A night with Lot in Sodom: On meteors and memory

A night with Lot in Sodom: On meteors and memory September 23, 2021

This is a fascinating tale: “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.”

That’s an academic, scientific paper from Nature’s Scientific Reports by a whole team of researchers — starting with archaeologists, then adding physicists, geologists, metallurgists, and a host of other “experts from multiple impact-related and other disciplines” (the article lists 21 co-authors).

But also: “The project is under the aegis of the School of Archaeology, Veritas International University, Santa Ana, CA, and the College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, NM.” Neither of those schools is accredited. Veritas is the kind of outfit that advertises an M.Div. in “apologetics” available online. Their archaeology programs seem pretty thin, with the excavations at Tall el-Hammam serving as a platform for a lucrative biblical-archaeology-tourism side-hustle.

Even though you’d be surrounded by fundies, this seems like it’d be pretty cool.*

For a sense of the perspective of these groups, consider this from Veritas’ fundraising page for “Inner Circle Partners” of the dig:

The biblical record is under attack. Dr. Collins and the TeHEP team are dedicated to presenting the impressive story that backs up what the Bible teaches. Higher Critical Theory (HCT) has become a dominant school of thought as it denies the Old Testament. Imagine, many scholars are determined to indoctrinate students that King David, Solomon and the Temple never existed! HCT teaches that “Moses didn’t write down the Torah, and that most-or-all of the Old Testament characters and events, including Moses, likely didn’t exist at all but were merely fictions  invented as propaganda for the purpose of advancing the religious and political agendas of Jewish writers, mainly between the 7th and 5th centuries BC.” When we are able to definitively connect Tall el-Hammam to biblical Sodom the impact will be significant and we’d like you to share the journey with us.

“Dr. Collins” is Steven Collins, director of Veritas’ “PhD in Archaeology and Biblical History” program. He got his own Ph.D. from … Trinity Southwest University. Collins has been on a quest to locate the biblical city of Sodom, and thereby, he hopes, to prove all such biblical places are historically actual and that all biblical stories are actual history. And then all those snooty higher critical theorists from all those snooty accredited schools will have to doff their caps, beg his forgiveness, and reassure him that they’re wrong and he’s right. Or something.

Collins has been writing and publishing about this for a long time, largely in the Biblical Research Bulletin (a publication of, yes, Trinity Southwest). That’s what led him to Tall el-Hammam — a site previously thought to be connected, instead, to the classical city of Livias or perhaps to the biblical Beth-haram (see Joshua 13:27).

But Collins is not one of the co-authors of this report in Nature. Nor, as far as I can tell, are any of the other “biblical archaeology” buffs of those two schools. The lead author is, I think, a now-retired professor of meteoritics from Northern Arizona University. Many of the authors here previously collaborated on a paper last year about a “Cosmic Impact at Abu Hureyra, Syria.” That was a much bigger impact, thousands of years earlier, one that seems to have affected life all over the world.

I’m not sure the good folks at VIU and Trinity are thrilled with the conclusions this team of scientists has reached based on the data collected at their archaeological site. They may even see it as yet another “attack” on “the biblical record.” Here’s the abstract of the paper, see if you can spot the problem:

We present evidence that in ~ 1650 BCE (~ 3600 years ago), a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea. The proposed airburst was larger than the 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, where a ~ 50-m-wide bolide detonated with ~ 1000× more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. A city-wide ~ 1.5-m-thick carbon-and-ash-rich destruction layer contains peak concentrations of shocked quartz (~ 5–10 GPa); melted pottery and mudbricks; diamond-like carbon; soot; Fe- and Si-rich spherules; CaCO3 spherules from melted plaster; and melted platinum, iridium, nickel, gold, silver, zircon, chromite, and quartz. Heating experiments indicate temperatures exceeded 2000 °C. Amid city-side devastation, the airburst demolished 12+ m of the 4-to-5-story palace complex and the massive 4-m-thick mudbrick rampart, while causing extreme disarticulation and skeletal fragmentation in nearby humans. An airburst-related influx of salt (~ 4 wt.%) produced hypersalinity, inhibited agriculture, and caused a ~ 300–600-year-long abandonment of ~ 120 regional settlements within a > 25-km radius. 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). Tunguska-scale airbursts can devastate entire cities/regions and thus, pose a severe modern-day hazard.

