By Steve Drury First PUBLISHED ON October 8, 2021
“…The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt …”
This is the second catastrophe recorded in the Old Testament of the King James Bible (Genesis 19:23-26), after the Noachian Flood (Genesis 7 and 8). The Flood is now regarded by many geoscientists to be a passed-down and mythologised account of the rapid filling of the Black Sea when the Bosporus was breached around 7600 years ago, as global see level rose in the early Neolithic. Eleven Chapters and a great many begotten people later comes the dramatic punishment of the ‘sinners’ of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The two legendary settlements are now considered to have been in the Lower Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. Being on the major strike-slip fault that defines the Jordan Rift, related to the long-active spreading of the Red Sea, the most obvious rationalisation of the myth is a major earthquake. The sedimentary sequence contains sulfide-rich clays and silts, as well as thick salt beds. Major seismicity would have liquidised saturated sediments full of supersaturated salt water and the release of large volumes of hydrogen sulfide gas. There are also remains of early settlements in the form of large mounds known locally as ‘talls’. The largest and archaeologically most productive of these is Tall el Hammam in Jordan, whose excavation has proceeded since 2005. It lies just to the north of the Dead Sea on the eastern flank of the Jordan valley, 15 km from Jericho on the occupied West Bank.
The Tall el Hammam mound is formed from layers of debris, mainly of mud bricks, dwellings being built again and again on the remains of earlier ones. It seems to have been continuously occupied for three millennia after 6650 ka ago (4700 BCE) at the core of a presumably grain-based city state with upwards of 10 thousand inhabitants. The site was destroyed around 3600 Ka (1650 BCE). The catastrophic earthquake hypothesis can be neither confirmed nor refuted, but the destruction toppled structures with walls up to 4 m thick.. Whatever the event, 15 years of excavation have revealed that it was one of extremely high energy. There is evidence for pulverisation of mud bricks and at some dwellings they were apparently blown off-site: a possibility in a large magnitude earthquake. Unusually, however, mud bricks and clay used in pottery and roofing had been partially melted during the final destruction. Various analyses suggest temperatures were as high as 2000 °C.
A detailed summary of results from the Tall el Hammam site has just appeared (Bunch T.E., and 20 others 2021. A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. Nature Scientific Reports, v.11, article 18632; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-97778-3).
As the title indicates, it comes to an astonishing conclusion, which rests on a large range of archaeological and geochemical data that go well beyond the earlier discovery of the tall’s destruction at very high temperatures. Radiocarbon dates of 26 samples from the destruction layer reveal that it happened in 1661±21 BCE – the mid- to late Bronze Age, as also suggested by the styles of a variety of artefacts.
The most revealing data have emerged from the debris that caps the archaeological section, particularly fine-grained materials in it. There are mineral grains indicating that sand-sized grains were melted, some to form spherules or droplets of glass. Even highly refractory minerals such as zircon and chromite were melted. Mixed in with the resulting glasses are tiny nuggets of metals, including platinum-group metals.
As well as high temperatures the event involved intense mechanical shock that produced tell-tale lamellae in quartz grains, familiar from sites of known extraterrestrial impacts. One specimen shows a micro-crater produced by a grain of carbonaceous material, which is now made up of ~ 1 μm diamond-like carbon (diamondoids) crystals. There is abundant evidence of directionality in the form of linear distributions of ceramic shards and carbonised cereal grains that seem to have been consistently transported in a SW to NE direction: a kind of high-speed ‘blow-over’.
In the debris are also fragments of pulverised bone, most too small to assign to species. But among them are two highly damaged human skulls and isolated and charred human limb- and pelvic bones. Forensic analysis suggests at least two individuals were decapitated, dismembered and incinerated during the catastrophe. Isolated scatters of recognisable human bones indicate at least 10 people who suffered a similar death. Finally the destruction layer is marked by an unusually high concentration of salt, some of which has been melted.
Such a range of evidence is difficult to reconcile by hypotheses citing warfare, accidental burning, tornadoes or earthquakes. However, the diversity of phenomena associated with the destruction of Tall el Hammam has been compared with data from nuclear explosion sites, suggesting the huge power of the event. The authors turned to evidence linked to the air-burst detonation of a cosmic body over Tunguska, Siberia in 1908 which had a power estimated at between 12- to 23 megatonnes of TNT equivalent. Such an event seems to fit the fate of Tall el Hammam. The Tunguska event devastated an area of 2200 km2. The tall and another at Jericho lies within such an area. Perhaps not coincidentally, the destruction of Jericho was also in the mid- to late Bronze Age sometime between 1686 and 1626 BCE: i.e. statistically coeval with that of Tall el Hammam.
Archaeologists working in the Lower Jordan Valley have examined 15 other talls and more than a hundred lesser inhabited sites and have concluded that all of them were abandoned at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. The whole area is devoid of evidence for agricultural settlements for the following three to six centuries, although there are traces of pastoralist activity. The high amount of salt in the Tall el Hammam debris, if spread over the whole area would have rendered its soils infertile until it was eventually flushed out by rainfall and runoff.
If, indeed, the event matches the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, then Lot and his remaining companions would have found it difficult to survive without invading the lands of other people who had escaped, much as recorded later in Genesis. Of more concern is what will become of Ted Bunch and his 20 US colleagues? Will they be charged with blasphemy?
See also: Tunguska-Sized Impact Destroyed Jordan Valley City 3,670 Years Ago, SciNews, 29 September 2021; Did an impact affect hunter gatherers at the start of the Younger Dryas? Earth-logs, 3 July 2020.
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Many thanks to Steve Drury for permission to republish his article and to Bernie Bell for sending it into The Orkney News.