Noah’s Ark and Large Ancient Ships

In preparing this week’s blog I was comparing the replica of Noah’s Ark at Answers in Genesis’ new theme park “Ark Encounter” with an essay Larry Pierce wrote for Online Bible entitled  “Large ships of Antiquity”.

How Large Was the Ark?

At approximately 510 feet long, it would take nearly one and a half football fields to equal the Ark’s length. That’s big enough that NASA could lay three space shuttles—nose to tail—on the Ark’s roof! 

The roof of Noah’s Ark was more than 50 feet from the ground—higher than a modern four-story building. That’s plenty of space for three extra-tall inner decks as the Bible describes.

The Ark had the same storage capacity as about 500 standard semi-trailers. A standard livestock trailer holds about 250 sheep, so the Ark had the capacity to hold at least 120,000 sheep. 

Here is a picture taken this month in Kentucky.


As you can see the stern of the life-size Noah’s Ark coming into shape and the bow should be done next month. The Ark Encounter is starting to look like the design of the Ark we know so well with the curvy stern, essential to the overall comfort, stability, and balance of the ship. In this picture you can see what the Ark looks like now compared to the model in the foreground of what it will look like when it is finished in July.

Earlier this month AiG did a three minute Video of the Ark as construction nears completion. This gives a great sense of how enormous it really was. You can check it out on YouTube by clicking this link. Ark Encounter



Large Ships of Antiquity by Larry Pierce

Each generation produces a fresh crop of skeptics who are legends in their own mind. Charles Spurgeon wryly observed about such a man in his day: “It is but the shallowness of his mind that permits him to see the bottom of his knowledge.”

We should not be surprised that we are awash today with such so called “experts”. The Apostle Peter warned us this would be the case. It has become fashionable to scoff at anything biblical. Noah’s ark has never failed to be the target of skeptics and the butt of many jokes. Everyone knows you cannot build a boat as large as Noah did from wood, even using today’s advanced technology. Only since ships were made of steel, in the last hundred years or so, has man been able to build a larger ship than Noah’s ark. These so called experts display their ignorance of history in making such statements. Lets look at what ships the ancients actually did build, some of which were almost as large as the ark.

Rise in Technology of the Ancients

In the writings of Pliny, we discovered the following table relating to ships of antiquity. This documents the rapid advances the ancients made in shipbuilding technology in just a few centuries. The time period in the table covers from about the seventh century BC to the end of the third century BC.

  • Vessel / Inventor / Authority / Approximate Time
  • double-banked / the Erythraens / Damastes / 7th c. BC
  • trireme / Aminocles of Corinth / Thucydides / 6th c. BC
  • quadrireme / the Carthaginians / Aristotle / 5th c. BC
  • quinquereme / the Salaminians / Mnesigiton / 4th c. BC
  • galleys of six banks / the Syracusans / Xenagoras
  • up to ten banks / Alexander the Great / Mnesigiton
  • up to twelve / Ptolemy / Soter Philostephanus / 3rd c. BC
  • up to fifteen / Demetrius, son of Antigonus / Philostephanus
  • up to thirty / Ptolemy / Philadelphus Philostephanus
  • up to forty / Ptolemy / Philopator Tryphon Philostephanus

When we think of warships of antiquity, we think of the tiny ships that were shown in a movie like Ben Hur. They had about fifty or so men and a single tier of oars. This was the best Hollywood could do on a limited budget and reflects our evolutionary thinking that the ancients were primitive compared to us. While we may flatter ourselves with our supposed knowledge of ancient history, the actual facts, that come down to us, tell us another story. From this table in Pliny, we can see a rapid rise in technology over a few hundred years which culminated in a ship of forty tiers of oars. (When we say forty tiers we mean forty levels of rowers!) Now the question is, do we have any descriptions of these ships so we can comprehend how large they really were? Fortunately, we have a good description of one of the early third century ships and an excellent description of the largest ship Pliny lists.

