gravels, and in the area of the dig site the unit is said to encompass “deposits that accumulated primarily during the late Wisconsinan.”10 This is a period believed to represent the end of the last ice age in north America, where multiple ice ages were supposed to have occurred. However the evidence better shows that there was only one major Ice Age.11 Dates for the late Wisconsinan (LW) are derived from radiocarbon dating of wood found in the sediments. The authors of a paper that offer a chronology for the LW in middle north America admit that dates derived from sediments are often contaminated by “older radiocarbon resulting in chronologic confusion. By using only dates from wood, much of the confusion disappears.”12 But how much of the confusion disappears is dependent upon the presuppositions of the investigators. The area in question for Iowa is dated at a supposed “12,300 years BP.”13
It can be noted from photos from the Gazette report that layers were identified “between periods”14 in the exploratory pit dug where the artefacts were recovered. No doubt these layers were used to extrapolate a date up to the 9000-year figure using the datum figure of c. 12k years given by geological reports from the area. This was all achieved through assuming gradual deposition of sediments (uniformitarianism). However, it must be stressed that the archaeologists were not there to observe how the sediments were built up over time and how long it took to emplace them; this is all subjective guess work. But what of the reliability of the carbon-14 dating method itself?
For the enquiring reader, a useful summary of the theory of carbon-14 (14C) dating and its assumptions is available here. Carbon-14 dating suffers from the same category of unreliability as all dating methods—i.e., the experimenter was not there to observe its initial formation, nor its history to the present. In the case of 14C this is essential. Several factors indicate the 14C clock is unreliable. Firstly, different species of plants take up 14C at different rates, and this (if at all possible) has to be corrected for.15 Secondly, the atmospheric ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 has not remained constant; for instance, in recent history the industrial revolution and also atomic testing has changed the ratio. The earth’s magnetic field has not remained constant, and this affects the carbon-12 to carbon-14 ratio by changing the number of cosmic rays entering the earth’s atmosphere. The cosmic rays displace neutrons and it is these energetic neutrons which convert nitrogen into carbon-14. 12C ‘contamination’ can arise from volcanic carbon dioxide which alters the carbon ratio in the wood of trees growing in the area of a volcano, making the wood appear older. The end of the Ice Age also affected the atmospheric ratio of carbon due to the release of carbon from cycling of fresh water with saline.16 And lastly, the Flood drastically changed the carbon ratio by burying unquantifiable amounts of 12C in vegetation, thus giving an inflated age to any sample tested.17 (For more information on supposedly ancient 14C see here).
In short, to base one’s faith upon such fallible methodological assumptions is foolhardy indeed; but sadly many have had their faith shipwrecked on the assumptions of such faulty methodology.
Carbon-14 and biblical archaeology
When it comes to using 14C to build chronologies for history involving biblical events the stakes become much higher. For instance, dating of Jericho’s fall using 14C in 1995 has simply brought confusion.18 Firstly, the calibration errors (standard deviation) of carbon-14 ‘dates’ are often beyond the window required to settle a site’s age—to within 50 years19—and that is often where the argument lies. Secondly, there is an acknowledged problem with 14C dating for the period of 400–800 BC. This is known as the “1st millennium radiocarbon disaster area”, as 14C produces obviously false dates for this time period. (See the flat area on the graph, known as ‘The Hallstatt disaster/plateau’.)20 From the graph it can be seen that no amount of calibration will cause the graph to yield true ages between this archaeologically significant time period. Michael Baillie, a dendrochronology expert, has said of this phenomenon,
“The immediate conclusion is that it is impossible to sensibly resolve the radiocarbon dates of any samples whose true ages lie between 400 and 800 BC. This is a catastrophe for Late Bronze Age/Iron Age archaeology although one which has been predicted for some time.”21
It is reasoned that this calibration difficulty was produced by an increase in the atmospheric radiocarbon produced by a changing dry-warm to humid-cool climate driven by solar, cosmic ray and Earth magnetic field changes around 700 BC.22
Dilemmas in dendrochronology: an attempt to extend the calibration range of 14C
