A cosmic meteor brought desolation to an ancient city – Did it inspire Sodom?

The Bible story describing the destruction of Sodom is at the centre of iconic “fire and brimstone” judgement day predictions. But what if it was caused by other celestial origins – like a cosmic meteor airburst?

Satellite image showing the area with tall el-hammam about 7 miles (12 kilometers) northeast of the dead sea
Now called Tall el-Hammam, the city is located about 7 miles northeast of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan. NASA, CC BY-ND

Now, researchers have discovered 3600-year-old evidence that the ancient city of Tall el-Hammam – an archaeological site in Jordan – was destroyed by a “cosmic airburst” that was so hot it melted brick and clay.

The researchers believe the catastrophic cosmic event may have inspired the story of the destruction of Sodom – after all, that sounds a Lot like fire and brimstone raining from the heavens.

An impact so hot it melted clay

What was the evidence for the destruction of biblical proportions? Pottery that had melted to glass, ‘bubbled’ mudbrick, and partially melted building material beneath a five-foot-thick burn layer.

Excavators stand in a dry landscape with ruins of ancient walls
Researchers stand near the ruins of ancient walls, with the destruction layer about midway down each exposed wall. Phil Silvia, CC BY-ND

“We saw evidence for temperatures greater than 2,000°C,” say James Kennett, an author of the paper published in Scientific Reports.

“I think one of the main discoveries is shocked quartz. These are sand grains containing cracks that form only under very high pressure.

“We have shocked quartz from this layer, and that means there were incredible pressures involved to shock the quartz crystals – quartz is one of the hardest minerals; it’s very hard to shock.”

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Magnified images of tiny quartz grains
Electron microscope images of numerous small cracks in shocked quartz grains. Allen West, CC BY-ND

This looked similar to another 12-megaton cosmic airburst from 1908 – when a 60-metre meteor smashed through the atmosphere above Tunguska in Siberia – suggesting that the two events were caused by the same thing.

Salt… salt everywhere

Beyond this, the researchers also found evidence of an impact near the Dead Sea because of the unusually high amount of salt (I know, I know) that was distributed around the area.

“The salt was thrown up due to the high impact pressures,” Kennett says of the meteor that likely fragmented upon contact with the Earth’s atmosphere. “And it may be that the impact partially hit the Dead Sea, which is rich in salt.”

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Diamonoids (center) inside a crater were formed by the fireball’s high temperatures and pressures on wood and plants. Malcolm LeCompte, CC BY-ND

Was this the destruction of Sodom?

Fire, brimstone, salt, destruction… that sounds like the biblical story of Sodom’s destruction spoken about in the book of Genesis. Here, two angels warned Lot that Sodom was to be destroyed because of its people’s sin. Lot left with his wife and daughters, but his wife defied the angels’ advice and looked back longingly – and was turned to a pillar of salt as the fire and brimstone rained from the sky.

Magnified view of spherical shapes
Spherules made of melted sand (upper left), palace plaster (upper right) and melted metal (bottom two). Malcolm LeCompte, CC BY-ND

“All the observations stated in Genesis are consistent with a cosmic airburst,” says Kennett. “But there’s no scientific proof that this destroyed city is indeed the Sodom of the Old Testament.”

However, the researchers say that the disaster may have influenced oral tradition and inspired the written story of Lot and Sodom.

I guess it’s a good thing these researchers did take a look back.

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