The Leontifera

There was a naval battle in the Aegean Sea in 280 BC. The following is Ussher’s description of what happened:

When Antigonus, surnamed Gonatas, the son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, heard how Seleucus was murdered, he made an expedition into Macedonia. He planned to get there before Ceraunus could with his army and naval forces. However, Ceraunus had all Lysimachus’ fleet in readiness, and set out and met him in a good battle formation at sea. In his navy, ships were sent from Heraclea in Pontus, some of six, some of five tiers of oars. These kinds of ships were called Aphracta. The largest ship of all had eight tiers of oars and was called the Leontifera. She was admired by all for her large size and exquisite construction. In her were a hundred oars per tier, so that on each side there were eight hundred rowers which made sixteen hundred in all. On the upper deck or hatches there were twelve hundred fighting men who were under two special commanders. When the battle began, Ceraunus won and Antigonus was forced to flee with all his navy. In this fight, the ships from Heraclea performed the best and among them the Leontifera did the best of all … ”

We are not given the dimensions of this ship. However, for a hundred men to sit on one tier of oars, each one would have to be at least three feet apart which is the approximate distance between airline seats. Has anyone ever complained of having too much space between airline seats! Allowing for a bow and a stern, this ship could easily have been four or five hundred feet long. (The next ship we describe had fifty oars in a tier and was over four hundred feet long) If I was in that battle in a ship, I definitely would not want to be in the path of the business end of the Leontifera’s ramming prow. Also consider that these battles were not fought in an afternoon! This ship could have been at sea for a few days before and after this battle. With a crew compliment of over three thousand men, think of the provisions they would have to carry. They would need somewhere to sleep too!

Other Large Ships

Plutarch briefly describes the fleet which Demetrius built around 294 BC. These were the largest ships built at that time. Although Plutarch gives no dimensions, he does state the following:

“Up until this time, no man had seen a ship of fifteen or sixteen banks of oars.  …  However, in the ships of Demetrius their beauty did not mar their fighting qualities, nor did the magnificence of their equipment rob them of their usefulness, but they had a speed and effectiveness which was more remarkable than their great size.”

The Grand-Daddy of Antiquity

Athenaeus gives us a detailed description of a very large warship.

Ptolemy Philopator (c. 244-205 BC) built a large warship. It was four hundred and twenty feet long, fifty-seven feet wide and seventy-two feet high to the top of her gunwale. From the top of her stern post to the water line was seventy-nine and a half feet. It had four steering oars forty-five feet long. It had forty tiers of oars. The oars on the uppermost tier were fifty-seven feet long. The oars were counter balanced with lead to make them easy to handle. It had a double bow and a double stern and carried seven rams of which one was the leader and the others were of gradually reducing size. It had twelve under-girders nine hundred feet long. She was manned by four hundred sailors to handle the rigging and the sails, four thousand rowers and two thousand and eight hundred and fifty men in arms for a total of seven thousand and fifty men. This ship was too large to be of much practical use.

Some things of interest about this ship. First, there are no forests worth mentioning in Egypt. All the lumber had to be imported from elsewhere, likely Lebanon. This ship had a crew compliment that was almost twice as large as the compliment of the largest aircraft carrier we have ever built! The size of the ship approximated the size of Noah’s ark. Like Noah’s ark, it would have to carry provisions and supplies for all these men. Oh for a time machine to go back and capture this ship on film!

Athenaeus describes other very large ships and boats of antiquity. One ship had a catapult designed by Archimedes that could hurl a hundred and twenty pound stone over six hundred feet.


What should we learn from this? 

Firstly, we are not as smart as we think we are! Just because we cannot duplicate something that was done thousands of years ago, does not mean the ancients could not do it either!

Secondly, we should learn from history. True history supports the Bible and we have nothing to fear from the study of it. In fact, we have much to learn. From these accounts we have given, it is obvious mankind was able to build huge ships that rivaled Noah’s ark in size. We do not know how it was done, but they did it!

The next time someone says that it is impossible for the ancients to build a ship as large as Noah’s Ark, give the same reply Jesus gave many times to his skeptics:  “Have ye not read … ?”


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