The explosion would have been bigger than the Tunguska event, on the order of a thousand times more powerful than Hiroshima. It may also explain that strange lacuna in Near Eastern history, called the Late Bronze Age Gap. The study authors also believe it to be physical evidence of a cataclysm that became the source for the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
For perhaps thousands of years, there had stood a city named Tall el-Hamaam, on the plains just northeast of the Dead Sea. “Tall” is an Arabic word for “hill,” in the sense of “a city on a hill.” It was more than just a city; it was the fortified, urban core of a city-state that arose nearly seven thousand years ago and flourished nonstop for three millennia straight. It was larger than Jerusalem or Jericho, and it was a metropolis in the classical sense. It had a four-story palace, a temple, a ring road (we call these beltways when we build them now), and thirty-meter-thick city walls with defense towers. Outside the city’s fortifications, it had urban sprawl. But everyone left the region, all at once, after Tall el-Hamaam was destroyed in ~1650 BCE. The mass abandonment included Jericho, which was destroyed and burned at about the same time. Normally, people rebuilt after their cities are razed, but this time, they packed up and left for good.
The destruction at Tall el-Hamaam (TeH on the map above) was complete and terrible. Buildings were sheared off at ground level, their mud bricks blasted into gravel or melted into bubbling foam. Globs of bubbling molten salts melted into the surface of the paving bricks. Melted titanium and iridium splattered into the pottery and roof tiles, whose outer surfaces bubbled like boiling caramel, then vitrified into greenish soda-lime glass. Do you know how hot it has to be to make clay foam and bubble like spaghetti boiling over? Hotter than it takes to fire the clay. Hotter even than it takes to wreck stoneware by baking it into melted slag. Material has to be nearly a free-flowing liquid to make bubble structures like these.
No stone was left standing upon another, save for a few courses of masonry in the impact shadow, northeast of Tall el-Hamaam’s namesake central hill. Most of the debris, in fact, lies along the same axis, pointing from southwest to northeast. Even the pottery shards are blown into lines that all point in one direction. It has taken fifteen years of excavation and detail work down to the level of electron microscopes, but ultimately, the authors conclude that it was caused by an airburst explosion, caused by an impactor that broke up at an altitude of just a few kilometers above the plains of Jordan, southwest of Tall el-Hamaam. To create the melting conditions seen at the site, the authors argue, it would have required an apocalyptic thermal blast that lasted nearly thirty seconds, followed by a pressure wave sufficient to produce the shock quartz embedded in the minute glass droplets permeating the debris. Wood and vegetation were first carbonized, then blasted into fragments of diamond. The splatters and globs of molten metal are a close match to the composition of a chondritic meteorite, or perhaps a comet. Taken together, they suggest that the impactor was an aggregation of ice and metal-rich rock, perhaps sixty meters in length.
When we found the remains of reindeer and shepherds killed by the Tunguska event, they were terribly burned, but not literally blown to centimeter-sized pieces. That’s why the authors specifically think this explosion was bigger than Tunguska. The human toll was unimaginable. It is estimated that 90 percent of the victims here were simply destroyed beyond recognition. There were naked, charred bones splattered with melted tin, silver, and glass. There are fragments of pulverized bone, too many to count and too small to identify, buried in among the shattered bricks and charcoal debris. Farther out, some skeletons were buried in various states of disarticulation and dismemberment. One skeleton was found buried in a crouching position with hands over its face, like some skeletons at Pompeii.
These scholars position the destruction of TeH as a source of the Biblical story of Sodom because the story is awfully specific. The Bible paints a bleak picture of annihilation by way of fire and brimstone, a burning stone hurled from the heavens by an angry god that turned all life to salt and ruin, sparing not even a single blade of grass.
The specific callout of salt, in conjunction with a terrible burning rock flung from the sky at a city that no longer existed when the Bible was written, is the unifying element here. There are globs of molten salt flung around and a thick layer of salt-laden ash sometimes more than half salt by weight blanketing the ruins at TeH, but the soil above and below is less than 1% salt. An explosion on the order of Tunguska would literally have salted the earth with hypersaline water and caustic sediment dredged out of the Dead Sea.
This is also in line with where Genesis mentions the destroyed vegetation. A blast of this magnitude would have totally carbonized any plant matter. Furthermore, salting the earth at the levels found in the Tall el-Hamaam blast site would have prevented any freshwater plant from germinating there for centuries thereafter, until the salinity was finally leached away. Based on the archaeological record, humans did not return to this area for between 300-700 years.
Archaeologists are always very careful when linking real-world places they discover to any form of spiritual or cultural knowledge passed down to us over thousands of years. With that said, we also know that stories passed down through oral traditions predating the written word can maintain narrative integrity over hundreds, possibly even thousands of years. The geological and archaeological records of Tall el-Hamaam tell a story of cataclysmic devastation that may have shaped the history of the Middle East for centuries. It left a scar in human history and literally rubbed salt in the wound.
Note: This study presented an absolute barrage of data. It’s like a bullet-hell game but with sixty pages of high-density archaeology. If you’re interested in the fine detail, of which there is much, do check out the free and open-access paper, published in Nature Scientific Reports.
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