New study reignites debate over the identification and history of Tall el‑Hammam
Could a meteorite explosion 3,600 years ago explain the destruction of a major Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley? A recent study argues that the mid-17th-century B.C.E. destruction of Tall el‑Hammam in Jordan can only be explained by a cosmic phenomenon. The study further suggests that this explosion could be the basis for the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). A number of biblical scholars and archaeologists, however, are skeptical.
According to the study, Tall el-Hammam, located north of the Dead Sea in Jordan, contains an unusual, site-wide destruction layer dating to the mid-17th century B.C.E. The researchers argue the destroyed city was exposed to such high temperatures that even the site’s pottery and mudbricks show signs of having melted. In addition, the city’s buildings were leveled in a manner consistent with the devastation caused by a shockwave event. This shockwave, they argue, ripped through the city’s buildings and inhabitants in a matter of seconds. Having explored these and other signs of destruction, the study concludes that the only possible explanation for the destruction evidenced at Tall el-Hammam is a cosmic event similar to the 1908 Tunguska airburst in Russia.
Tall el-Hammam excavator Steven Collins has long contended the site is the infamous biblical city of Sodom, based especially on geographical clues in the biblical text. The new study draws similar conclusions, suggesting that “oral traditions about the destruction of this urban city by a cosmic object might be the source of the written version of Sodom in Genesis.”Other scholars, however, have been quick to question the study and its conclusions. Archaeologist Steven Ortiz, director of Lipscomb University’s Lanier Center for Archaeology and co-director of the recent Tel Gezer excavations, rejected the meteor hypothesis, noting that similar destruction layers—attributed to Egyptian and Assyrian armies—have been found at Bronze and Iron Age Gezer. Similarly, Aren Maier, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University and long-time excavator of Tell es-Safi (biblical Gath), said that evidence for King Hazael’s ninth-century B.C.E. destruction of Gath looks much like what was found at Tall el-Hammam. Such destructions, Ortiz and Maeir argue, should be attributed to warfare, not cosmic events.
Other scholars contest the site’s identification with Sodom. Robert Mullins, Chair of the Department of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University, told Christianity Today that the biblical timeline does not support the identification. While the destruction of Tall el-Hammam dates to around 1650 B.C.E., the Bible places the destruction of Sodom during the days of Abraham, a figure most scholars would date hundreds of years earlier. “This is an example of evidence being marshaled to support the identification of the site as Sodom, as opposed to letting the site speak for itself,” Mullins said.