Tag Archives: bible

Cosmic impact could be inspiration behind biblical story of Sodom

The destruction of Tall el-Hamman, a vibrant city from the Bronze age located in the southern Jordan Valley, could have inspired the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two legendary biblical cities that were destroyed by God becoming too wicked. 

An artist depiction of the blast. Image credit: The researchers.

About 3,600 years ago, Tall el-Hamman was the largest continuously occupied city in the southern Levant, having hosted people for a few thousand years. It was the political center of the valley, alongside the cities of Jericho and Tell Nimrin. More than 50,000 people lived in the area, which hosted mudbrick buildings up to five stories tall.

The site has been frequently visited by archaeologists and biblical scholars as it hosts valuable cultural evidence, all compacted into layers of dirt and rock as the settlement was built, destroyed, and rebuilt over the years. But there’s a specific internal in the Middle Bronze Age layer that recently caught the eye of a group of researchers. 

In addition to what you would expect to find from destruction from earthquakes and warfare, the researchers also found pottery shards with surfaced melted into glass and partially melted building material. This would indicate an anomalously high-temperature event, which they think was a space rock raising havoc in the city. 

“Flashing through the atmosphere, the rock exploded in a massive fireball about 2.5 miles above the ground. The blast was around 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The shocked city dwellers who stared at it were blinded instantly. Air temperatures rapidly rose above 2,000ºC,” writes co-author Christopher Moore, for the Conversation. 

Seconds after the meteorite, a shock from the explosion smashed into the city, Moore said. It moved at about 740 miles per hour, with deadly winds demolishing every building. None of the 8,000 people living at the moment in Tall el-Hamman or any animals survived, Moore wrote, with their bodies torn apart and their bodies blasted into fragments. 

A long-term research

Getting some answers of what actually happened in Tall el-Hamman took almost 15 years of excavations by hundreds of people, then followed by detailed analyses of the excavated material. Archaeologists, geologists, geochemists, cosmic-impact experts, medical doctors, and mineralogists participated in the remarkable research effort. 

A map of the location of the city. Image credit: The researchers

After dismissing an earthquake, a fire, and a volcanic eruption as possible cataclysmic events, the researchers concluded that a small asteroid must have been the main culprit behind the city’s destruction. It was likely similar to the one that cleared out 80 million trees in Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, and much smaller than the one that took out the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, Moore explained.

The researchers found finely fractured sand grains called shocked quartz that is only formed at 725,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. The layer of dirt also had very small diamondoids — variants of a carbon cage molecule that are as hard as diamonds. Woods and plants in Tall el-Hamman turned into these diamond-like materials because of the temperature and high pressure from the space rock. 

At the laboratory, experiments also showed that the pottery and mudbricks at Tall el-Hammam melted at temperatures above 1.500ºC – hot enough to melt a car in minutes. The surfaces of the pottery are also spattered with small melted metallic grains, such as iridium, platinum and zirconium silicate, with a melting point over 1.500ºC 

The researchers believe that the oral description of the city’s destruction was passed down from generation to generation until it was registered as the story of the Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible describes an urban center near the Dead Sea that was fully devastated by stones and fire falling from the sky, killing all the city’s inhabitants. 

“Could this be an ancient eyewitness account? If so, the destruction of Tall el-Hammam may be the second-oldest destruction of a human settlement by a cosmic impact event, after the village of Abu Hureyra in Syria about 12,800 years ago. Importantly, it may the first written record of such a catastrophic event,” Moore writes.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Landmark historic street discovered under Jerusalem, built by Pontius Pilate

The street extends from the Pool of Siloam in the south to the Temple Mount — two monuments that have a major importance in Christianity and Judaism. There are good reasons to believe that the street was built by Pontius Pilate, the officer believed to have presided over the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

View of the foundations of the Western Wall (left) and the retaining wall that abutted it, built on bedrock (below). To the right are the constructive layers that filled the support system (photograph: M. Hagbi, IAA)

Separating history from religion is sometimes difficult, but the street uncovered by archaeologists is very much real. After six years of digging, researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University have uncovered a 220-meter-long section of an ancient street. The street was first discovered by British archaeologists in 1894, but managing such a long dig in an urban area proved to be extremely problematic.

Overall, the street is 600 meters long and 8 meters wide — an impressive and large construction paved with large stone slabs, as was often the case in the Roman Empire. The construction of the street required significant resources and skill.

The excavations also revealed 100 coins under the paving stones. The coins are dated to 17 to 31 CE, which suggests that the street was completed during the time Pontius Pilate governed Judea.

“Dating using coins is very exact,” says Dr Donald T. Ariel, an archaeologist and coin expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority, and one of the co-authors of the article. “As some coins have the year in which they were minted on them, what that means is that if a coin with the date 30 CE on it is found beneath the street, the street had to be built in the same year or after that coin had been minted, so any time after 30 CE.”

“However, our study goes further, because statistically, coins minted some 10 years later are the most common coins in Jerusalem, so not having them beneath the street means the street was built before their appearance, in other words only in the time of Pilate.”

The street would have been quite a sight in ancient Jerusalem. Depicted here: a Roman gate that’s still standing. Image credits: Davidbena.

The fact that the street was so large and lavish is also intriguing. The street starts at Temple Mount, located within the Old City of Jerusalem, which has been venerated as a holy site for thousands of years. It ends at Siloam Pool, where it is said that Jesus cured a man of blindness by having him wash in the pool water.

The street was probably ceremonial in nature, and was used by pilgrims.

“If this was a simple walkway connecting point A to point B, there would be no need to build such a grand street,” says Dr Joe Uziel and Moran Hagbi, archaeologists at the Israel Antiquities Authority, co-authors of the study. “At its minimum it is 8 meters wide. This, coupled with its finely carved stone and ornate ’furnishings’ like a stepped podium along the street, all indicate that this was a special street.”

Location map, marking excavation sites. The street would have connected two of the most important religious sites in the city (drawing: D. Levi, IAA; via Survey of Israel).

However, the street might not be entirely religious in nature. Another hypothesis is that it was a project to show he local population the strength and grandeur of the Roman Empire.

“Part of it may have been to appease the residents of Jerusalem, part of it may have been about the way Jerusalem would fit in the Roman world, and part of it may have been to aggrandize his name through major building projects,” says author Nahshon Szanton.

Another theory is that it was built to reduce tensions between Romans and the local Judaic population. The Romans conquered and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE — after the street was built. The soil layer above the street showed mixed pieces of rubble, including weapons such as arrowheads and sling stones, as well as burnt trees and collapsed rocks from buildings. It’s possible that the street was built in an attempt to diminish these tensions and prevent violent conflict — which did not turn out to be the case, unfortunately.

“We can’t know for sure― although all these reasons do find support in the historical documents, and it is likely that it was some combination of the three.”

At any rate, it is a remarkable find, a relic from the intersection of history, religion, and politics.

The findings were published in the Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.