The scientists are focused on the heat and sheer destruction of this blast — “1000x more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb” — but it’s their dating of that impact that blows up any hope to make this a confirmation of “biblical history.” Putting the destruction of “Sodom” — and therefore the life of Abraham — as late as 1650 BCE throws off the whole “biblical history” timeline, bringing the Exodus so much closer that it’s almost bumping up against the reign of King David.

I think Dr. Collins accepts this later date for Abraham, but didn’t invest another half hour in his many YouTube lectures to see how he tries to make that work. In any case, the tortured speculation of biblical literalists is nowhere near as interesting as the actual history presented by these 21 scientists in their paper.

If they’re right — I’m not a meteoriticist, astrophysicist or metallurgist — then what we have here is evidence that a significant Middle Bronze Age city was wiped off the map, almost instantaneously. There was no Pliny the Younger who escaped to provide any written account as there was at Pompeii, some 1,700 years later. And anyway, written accounts were not yet a thing.

But as the authors of this paper themselves note, this spectacular destructive event is “possibly” the source of “an oral tradition that was [much later] written down” in that story in Genesis. And that brings us back to something Philip Jenkins wrote about as “The Ghosts of Stonehenge” and we discussed here in a post on “Stonehenge, Yucca Mountain, and the Bible”:

How long can history and memory be preserved without any written record? And, even if we stipulate that some vestigial memory might linger after many centuries, is there any way to separate those legitimate memories and histories from all that has accumulated around them?

Even if our friends at Veritas Unaccredited don’t want to accept it, the fact is that the story of the destruction of Sodom and its neighboring “cities of the plains” in the book of Genesis wasn’t written down for at least a thousand years after this ginormous bolide went kaboom in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.

As Jenkins said of Stonehenge, “the timescale is daunting.” He illustrated the implausibility of such unwritten memory:

Normally, I am very skeptical when ancient or medieval authors claim to pass on older traditions, because they so clearly demonstrate how rapidly accurate information fades away. In eighth-century England, the author who wrote the poem The Ruin describes the country’s ruined Roman cities in such a way that shows he has not a clue about their actual operation or function. That is over a gap of just 400 years. … The biblical account of the conquest of Canaan several centuries previously describes the destruction of the city of Ai, a name that means simply “heap of ruins.” That was, likely, all the memory that had survived of the site and its fate, and a story was invented accordingly. Claims that accurate tradition can survive more than a century or two without written continuity need to be examined very carefully.

And yet here we have the tantalizing suggestion of some memory surviving for far longer than a few centuries. That’s unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, because this is such a remarkable story. If what these scientists say is what really happened to Tall el-Hammam, then we should expect the story of that to have spread and to have endured. Add in the lingering effects of “hypersalinity” inhibiting agriculture in the once-prosperous area for centuries and you have an ongoing reminder to keep the memory of that story alive.

The possibility that the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom might preserve some thousand-year-old memory of an actual cosmic event is fascinating to ponder. It’s also — alas for Dr. Collins et. al. — a far cry from, say, evidence for the historicity of Lot.

I don’t believe that Lot is a historical figure. I don’t think that’s what the author of that story was saying, or that it was something they wanted readers to believe. And, as exhausting as it often can be, I’m still happy to have that argument with my “biblical literalist” friends.

If nothing else, such arguments provide a welcome distraction from that last sentence in the abstract to this scientific paper, the bit about how: “Tunguska-scale airbursts can devastate entire cities/regions and thus, pose a severe modern-day hazard.” Yikes.

* If I showed up for a one-week stint as a “volunteer” on an archaeological dig I suppose I’d be torn between two impulses. On the one hand, I’d want to plunge in and get my hands dirty doing real archaeology. But on the other hand, I’d be horrified if they actually allowed someone as inexperienced as myself to just blunder in and potentially start damaging the site.

Tall el-Hammam offers one added bonus as the potential site for your next vacation: It’s one of the safest places on earth. A massive meteor blew up there 3600 or so years ago and so the site is effectively pre-meteorized. What are the odds of that ever happening again in the exact same place?

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