Analysing tree rings for yearly growth would seem to be a sure way of fixing chronologies. It is widely held that trees develop rings that mark a complete cycle of seasons, where, each year, there would normally be expected a pair of light and dark rings (representing Spring and Autumn wood respectively), in the tree’s life, thereby providing a method to calculate a tree’s age.23 Once a tree ring pattern (which relies upon the thickness of rings, not just their number) has been established, this can be compared to older trees and archaeological timbers, so as to extend chronology back in time. This is the theory of dendrochronology and has been explained thus:
“Once it had been shown that a distinctive ring was commonly produced in a given year … a similar ring found in a similar position in another tree could logically be used to date … natural internal markers [which] have been extensively used in dating individual rings, especially in Europe and America.”24
Such uniformitarian approaches have been used to construct extensive chronologies of Britain using archaeological wood remains, specifically in Ireland.25
Significantly for biblical creationists, a timeline for the growth of bristle-cone pines (BCPs) (Pinus longaeva), growing in the White Mountains of eastern California, has been calculated at 8,700 years. One tree dubbed ‘Methuselah’ has been tree-ring counted to 4,600 years, which, assuming the chronology of the Masoretic text for the Old Testament, places it well before the Flood, which is clearly incorrect. CMI has pointed out that BCPs can grow multiple rings per year, due to their dry environment. Extended chronology relies upon correlation of prone dead wood, with similar ring structures, which are then dated using 14C. Where overlaps with ‘identical’ ring structures are found, the chronology is considered to be extended. This is a highly subjective endeavour, which also implies prone wood lay around on the ground without rotting for thousands of years, which is demonstrably false. The entire method of 14C dendrochronology correlation is therefore an exercise in circular reasoning.
When it comes to calibrating 14C to these extended tree-ring chronologies, further uniformitarian assumptions are made about the unobserved past, which do not take into account either the Ice Age, or the Flood (see previous discussion). Also, evidence from fossil tree-rings shows that climates were warmer and wetter after the Flood and subsequently dried and cooled to present-day levels, thereby affecting tree ring growth in a non-uniform way.
Significant doubts were raised over the uniformitarian guiding principle behind dendrochronology at a 2015 Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, Chicago. The presentation by Dr Henri D. Grissino-Mayer,26 was provocatively titled, “The long, steady decline of uniformitarianism in dendrochronology: what if the present is no longer the key to the past?” The presentation discussed evidence that change in tree growth rates (since 1963) is due to non-climatic factors. Computer software developed to analyse the statistical factors between climate-tree growth relationships over time suffered from “divergence”, i.e., the models used to calibrate the data were themselves calibrated, resulting in data that no longer fitted the model’s predictions, showing climate-tree growth relationships had “shifted”.27
The following conclusions of Grissino-Mayer’s paper effectively bring the entire methodology of dendrochronology into doubt. He states:
- Uniformitarianism/uniformity as a principle may actually be an archaic assumption for tree-ring research in which we analyse trees which are (non-linear) dynamical systems.
- Tree-ring chronologies which express a significant response change with climate should be used with caution (or in some cases not at all) for such large-scale reconstructions of past temperatures since it is not possible to quantify whether such nonlinear response changes have also occurred in the past. – Wilson et al. 2007 in JGR-Atmospheres
- Dendroclimatologists should evaluate whether the climate-tree growth relationship is stable over time.
- If the climate-tree growth relationship is not stable, then any reconstruction that arises from that relationship may be uncertain and suspect.
- Ironically, though, uniformitarianism supports temporal instability, i.e. temporally unstable relationships in the present therefore also occurred in the past!28
Dr. Grissino-Mayer’s five concluding remarks sum up what creationist researchers have been saying for years regarding the faulty thinking of the uniformitarian assumptions behind the method. He has, in effect, shone a light on the ‘dark-art’ of dendrochronology and found it wanting. If researchers were not there to observe the tree’s initial environmental conditions, and measure the growth and relationships to changing seasons through history, then any models built on simple linear factors will be wrong. When major events such as the Ice Age and the Flood are ignored, the history derived from the dendrochronology calculations must be false. The uniformitarian assumptions of historical constant rates are too simplistic; therefore, the science of dendrochronology is no threat to biblical history, which can accommodate the data.
