How a Meteor May Have Destroyed Ancient City and Inspired Biblical Tale of Sodom

Researchers have discovered evidence that an ancient city in the Jordan Valley could have been destroyed when a meteor or space rock exploded above it around 3,600 years ago.

Tall el-Hammam is believed to be the inspiration for the Biblical city of Sodom, meaning that the space rock's explosion or "airburst" could be behind the story of the destruction of this city in the Old Testament.

The explosion over Tall el-Hammam was great enough to level the ancient city, flattening its palace, mudbrick structures, and the wall that ringed the city, a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports said.

The study compares the airburst that occurred around 1650 BCE to the Tunguska Event which occurred in 1908 when a 183-to-196-foot meteor entered the Earth's atmosphere above Eastern Siberia at around 33,500 miles per hour and exploded.

The resultant airburst released around 12 megatons of energy, equivalent to around 1,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima.

What is more, the authors including professor emeritus of earth science at UC Santa Barbara, James Kennett, believe that this ancient airburst could have been even more powerful than the one behind the Tunguska Event.

"There's evidence of a large cosmic airburst, close to this city called Tall el-Hammam," Kennett said in a press release. "It's an incredibly culturally important area. Much of where the early cultural complexity of humans developed is in this general area."

The site has been a popular one for archaeologists for this reason but amongst the layers that give evidence for settlements all the way from the Copper Age (5000 to 3300 BCE) to the Bronze Age (3300 to 1200 BCE), there is a strange 1.5-meter interval.

Within this interval, archeologists have discovered materials that are commonly associated with destruction arising from war or from earthquakes. This includes pottery shards melted to glass, bubbling mudbrick, and even melted building materials.

All of this indicates temperatures far above anything that could be artificially generated at the time. "We saw evidence for temperatures greater than 2,000 degrees Celsius," said Kennett.

Amongst the charred materials and destroyed structures were the skeletal remains of humans that were, according to the paper, fragmented.

Kennett and his team recognized what the charred and melted materials and human remains with "extreme disarticulation and skeletal fragmentation" represented as they were also involved with piecing together an investigation of a similar airburst that happened 12,800 years ago.

Further soil analysis revealed small spheres of iron and silica as well as melted metals. Kennett added that the main line of evidence of an airburst uncovered by his team was a material called shocked quartz.

"These are sand grains containing cracks that form only under very high pressure," the researcher said. "We have shocked quartz from this layer, and that means there were incredible pressures involved to shock the quartz crystals—quartz is one of the hardest minerals; it's very hard to shock."

The area also has a high level of salt in layers laid down at the time of the proposed airburst, which the authors suggest could have been thrown up by the blast. Kennett suggests this could also be why the Dead Sea is so rich in salt.

Salt connects the fate of Tell el-Hamman back to the biblical tale of Sodom. As Lot and his family fled the city, his wife turns back to view the destruction and is punished by God who turns her into a pillar of salt.

The tale also describes fire and sulfur and rocks raining from the skies with Sodom flattened, its agriculture razed, and its inhabitants killed.

Tell el-Hamman, located northeast of the Dead Sea and one of the regions most populated areas during the Bronze Age with a population 10 times that of Jerusalem, has been linked with the city of Sodom for many years.

In 2015, professor of Biblical studies and apologetics at Trinity Southwest University, Dr. Steven Collins, told website Popular Archaeology that Tall el-Hammam meets "every criterion" of Sodom.

The description of the meteor's airburst event certainly sounds like the tale of Biblical destruction, but Kennett is cautious.

"All the observations stated in Genesis are consistent with a cosmic airburst, but there's no scientific proof that this destroyed city is indeed the Sodom of the Old Testament," says the researcher.

Stock image of a meteor falling from space. New research says that the ancient city of Tall el-Hammam may have been destroyed when a meteor exploded above it. Getty