Categories: Science

Fire and Brimstone: A Giant Space Rock Demolished an Ancient Middle Eastern City and Everyone in It

Cosmic Impact Destroyed City in Jordan Valley

Artist’s evidence-based depiction of the blast, which had the power of 1,000 Hiroshimas. Credit: Allen West and Jennifer Rice

A giant space rock demolished an ancient Middle Eastern city and everyone in it – possibly inspiring the Biblical story of Sodom.

As the inhabitants of an ancient Middle Eastern city now called Tall el-Hammam went about their daily business one day about 3,600 years ago, they had no idea an unseen icy space rock was speeding toward them at about 38,000 mph (61,000 kph).

Flashing through the atmosphere, the rock exploded in a massive fireball about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) 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 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius). Clothing and wood immediately burst into flames. Swords, spears, mudbricks, and pottery began to melt. Almost immediately, the entire city was on fire.

Some seconds later, a massive shockwave smashed into the city. Moving at about 740 mph (1,200 kph), it was more powerful than the worst tornado ever recorded. The deadly winds ripped through the city, demolishing every building. They sheared off the top 40 feet (12 m) of the 4-story palace and blew the jumbled debris into the next valley. None of the 8,000 people or any animals within the city survived – their bodies were torn apart and their bones blasted into small fragments.

About a minute later, 14 miles (22 km) to the west of Tall el-Hammam, winds from the blast hit the biblical city of Jericho. Jericho’s walls came tumbling down and the city burned to the ground.

It all sounds like the climax of an edge-of-your-seat Hollywood disaster movie. How do we know that all of this actually happened near the Dead Sea in Jordan millennia ago?

Now called Tall el-Hammam, the city is located about 7 miles northeast of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan. Credit: NASA

Getting answers required nearly 15 years of painstaking excavations by hundreds of people. It also involved detailed analyses of excavated material by more than two dozen scientists in 10 states in the U.S., as well as Canada and the Czech Republic. When our group finally published the evidence recently in the journal Scientific Reports, the 21 co-authors included archaeologists, geologists, geochemists, geomorphologists, mineralogists, paleobotanists, sedimentologists, cosmic-impact experts and medical doctors.

Here’s how we built up this picture of devastation in the past.

Firestorm throughout the city

Years ago, when archaeologists looked out over excavations of the ruined city, they could see a dark, roughly 5-foot-thick (1.5 m) jumbled layer of charcoal, ash, melted mudbricks and melted pottery. It was obvious that an intense firestorm had destroyed this city long ago. This dark band came to be called the destruction layer.


Researchers stand near the ruins of ancient walls, with the destruction layer about midway down each exposed wall. Credit: Phil Silvia

No one was exactly sure what had happened, but that layer wasn’t caused by a volcano, earthquake or warfare. None of them are capable of melting metal, mudbricks and pottery.

To figure out what could, our group used the Online Impact Calculator to model scenarios that fit the evidence. Built by impact experts, this calculator allows researchers to estimate the many details of a cosmic impact event, based on known impact events and nuclear detonations.

It appears that the culprit at Tall el-Hammam was a small asteroid similar to the one that knocked down 80 million trees in Tunguska, Russia in 1908. It would have been a much smaller version of the giant miles-wide rock that pushed the dinosaurs into extinction 65 million ago.

We had a likely culprit. Now we needed proof of what happened that day at Tall el-Hammam.

Finding ‘diamonds’ in the dirt

Our research revealed a remarkably broad array of evidence.

Electron microscope images of numerous small cracks in shocked quartz grains. Credit: Allen West

At the site, there are finely fractured sand grains called shocked quartz that only form at 725,000 pounds per square inch of pressure (5 gigapascals) – imagine six 68-ton Abrams military tanks stacked on your thumb.

The destruction layer also contains tiny diamonoids that, as the name indicates, are as hard as diamonds. Each one is smaller than a flu virus. It appears that wood and plants in the area were instantly turned into this diamond-like material by the fireball’s high pressures and temperatures.

Diamonoids (center) inside a crater were formed by the fireball’s high temperatures and pressures on wood and plants. Credit: Malcolm LeCompte

Experiments with laboratory furnaces showed that the bubbled pottery and mudbricks at Tall el-Hammam liquefied at temperatures above 2,700 F (1,500 C). That’s hot enough to melt an automobile within minutes.

The destruction layer also contains tiny balls of melted material smaller than airborne dust particles. Called spherules, they are made of vaporized iron and sand that melted at about 2,900 F (1,590 C).

In addition, the surfaces of the pottery and meltglass are speckled with tiny melted metallic grains, including iridium with a melting point of 4,435 F (2,466 C), platinum that melts at 3,215 F (1,768 C) and zirconium silicate at 2,800 F (1,540 C).

Spherules made of melted sand (upper left), palace plaster (upper right) and melted metal (bottom two). Credit: Malcolm LeCompte

Together, all this evidence shows that temperatures in the city rose higher than those of volcanoes, warfare and normal city fires. The only natural process left is a cosmic impact.

The same evidence is found at known impact sites, such as Tunguska and the Chicxulub crater, created by the asteroid that triggered the dinosaur extinction.

One remaining puzzle is why the city and over 100 other area settlements were abandoned for several centuries after this devastation. It may be that high levels of salt deposited during the impact event made it impossible to grow crops. We’re not certain yet, but we think the explosion may have vaporized or splashed toxic levels of Dead Sea salt water across the valley. Without crops, no one could live in the valley for up to 600 years, until the minimal rainfall in this desert-like climate washed the salt out of the fields.

Was there a surviving eyewitness to the blast?