When it comes to claims of great antiquity for the earth and humanity that far exceed that of the biblical time line, we must treat them with extreme scepticism. The dates provided by the archaeological reports, and often trumpeted in the media, are based upon seriously flawed methodologies. We have no reason to abandon biblical inerrancy and the true account of Earth history as provided in the scriptures. The investigators’ own presuppositions have driven their conclusions, and the flaws within the methodologies invalidate any claims of reliable clocks upon which to build a reliable chronology. So, as biblical creationists, we need to be aware of these factors and carefully qualify secular claims of great antiquity with an informed and reasoned critique of the data. Particularly it is necessary to separate out facts from interpretation driven by the presuppositions of the investigator. Scripture will always remain the final authority by which we measure and compare data and by which we build chronological models of Earth history. Models and secular chronologies may come and go, but the Bible will always remain true.
References and notes
- Gowans, A., Archaeology team finds 9,000-year-old artefacts in NewBo neighbourhood, The Gazette, 3 August 2018; thegazette.com. Return to text.
- Gasser, A., World’s oldest wheel found in Slovenia, March 2003; Government Communication Office, Republic of Slovenia; ukom.gov.si. Return to text.
- The development of agriculture: the farming revolution, National Geographic; https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/development-of-agriculture/. Return to text.
- NIV, NLT, ESV, BSB, BLB, NASB, CSB, GNT, HCSB, ISV, NB, NHEB, GWT, NAS 1977, KJB 2000, ASV, ERV, WNT, WEB. Return to text.
- KJB, JB 2000, AKJV, DBT, WBT, YLT. Return to text.
- NIV, NLT, ESV, BSB, BLB, NASB, CSB, GNT, HCSB, ISV, NB, NHEB, NAS 1977, KJB 2000, ASV, ERV, WNT, WEB, KJB, JB 2000, AKJV, DBT, WBT, YLT. Return to text.
- GWT. Return to text.
- Babel dated to the time of Peleg Genesis 10:25. Return to text.
- Wind-blown sediment associated with the end of the Ice Age. Return to text.
- See map at iihr.uiowa.edu/igs/publications/uploads/ofm-1996-1.pdf. Return to text.
- Oard, M.J., Only one glaciation observed in western Alberta, Canada—the ice-age reinforcement syndrome, J. Creation 29(2):12–13, 2015. Return to text.
- Clayton, L. and Moran, S.R., Chronology of late Wisconsinan glaciation in middle North America, Quaternary Science Reviews 1(1):55–82, 1982. Return to text.
- Ref. 11, p. 55. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, photos 6,7. Return to text.
- Batten, D. (Ed.), Catchpoole, D., Sarfati, J., Wieland, C., The Creation Answers Book, Creation Book Publishers, p. 67, 2006. Return to text.
- See Dr Rob Carter’s Example 1. Return to text.
- Ref. 15, pp. 69-70. Return to text.
- Bruins, H.J. and van der Plicht, J. Tell es-Sultan (Jericho): radiocarbon results of short-lived cereal and multiyear charcoal samples from the end of the Middle Bronze Age, Radiocarbon 37(2):213–220, 1995. Return to text.
- James, P., Centuries of Darkness, Pimlico, p. 323, 1992. Return to text.
- Capuzzo, G., Space-temporal analysis of radiocarbon evidence and associated archaeological record: from Danube to Ebro Rivers and from bronze to iron ages, PhD thesis, p. 107, fig. 21, 2014; ddd.uab.cat/pub/tesis/2014/hdl_10803_283401/gc1de1.pdf. Return to text.
- Ref. 19, p. 325. Return to text.
- Ref. 20, p. 108. Return to text.
- Studhalter, R.A., Early history of crossdating, Tree-Ring Bulletin, 21:31-35, 1956; (available repository.arizona.edu. Last accessed 21 August 2108. Return to text.
- Ref. 23, p. 30. Return to text.
- They can be viewed here: cybis.se/forfun/dendro/hollstein/belfast/reports/BelfastADReport/index.htm. Return to text.
- Was director of Laboratory of Tree-Ring Science Department of Geography at University of Tennessee, see bio here: https://utk.academia.edu/HenriGrissinoMayer/. Return to text.
- From unpublished data by Biermann, C.P., LaForest, L.B., and Grissino-Mayer, H.D. 2015. Return to text.
- Grissino-Mayer, H.D., The long, steady decline of uniformitarianism in dendrochronology: what if the present is no longer the key to the past? Presentation given at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Chicago, 2015; http://app.core-apps.com/aagam2015/abstract/4e710bf8a11e39f13afdf3bf9470b0b3, p. 16. Return to text.