Myth, Science, and Sodomy: The Curious Case of Tall el-Hammam

This month’s Skeptical Inquirer features a special report regarding the ongoing archaeological work at Tall el-Hammam, the purported site of ancient Sodom. The author, Mark Boslough, is a world-recognized expert on cosmic airbursts and raises many valid criticisms about the credentials and publications produced by the group working on the dig, particularly “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.”

Dr. Boslough’s knowledge of cosmic airbursts and academic standards dwarves my own, so I will certainly defer to him on those topics. But I would also note that archaeology has a long if not always an honorable history of eccentric outsiders making valuable discoveries amidst hare-brained quests. (Heinrich Schliemann is probably the most famous example). So while Veritas International University may be sponsoring this dig to “prove the veracity of the Bible,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t producing data that might be useful even for non-Evangelicals.

Archaeology has always been a thinly funded field, and self-promoters and the independently wealthy have frequently stepped in to fill that money gap. If the Tall El-Hammam dig uses the “Sodom” connection to attract donors, they are following in the footsteps of Glastonbury monks who used their “discovery” of a Roman-era coffin to turn their monastery into a site of Arthurian pilgrimage.

Boslough has been less exposed to this kind of publicity-hunting, as his line of work requires Big Academia and Big Science connections. Funding your own archaeological dig is a lot easier than building your own radio telescope array or particle accelerator. A century earlier and Boslough would be at the mercy of rich cranks like Percival Lowell.

Boslough raises questions about several edited photos. Some shots were cropped and directional arrows repositioned to make it appear that the blast came from a southeastern direction. This would better fit with the Biblical story of Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt. (She got hit with a high-speed wave of superheated Dead Sea water, more or less).

This kind of misdirection would be a very real issue, whether it was done for fraud or out of a desperate desire to believe. (Schliemann, whom I mentioned above, made “restorations” to the famous “Agamemnon mask” that can most charitably be described as optimistic). Boslough also notes that West and several of his colleagues on the Tall El-Hammam dig have in the past found nanodiamonds where other researchers found none. That would suggest all their data should be double-checked and verified, but in an ideal world that would be the case for all academic papers.

“Lot’s Wife,” Salt Pillar, Dead Sea, Jordan

I would be very interested in hearing from other scientists about the evidence Ted Bunch et al presented for melted quartz, nanodiamonds, and other signs of an explosive high-heat event that came in from above. But I would also note that finding signs of an airburst at Tall El-Hammam would no more prove that this site was the “real Sodom” any more than finding a 5th century castle in England would prove you had found “the real Camelot.”

Did a cosmic airburst happen over Tall El-Hammam? The jury is still out. The Tall el-Hamman dig has revealed a fairly sizable Middle Bronze Age city. That city also appears to have at some point experienced a catastrophe that resulted in hot fires and many buildings being razed. Neither of these things is exceptional for the time and place. Burning and razing cities was a favorite sport both in the Bronze and Iron Ages. But it is not yet settled as to whether those fires started in a war or due to something… else.

Is Tall-El Hammam Sodom?

Both Boslough and the Biblical scholars at Tall El-Hammam are most comfortable with hard data and easily analyzed facts. Myth doesn’t work that way. Proof of an airburst wouldn’t make the Biblical story of Sodom “true” or “false.” We may be able to prove or disprove whether a city was destroyed by fire from the heavens. Determining whether it happened because of astronomy, inhospitality, or butt sex is a different question altogether.

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