In the Genesis tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, after the people of Sodom attempt to assault two angels who are being hosted by Lot and his family, God rains fire and earth on Sodom and nearby cities in punishment for the overwhelming wickedness of just about every citizen. If one were to approach the Bible from a literal perspective, as a series of events that actually happened, one might expect to find physical evidence of such an apocalyptic event, even thousands of years later. Enter one of the latest entries in the field of biblical archeology: A recent scientific paper proposes a cosmic airblast may have caused the destruction of Tall el-Hammam, a once-major Middle Bronze Age city, and that stories of Tall el-Hammam’s obliteration could have originated this familiar biblical tale.
Much of the evidence showcased by the archaeologists behind the paper comes from their analysis of a 1.5-meter-thick layer of debris unique to Tall el-Hammam—containing pulverized and melted mudbricks from the city’s buildings and walls, shocked quartz, shattered pottery, melted metals and other materials—that they’ve labeled the “destruction layer.” The team, led by chief archaeologist and project co-director Steven Collins, examined each material, noting their melting points and the near-obliteration of much of the city’s structures, and eventually concluded that a high-temperature, high-impact event was the likely culprit for the city’s destruction. What’s more, the incredible heat necessary to either melt or create the materials they analyzed couldn’t have been produced from any man-made source or most natural ones; even lava would not have been hot enough. Thus, they posited a meteor strike around 1600 BCE, an estimate they reached through radiocarbon dating.
That’s the paper’s focus; a somewhat tangential section near the paper’s end is where biblical archaeology becomes a factor. The paper proceeds to cite an ongoing debate as to whether Tall el-Hammam could be the biblical city of Sodom and states its conclusions point towards this identification. Not only do the location of Tall el-Hammam and the estimated date of impact match, but there’s a noticeable similarity between Genesis’ description of Sodom’s destruction and eyewitness accounts of the largest impact event in Earth’s recorded history, the Tunguska Event, which is also widely attributed to a cosmic airport. Forbes magazine reports a local schoolteacher’s summary of the event, which occurred in a sparsely populated area of Russia in 1908: “The fire pillar was seen by many. The smoke or gray cloud was also noticed. I could not ascertain when the glass was shaking in houses: during strokes, before or after them. The strongest blows were the last, and the concussion of the hot air was strong…The peasants were so overwhelmed by the blows that they sent a deputation to the local archpriest to ask if the Apocalypse begins, so as to prepare for it.”
With such an intriguing hook, it’s no wonder that the paper has attracted significant attention. Published on September 20 in Nature Scientific Reports, it’s since been reported on in more than a 100 news articles and tweeted about 18,000 times. At the same time, criticism has quickly poured in from scientists. (The day after the paper was posted, Mark Boslough, the leading expert in cosmic airbursts, posted his dismay on Twitter that a scientific paper utilized his research to ask if “God smited the sinners of Sodom with an asteroid?”) Analysis of the available evidence was heavily criticized by archaeologists who disagreed that the destruction layer was “unique” to Tall el-Hammam, saying that the Collins’ team had simply failed to take erosion into account. The radiocarbon modeling they used to date the cosmic airblast was pronounced “incoherent.” They were accused of photoshopping their photos, and at first completely denied the allegations, but one team member later admitted they had made “minor, cosmetic alterations but had not altered…crucial data, such as bones and potsherds.”
Most striking, according to many of the paper’s critics, was that the supposed debate over whether Tall el-Hammam is Sodom is credited entirely to the research of two senior staff members of the Tall el-Hammam dig—and that in fact, the dig is a joint project between their institution, Trinity Southwest University’s College of Archaeology & Biblical History (an unaccredited evangelical school), Veritas International University’s College of Archaeology & Biblical History and the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Amidst debate over the validity of the evidence and how it was used in the paper, science educator Kyle Hill pointed out that nobody had “actually refuted the 17 different lines of evidence that seem to at least point in the airburst direction.” Others criticized attacks of the archaeologists’ institutions, arguing that scientific debate should be restricted to the paper at hand and noting an anti-religion bend that seemed to motivate some critics. If it’s difficult to separate the messy lines of science and faith that were braided together to create this project, these areas are equally murky among the paper’s critics. As one critic, computation archaeologist Joe Roe, said, “I don’t think the two can be so easily separated. There wouldn’t be a team of geologists poring over that sediment looking for impact evidence if it hadn’t been brought to them by people convinced it was from Sodom.”