In “So Strange” back in January, I wrote about the destruction of Tunguska in Siberia – an event that may have been caused by a comet exploding over that vast forested wilderness (https://www.citizensofboomtown.com/city-hall/so-strange/tunguska). We’re regularly getting other reminders of the risks from collisions from space – almost weekly I see articles about the latest near miss – but thankfully, it seems that actual impacts are rare.
I was startled though, when I came across the case of Tall el-Hammam, in Jordan. Like Jericho, Tall el-Hammam was an ancient walled city, located north of the Dead Sea and although it’s probable you’ve never heard of this place, it was larger than Jericho, occupied for a greater period of time and probably more important.
After more than 3,000 years of occupation however, Tall-el Hammam was destroyed in about 1,650BC. Not only that, fifteen smaller nearby cities and many smaller villages in the area appear to have been destroyed or abandoned at the same time, suggesting a widespread catastrophe.
Like many destroyed ancient cities, Tall el-Hammam shows evidence for burning and the initial assumption was that these fires were the result of warfare, used to drive out the city’s inhabitants. But more than fifteen years of excavations have revealed evidence for a high temperature and widespread event that appears to be the result of more than just normal burning. Clay roof tiles and mudbricks have been found that have been melted – partially turned to glass by the heat – which points to temperatures greater than 1000 degrees celcius!!
In addition to the evidence of high temperatures, thick defensive mudbrick walls had been sheared off in a manner that isn’t consistent with warfare, earthquakes or any other likely destructive forces.
The human remains from Tall el-Hammam are perhaps the most startling – with feet and lower leg bones having survived (albeit with evidence for damage by heat) but often with the rest the skeleton missing.
The excavators working at Tall el-Hammam have concluded that this widespread destruction was caused by the huge blast of a comet exploding in the lower atmosphere – similar to what is thought to have happened at Tunguska.
Perhaps more worrying, this is not the only such evidence for a similar catastrophic event – a site known as Abu Hureyra in Syria may also have suffered a similar fate.
Although rare, we have to ask what natural hazards such as this mean for our future? How worried should we be?
All images from “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el‑Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea”, Ted E. Bunch et al.