Ancient Asteroid Explosion May Have Inspired Story of Sodom

Much like great sleuths, great archaeologists are capable of taking miniscule clues and using them to paint vivid pictures of what happened in the past. In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports a team of scientists does exactly that with a (very likely) asteroid impact that occurred 3,600 years ago near the ancient Middle Eastern city of Tall el-Hammam. And the scientists even speculate the event may have inspired the Biblical story of Sodom.

A space rock exploding in a massive fireball about 2.5 miles above an ancient Middle Eastern city.

Allen West and Jennifer Rice

Four of the paper’s authors outlined their findings in an article recently posted on the nonprofit news site, The Conversation. Although there were 21 scientists involved with the research in all; including archaeologists, geologists, and even medical doctors. On top of that, hundreds of people had to conduct excavations over the last 15 years to collect the evidence necessary to model what happened to Tall el-Hamman all those millennia ago.

A labeled map of the Dead Sea Rift and the location of the ancient city of Tall el-Hammam.


The search for evidence of a space-rock impact began when archaeologists saw a dark, five-foot-thick layer of charcoal, ash, and melted pottery at the Tall el-Hamman excavation site. The archaeologists immediately knew some kind of firestorm must’ve caused the toasty geological layer. And they knew the culprit couldn’t have been something like warfare, an earthquake, or even a volcano; events like those simply wouldn’t have been hot enough to do that kind of damage.

Two archaeologists stand amidst an excavation site that's near the Dead Sea in the Middle East.

Phil Silvia

Speaking of damage, the scientists speculate that an icy space rock—most likely an asteroid similar to the one that hit Tunguska, Russia, in 1908—exploded in a massive fireball about 2.5 miles in the air above Tall El-Hamman. The scientists estimate the explosion was 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. And that it sent ambient temperatures on the ground soaring to 3,600°F; causing wood, clothing, and probably even people to instantly burst into flames. The heat was so intense it melted swords, spears, and pottery. Minutes after blast, the entire city would’ve been in flaming ruins. All 8,000 of its residents dead.

A labeled map of an ancient asteroid explosion over the Middle East.

Philip J. Silva, et al. / Scientific Reports

In their post on The Conversation, the authors go out on a limb and say this explosion may have been the inspiration for the Biblical city of Sodom. As the authors note, the Bible references “stones and fire [that] fell from the sky” in the story. As well as the devastation of an urban center near the Dead Sea. Although archaeologists will need to do a lot more metaphorical and literal digging to confirm that link.

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