Airburst at Tell el-Hammam Destruction May Suggest Legend Origin


Let us not launch the boat ...
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The word from East Carolina University↱:

A research team including East Carolina University's Dr. Sid Mitra, professor of geological sciences, has presented evidence that a Middle Bronze Age city called Tall el-Hammam, located in the Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea, was destroyed by a cosmic airburst.

Archaeological excavation of the site began in 2005, Mitra said, and researchers have been particularly interested in a citywide 1.5-meter-thick destruction layer of carbon and ash. The layer, which dates to about 1650 B.C.E. (about 3,600 years ago), contains shocked quartz, melted pottery and mudbricks, diamond-like carbon, soot, remnants of melted plaster, and melted minerals including platinum, iridium, nickel, gold, silver, zircon, chromite and quartz.

"They found all this evidence of high-temperature burning throughout the entire site," Mitra said. "And the technology didn't exist at that time, in the Middle Bronze Age, for people to be able to generate fires of that kind of temperature."

The ECU analysis worked with an hypothesis suggesting a meteorite or bolide comparable to the Tunguska burst. Dr. Mitra's lab looked at soot:

"So we analyzed the soot at this site, and saw that a large fraction of the organic carbon is soot, and you just can't have that unless you have really high temperatures," Mitra said. "So that's what led us to provide support to the story that this was a very high-temperature fire. … And that then supported the idea that this was an external source of energy such as a meteor."

Other research that supported the hypothesis included the presence of diamond-like carbon, melted pottery, mudbricks and roofing clay; the directionality of the debris; high-pressure shock metamorphism of quartz; high-temperature melted minerals; and human bones in the destruction layer. There is also a high concentration of salt in the destruction layer, which could have ruined agriculture in the area, explaining the abandonment of more than a dozen towns and cities in the lower Jordan Valley in the following centuries.

The researchers considered and dismissed other potential processes that could explain the destruction, including volcanic or earthquake activity, wildfire, warfare and lightning, but none provided an explanation for the various lines of evidence as well as a cosmic impact or airburst.

And while the study itself does not seek to affirm or refute fulfillment of the Bible (Gen. 19.24), Mitra observes, "some of the oral traditions talk about the walls of Jericho falling down", all of thirteen and a half miles from the apparent blast site: "Again it's science; you look at your observations, and in this case it's the historical record, and you see what you hypothesize and if it fits the data, and the data seem to fit."

There are, of course, a few important points for anyone looking to advance or refute a Biblical argument; Tell el-Hammam is a correct location, and if the data seem to fit, the timing ca. 1650 BCE fits at the edge of both periods, just slightly late for the usual chatter about the legendary destruction of Sodom, and at the early edge of prior ranges suggested for Jericho.

That's it. The rest is chemistry and physics. If it wasn't Tell-el-Hammam, we wouldn't bother with such quetions of Biblical historicity: The data suggests rather quite strongly that sometime in the middle of the seventeenth century BCE, Tell el-Hammam got hit by something really powerful, and all signs say a meteorite. The actual anthropology of what was going on among the people of that place and time is well beyond the range of Bunch, et al.↱ in their paper, "A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el‑Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea".

One interesting note, though, comes from the summary at the outset, in which the authors observe, "Tall el‑Hammam may be the second oldest city/town destroyed by a cosmic airburst/impact, after Abu Hureyra, Syria, and possibly the earliest site with an oral tradition that was written down (Genesis)." This is actually a stickier statement than it looks like; the temptation is to suggest it incorrect because writing had two millennia in the human experience by this point, but if we read it precisely enough, it seems at the very least arguable. Still, that is not what this paper does. To the other, if it is the site of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the reason why Jericho's walls collapsed, we not only fill in a detail about the record of legend, but also come to understand a little more about what it means, and how a story comes to us through generations.

It is also a strangely relevant question insofar as this could be an early record of something that continues to "pose a severe modern-day hazard".

The questions of chemistry and physics seem pretty straightforward at Tell el-Hammam; questions of anthropology and historicity will remain unsettled. For its part, the study gives some consideration to the question, generally observing the "potential written record of destruction", that questions about the historicity of the story exist, and that the "issue is beyond the scope of this investigation" because such questions "are not directly related to the fundamental question addressed in this investgation as to what processes produced high-temperature materials at Tell el-Hammam during the MBA" (5-6). In considering cosmic airburst, one of the two most likely explanations, the authors suggest:

It is worth speculating that a remarkable catastrophe, such as the destruction of Tall el-Hammam by a cosmic object, may have generated an oral tradition that, after being passed down through many generations, became the source of the written story of biblical Sodom in Genesis. The description in Genesis of the destruction of an urban center in the Dead Sea area is consistent with having been an eyewitness account of a cosmic airburst, e.g., (i) stones fell from the sky; (ii) fire came down from the sky; (iii) thick smoke rose from the fires; (iv) a major city was devastated; (v) city inhabitants were killed; and (vi) area crops were destroyed. If so, the destruction of Tall el-Hammam is possibly the second oldest known incident of impact-related destruction of a human settlement, after Abu Hureyra in Syria ~ 12,800 years ago.

We might consider Barthel (qtd. in "On Discussing Religion" #11↗): If "The churches will have to realize that not every word of the Bible was necessarily dictated by the Almighty", and, "Archaeologists will also have to stop assuming that discrepancies between their findings and a biblical account discredit the Bible", even the esteemed scholar could, over forty years ago, have been looking at the question wrongly. Or, perhaps, his assessment accurately reflects a more collective contextual distortion. It is one thing to discredit a theological argument, but if a story actually reflects on something real, there is still value in understanding what the record means. One can dismiss nearly everything they learned from church instruction about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but if we wonder what it really means to be a pillar of salt, we can also wonder at the prospect of someone who had a place and moment amid catastrophe, somewhere with a view, a Bronze Age conscience surveying a blast zone in excess of what our modern era witnessed at Hiroshima. An important question has to do with known cyclical astronomical events, or would this have been a rogue neo. It's one thing to leave town for superstitious fear and then something actually happens, but sometimes the question of why someone was in a given place at a particular time tells us something important about the story.

If this seems to get complicated, well, that is why it is a separate discussion from the chemistry and physics; thus we might observe the example that a detail in Lk. 2.41 lends to our understanding and assessment of a question such as, "What was Jesus like?"↗ because of its socioeconomic implications. Similarly, accepting that angels of the Lord did not actually carry the witnesses of Sodom and Gomorrah's fate to safety (Gen. 19.16), the question of what they were doing there is fascinating insofar as even if the story is utter rubbish for dressing up a folk tale that started with another sort of witness it still has particular value if we can understand it. But it is a separate discussion. That is, questions of anthropology and historicity might have gained a scientific indicator, but they will remain unsettled.


Bunch, Ted E., et al. "A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el‑Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea". Nature. 2021. 26 October 2021.

Norwood, Jules. "Biblical Burning". East Carolina University News Services. 7 October 2021. 26 October 2021.
OK, what they're saying is that, so instead of merely waving his hand to reduce Sodom* and Jericho to rubble - God likes to throw rocks. Got it.

*and Gamorrah, Friend of Children
OK, what they're saying is that, so instead of merely waving his hand to reduce Sodom* and Jericho to rubble - God likes to throw rocks. Got it.

Potential divinity of the rock is beyond the scope of the study.

Beyond that, I can't speculate the framework for determining whether the rock was thrown or, perhaps, dropped. Coin toss: Heads, stone too heavy to lift; tails, He bowled a googly. Neither joke is actually any good.