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Deep-sea explorer Robert D. Ballard said Thursday that he is "absolutely confident" he can find in the Black Sea evidence of who the people were who lived in the area inundated by the biblical flood associated with Noah's Ark.
Ballard spoke to reporters as he unveiled a major new exhibit that will open Saturday at his Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium. Called "Noah's Flood and Ancient Shipwrecks," it draws on discoveries from his most recent undersea expeditions, including one to the Black Sea in 1999.
The new exhibit includes a room-size model of a ship found in the depths of the Black Sea, as well as wine and olive-oil storage vessels extracted from shipwrecks Ballard found in deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea in 1999. Video footage from both expeditions are part of the new exhibit.
In the Black Sea expedition, Ballard found evidence that a great flood had occurred about 7,500 years ago, like the one associated with Noah's Ark. Two Columbia University geologists, Walter Pittman and William Ryan, have hypothesized that such a flood may have occurred.
Using remotely operated, deep-diving watercraft, Ballard's team found an ancient shoreline at a depth of 155 meters. They collected shells from the area and found that some were extinct freshwater mussels, while others were saltwater mollusks, and that the change from freshwater to saltwater creatures occurred at the time of the flood.
Ballard said it was interesting that the biblical story has Noah's Ark landing at Mount Ararat, on the shores of the Black Sea, but he was not prepared to say the evidence proved the story of the ark.
"Yes, there was a flood. Yes, it occurred at a certain time," he said. "Yes, it went from a freshwater lake to a saltwater sea. Yes, there were people living there. But to jump from there to Noah's Ark is a jump we cannot make. A lot of people would like us to make it, but we're not making that jump."
Already Ballard's team has identified evidence of human habitation, however, including stone foundations, in deep water of the Black Sea off Bulgaria and Romania.
He said he plans to return in 2003 with a new submersible vessel capable of excavating artifacts from the seabed, an effort that should yield much new information.
"I am sure we are going to find more. I am absolutely confident of it," he said.
The new exhibit includes interactive displays, videos and artifacts. The amphorae, as the storage jugs were known, were taken from Phoenician ships that sunk about 750 B.C., about the time of the poet Homer.
"The two ships we found were trading ships carrying a very fine wine, we think to the pharaoh of Egypt. He didn't get his wine," Ballard said.
The amphorae required more than a year of careful handling and treatment, to remove salt and dry them without cracking, before they could be displayed.
The new exhibits also include a re-creation of the radio room on the Titanic, and a large model of the Titanic itself. Ballard is best known for his discovery of the Titanic, though he has said for years that he does not believe it is his most important find.
Probably his most important discovery, he said, was the existence of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which create an ecosystem that lives not off the energy of the sun, but off the heat of the Earth. An exhibit explaining that discovery has been on display since the institute opened, but it has been expanded and improved for the new exhibit, aquarium officials said.
Ballard said the institute's exhibits will change continually to reflect the latest findings of his expeditions.
In February he travels to the Antarctic to search for the Endurance, the ship of the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, which sunk while he was exploring the seas around the South Pole. Ballard also plans to revisit the waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
Ballard's new exhibit also features a reproduction of an expedition ship's control van, where explorers monitor submarine and sonar systems and the remotely operated vessels used to pick up objects on the ocean floor.