Sodom Skirmishes

Notes on the Tall el-Hamman Controversy

On my way to the Dead Sea from my home in Amman, Jordan, I took a small detour and swung by the archaeological site of Tall el-Hammam. From the road, the dusty little hill doesn’t stand out much. Once you climb to the top, the excavated ruins of the Bronze Age city look very ordinary. The only odd thing is a thin line of black running through the soil at a certain layer.

That layer, according to a 2021 paper, was caused by the fiery destruction resulting from of a “cosmic airburst” – a comet exploding in mid-air – sometime around 1650 BC.

The paper, which was published in Scientific Reports, a major peer-reviewed journal connected to Nature, contends that the airburst likely killed all of the roughly 8,000 inhabitants of Tall el-Hammam. Afterwards, the region was unsuitable for agriculture, and the population of the surrounding region declined from about 45,000-60,000 people to just a few hundred nomads. The area was not resettled for several hundred years following the event. The authors of the study suggest that this disaster “may have generated an oral tradition that, after being passed down through many generations, became the source of the written story of biblical Sodom in Genesis.”

This is by no means the first time a site has been proposed as the location of Sodom. The interesting thing about this study is that it was published in a mainstream secular journal, and specifically indicates an extraterrestrial origin of the destruction – fire from heaven, as it were.

It should come as no surprise that controversy exploded as soon it was published.

The Evidence

Before getting into the controversy, let me summarize the evidence upon which the authors of the paper base their conclusion.

The authors list 17 characteristics of the site: the presence of iron and titanium-rich spherules; silicon rich spherules; carbonate spherules; melted pottery; melted mudbricks; melted sediment; plant imprints in meltglass; gas vesicles in meltglass; platinum, iridium, nickel and chromium peaks; melted zircon, quartz, and chromite; ash, charcoal, and soot; extensive biomass burning; diamond-like carbon; shocked quartz; evidence of high velocity winds; directionality of debris; ordinary levels of remnant magnetism of melted pottery.

Next, they assess 10 possible explanations for the characteristics of the site: anthropogenic activities such as glass-making and smelting; pottery making; normal wildfires; midden fires; warfare; earthquakes; volcanism; lightning; comet impact; cosmic airburst.

The paper concludes that only the last two – comet impact or cosmic airburst – are consistent with all lines of evidence; and as no comet crater has been found in the region, a mid-air explosion fits the evidence best. (The next best explanation, lightning, matches only 13 of the 17 characteristics of the site.)

The Reaction

Immediately following the release of the paper, in the words of various antagonistic writers and academics describing the blowback, “the twitter world caught fire” and “unofficial peer reviews on social media … were highly skeptical” … there was “a litany of criticism on Twitter” and “Scientific Reports is taking heat on social media”.

Of course, we all know that science should be guided primarily by the response of social media, so this is a damning indictment indeed.

Much of the criticism was actually ad hominem attacks on the authors (one of the 21 authors of the study is based out of an unaccredited Bible college; seven are connected to the Comet Research Group, which is an association of scientists devoted to raising awareness about the danger of civilization-ending comet strikes; etc). However, even physicist Mark Boslough, in an essay for The Skeptical Inquirer, which is highly, well, skeptical, of the study, admits that most of the 21 authors of the study “are credible scientists from respected institutions.”

Eventually, a more scientific critique to the paper was published by Scientific Reports. In a brief assessment, the two authors contend that the original paper failed to follow the established guidelines for identifying shocked quartz. Furthermore, they argued that the presence of platinum and iridium is not sufficient to establish extraterrestrial origin of the posited impact, because both elements can occur terrestrially under some conditions.

The editorial board may have considered that publishing a peer-reviewed critical response was the normal and appropriate way to proceed with the scientific process. But that wasn’t enough for everyone. The aforementioned skeptic Dr. Boslough began pestering the editors of the journal to retract or alter the original article. According to Retraction Watch, he emailed them repeatedly (“Forgive me for my increasing rate of messages asking for Bunch et al [2021] to either be retracted or corrected, but this is becoming urgent”) and requested that if nothing else a warning note be attached to the paper.

Retraction Watch followed up with their own email to the journal (they proudly report), and soon after the journal complied, attaching a note that reads, “Readers are alerted that concerns raised about the data presented and the conclusions of this article are being considered by the Editors. A further editorial response will follow the resolution of these issues.”