It’s possible that an oral description of the city’s destruction may have been handed down for generations until it was recorded as the story of Biblical Sodom. The Bible describes the devastation of an urban center near the Dead Sea – stones and fire fell from the sky, more than one city was destroyed, thick smoke rose from the fires and city inhabitants were killed.

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.

The scary thing is, it almost certainly won’t be the last time a human city meets this fate.

Animation depicting the positions of known near-Earth objects at points in time for the 20 years ending in January 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tunguska-sized airbursts, such as the one that occurred at Tall el-Hammam, can devastate entire cities and regions, and they pose a severe modern-day hazard. As of September 2021, there are more than 26,000 known near-Earth asteroids and a hundred short-period near-Earth comets. One will inevitably crash into the Earth. Millions more remain undetected, and some may be headed toward the Earth now.

Unless orbiting or ground-based telescopes detect these rogue objects, the world may have no warning, just like the people of Tall el-Hammam.

Written by Christopher R. Moore, Archaeologist and Special Projects Director at the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program and South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina.

This article was co-authored by research collaborators archaeologist Phil Silvia, geophysicist Allen West, geologist Ted Bunch and space physicist Malcolm LeCompte.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

For more on this research, see Sodom and Gomorrah? Evidence That a Cosmic Impact Destroyed a Biblical City in the Jordan Valley.


View Comments

  • This article is a more in-depth followup to the recent article titled: "Sodom and Gomorrah? Evidence That a Cosmic Impact Destroyed a Biblical City in the Jordan Valley".

    Frankly, these scientists would benefit heavily by reading Immanuel Velikovsky’s books.

    While working to establish a unified timeline of ancient world history, he discovered that there had been many destructive cosmic events shaping that history. And that the same events were happening all over the world, not just in isolated areas.

    Ages in Chaos, Earth In Upheaval, Worlds in Collision. He clearly lays out the evidence that this kind of destruction happened worldwide 3,700 years ago. As well at other times in antiquity.

    Time after time, archaeologists are discovering destruction that happened 3,700 years ago (and other times that Velikovsky pinpointed) — maybe the time has come for the scientific community to finally acknowledge that Velikovsky was on the right track after all.

    • These fringe scientists are hardly distinguishable from the speudoscientist Velikovsky.

      But the real question is why you try to push that on a site reporting on science. Or don't you know what Velikovsky et al stand for?

  • How very wokie of scitechdaily to erase the fact that this event occurred in the ancient Jewish homeland, known as Israel. That Israel where the Jewish people have had a civilization for several thousand years. When you mention "the Bible" did you think it unimportant to be clear? The Old Testament is fairly well known among Christians and Jews. Are you now a branch of al jazeera or bds?

    • ? There weren't any Hebrew at the time the paper discuss. That is only one of their problems, the long time between this putative event (which impact experts now think didn't happen) and the appearance of the Hebrew language.

  • its talking about asteroids hitting earth i dont see how it mattersmwhat bible or religion im sure asteroids arentmso sensitive about where or who they hit

  • To the location of the asteroid hit being in Israel/not being in Israel/not being relevant, etc.:

    The article
    1) mentions ancient and current geographic locations as context for where this asteroid hit
    2) references "biblical city of" and "inspiration for biblical tale of the destruction of Gomorrrah" as well as mentioning " knocked down the walls of Jericho".
    For those reasons, mentioning the ancient land of Israel in this contextnwould be appropriate and accurate.

    Finally, the location of the destroyed city "now called Tall el-Hammam" as identified bynthenarticle and the associated map was, in point of fact, well inside the borders of the Israel of the time.
    It would probably be helpful if the article pointed that out - as well as the fact that this location is now within the borders of modern day Jordan.

    • Again, this "event" would have happened long before the specious myth texts that you reference. What has that to do with what archeologists find (no identified "Jericho" et cetera)?

  • I'm uncertain where you received your education that drove your opening statement..... but get your money back. The discovery of the vitrified remains Sodom & Gomorrah exactly where bible stories said it was... including large amounts of "brimstone" scattered all over its ruins is old news. Looks like Sodom and Gomorrah are where the Bible got the story of Sodom and Gomorrah....

    • ? Do you confuse "biblical history" or, worse, the myth text with what we can find in the archeological record? None of those cities have been identified, IIRC, and no one wshould expect them to since the idea is based on myth.

  • The paper has met harsh critique as an example of biased research [ ]:

    "A recently published paper is making the bold claim that there's evidence that an ancient, bronze age city was destroyed by an asteroid air burst. It's got a lot of attention because this is being linked to a story in the Hebrew Bible which is a core text in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, many scientists with expertise in the field are unconvinced."

    The impact paper industry around the putative "Young Dryas event" - which the group's other paper is a similar questionable example of [site now conveniently located under a dam] - is problematic. The glass spherules are more likely to be caused by lightning and that can't be excluded in the earlier paper.

    Another problem, where I don't agree with Scott Manley, is the low likelihood that any part of a myth text has a real correlate. In the cases we can check them they fail in archeology. But here it is additionally the low likelihood hypothesis that an oral tradition would survive 1,300 years before the first early versions of written myth texts appear [the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to 2,300 years ago].

    • As a response to what Torbjörn Larsson said about the Hebrew bible is core text in islam.
      I would like to say you may have made a sweeping statement without actual evedince to support that statement.

    • Low likelihood? Buddhist scriptures were passed down orally for a thousand years, more accurately than many future written texts. That’s not surprising, it’s just a thing humans can do.

      Don't try to comment on anthro if you have no education in it.

  • In the biblical account, Lot's wife looked back and was turned into a pillar, consistant with the salting of the ground by the impact

Christopher R. Moore, University of South Carolina

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