Ancient Jordanian town destroyed by meteor explosion may have inspired Bible stories, scientists say
A thriving city in the Jordan Valley was completely wiped out by a meteor explosion 3,600 years ago, which produced a lightning bolt and shock wave that burned and shattered buildings, animals and people .
This is the scenario painted by a large collaboration of archaeologists, Earth and space scientists who studied the remains of the Bronze Age city at a site called Tall el-Hammam in Jordan, no far from the Dead Sea.
Before its destruction, Tall el-Hammam was a bustling city of about 8,000 inhabitants, with mud brick buildings and a four-story palace. There is evidence that the city site had been occupied for several thousand years.
Archaeologists have excavated the ruins of the city for more than 15 years, revealing a rich history during its long occupation which included the ruins of fires, wars and earthquakes.
Their findings were published this month in the journal Scientific reports.
The “layer of destruction”
But their excavations also revealed destruction that had no ordinary explanation: a layer of debris one and a half meters thick that the team dubbed the “layer of destruction”, encompassing the entire colony and dated 1650 BC. This diaper showed signs of an incredibly violent event.
It included molten pottery and bricks, soot, plaster and molten metal, which could only have resulted from temperatures close to 2,000 ° C. It also contained ruins of flattened buildings, notably the palace of the city and an outer wall four meters thick.
“The city was built with millions of mud bricks, in walls, ramparts, buildings,” said space physicist Malcolm LeCompte, who was part of the research team. Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. “Much of the mud brick was simply disintegrated and blown from the upper floors of these structures in the nearby valley.”
Most gruesome, the debris also contained the remains of humans and animals that had been burned and torn apart.
“Human remains and bones were plentiful. There are very few total skeletal remains. The ones that remain are quite disarticulated – just broken,” LeCompte said. “It’s pretty awful, actually.”
Extreme temperatures and widespread, violent destruction began to point the research team on a culprit. But microscopic examination of the debris also helped build the case. They found grains of sand with unique cracks and fractures inside, called “shocked quartz”, which are often found in debris from very high speed impacts, such as that generated by a meteor impact.
This led them to conclude that the best solution for what they were seeing was a “gust of air” from a meteor likely made up of rock and ice. The object, possibly measuring 50 meters in diameter, is said to have struck the Earth’s atmosphere above the city, moving at perhaps 60,000 km / h. At this speed, the atmosphere would have behaved as if it were almost solid, causing the meteor to explode violently.
“The evidence we have suggests that this was something like… a one megaton event in terms of atomic or nuclear bomb equivalent.” said LeCompte.
On the ground, the heat flash from the explosion would have ignited hair and textiles, and melted metal and brick. Moments later, a shock wave reportedly struck, causing winds that the researchers said reached speeds of up to 1,200 km / h – knocking the city’s structures flat and killing all living things. from the city.
“The shock wave would have come and just tore them apart,” LeCompte said.
It will happen again, warns LeCompte
Researchers point out that there are modern precedents for an event like this. In 1908, it is believed that an object of similar size exploded in the atmosphere over Siberia, in what is known as the Tunguska event. He razed 2,000 square kilometers of forest and started a huge forest fire.
In 2013, a meteor of about 200 meters exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia, shattering windows and causing more than 1,000 injuries.
So far, the team has found material that could have come from the meteor, including tiny samples of rare metals often found in meteorites, but must do more work to confirm their origin. LeCompte points out that excavations in the area can be difficult, especially since much of the local landscape is currently occupied by Syrian refugees.
An intriguing, though speculative, possibility that the researchers have suggested is that the destruction of Tall el-Hammam could be the inspiration behind biblical legends like the destruction of Sodom – in what is described as a “rain” of “fire”. and brimstone “- or the destruction of the walls of Jericho.
But LeCompte says those who regard Tall el-Hammam as a historical curiosity are missing the point. Instead, he said, they should take it as a warning.
“The significance of his past is pale in what he predicts for the future, as it’s going to happen again,” he said. The Tunguska event shows that Earth can still be struck by destructive objects from outer space, and if something similar were to happen in a city or populated area, the devastation would be enormous.
“It just took it off in an instant, so it’s a serious warning of what might happen – what will happen – in the future.”
Written by Jim Libans. Produced by Mark Crawley.