The final fate of the paper remains to be seen.

A Lesson in the Scientific Process

This still-unfolding story serves to highlight the inherently human nature of the scientific process. Humans are the ones conducting the research and publishing the articles. So interpersonal relationships, reputation, peer-pressure, tweets, emails – all these can be just as relevant to the fate of a study or research project as simple “hypothesis, experiment, conclusion.”

The trouble is, most of the actual scientific discussion is highly technical, and quickly rises above the level where a layperson or even a scientist with a slightly different specialization can discern the truth by assessing the arguments. (Case in point: it’s clear that not very many people in the world can speak confidently on the appropriate methods of identifying “shocked quartz.”)

So, people have to rely on ethos. But whose ethos, when all sides seem to have a stake in the game? Most people will simply defer to the authority of whichever expert or expert-ish person they happen to like, or to know personally – or whoever says what they want to hear.

In the case at hand, someone who believes in the Bible is more likely to accept the arguments of Bible-believing scholars, and a skeptic is more likely to accept the arguments of scholars who do not believe in the Bible. But in fact, scholars on both sides could very well have strong biases that cloud their judgment.

Damned if you do…

That is not to say that scientists who believe in the Bible are necessarily biased in favor of this study.

No. The plot thickens; in the eyes of many Christians, the findings were not biblical enough. The proposed date of the destruction is a couple hundred years later than the date inferred from the Bible for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the location is farther north than the traditionally inferred location. Furthermore, the framing of the destruction as a natural event (a comet airburst) was seen by some as yet another far-fetched attempt at producing a naturalistic explanation for a supernatural event. A Christianity Today piece concludes:

Whether it’s a fireball that destroys a city, a mighty wind that holds back the waves of the Red Sea, an ark that landed on a mountain after a global flood, or celestial events that herald a royal baby’s birth, there’s a tendency to look for naturalistic explanations for biblical miracles—as if that would prove the Bible to skeptics….

If the Bible is just a collection of oral traditions that were puzzled together centuries later, perhaps the fireball would fit. But a century and a half of increasingly detailed archaeological investigation shows time and again that the historical framework of the biblical story holds up back to the time of Abraham.

There’s some irony here, since so much of the criticism of the paper from the skeptic side is centered around the perceived pro-Bible bias of some of the authors. Mark Boslough complains that the excavation director, Steve Collins, is associated with an evangelical seminary that is committed to biblical inerrancy, and that the excavation project has a GoFundMe page asking donors to “help us prove the veracity of the Bible.” Three anthropologists writing for SAPIENS acidly remark that “The age of archaeologists carrying a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other should rest in the past, buried in the colonizing archaeological practices of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

So, which is it? Is the paper yet another case of scholars grasping at straws to explain a supernatural events in natural terms? Or is it yet another case of religious fundamentalists wandering around the Middle East with Bible in hand, trying to prove the superiority of their faith? It seems odd that it should be both.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, when a person is accused of two opposite vices, the reason might be that he is actually virtuous. It could be that the paper is attacked on all sides because it is neither forcing all of its evidence to fit the Bible nor construing all its evidence to reject the Bible – it is simply presenting the evidence as it currently stands.

On the other hand, it could just be that, in making the necessary compromises to get their sketchy conclusions published in a mainstream journal, a group of scientists with various ulterior motives and biases succeeded in producing a paper almost everyone can find fault with.

Maybe a consensus will emerge as more information comes out. Maybe evidence in favor of the thesis will pile up until it becomes undeniable even to the most die-hard skeptics. Or maybe the paper will turn out to be demonstrably flawed, or even fraudulent.

Or maybe the truth will be eternally shrouded in an impenetrable fog of prejudice and rhetoric, because of its very importance. That’s how this sort of thing usually goes.

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox!
Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


Bioethics icon Bioethics Philosophy icon Philosophy Media icon Media Transhumanism icon Transhumanism Scientism icon Scientism Euthanasia icon Euthanasia Porn icon Porn Marriage & Family icon Marriage & Family Race icon Race Abortion icon Abortion Education icon Education Civilization icon Civilization Feminism icon Feminism Religion icon Religion Technology icon Technology LGBTQ+ icon LGBTQ+ Sex icon Sex College Life icon College Life Culture icon Culture Intelligent Design icon Intelligent Design

Welcome, friend.
to read every article [or subscribe.]