Asteroids, Tall el-Hamman, and Multidisciplinary Research

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Categories: Ancient
a pewter brooch of a comet with a faceted glass stone
Shiny! This is a medieval comet not an ancient comet but close enough! Copy of a pewter brooch from Salisbury by Billy and Charlie.

In late September, the world was excited by a Nature Science Reports article arguing that Tall el-Hamman, a city on the Jordan River, was destroyed by an interstellar body bursting overhead around 3650 years ago. This paper was published by a team of natural scientists based in the USA, particularly geologists, remote sensor scientists, and earth scientists. Because it is multidisciplinary, very few people are qualified to assess the argument as a whole. There seems to be some pushback from archaeologists on corporate social media. Those threads are far less useful than a footnoted essay would be, and some of the ones by highly educated posters make claims which anyone who reads the article can see are false. One of the better threads is by a Dr. Megan A. Perry, a bioarchaeologist at East Carolina University in the USA:

I was asked by @ChrisStantis to comment on the recent Science Reports article on the supposed cosmic air burst that destroyed Tell el-Hammam in the Jordan Valley. This is based on my almost 30 years’ experience in Jordan, including excavating at the nearby site of Tell Nimrin.

First, the archaeology. The “unique” phenomena within the destruction layers – the mudbrick fragmentation/debris, the “shearing” off of mudbrick walls, the “missing” mudbrick – all aren’t any different than a typical excavation of mudbrick walls built upon stone foundations. 2/

I’ve observed mud brick buildings undergoing gradual deterioration after “abandonment” due to wind, rain, weathering, or other normal environmental processes. The only time I find evidence an intact mud brick ”collapse” is when it was immediately sealed to prevent deterioration.3/

A large structure (such as the Iron Age mud brick city walls at Nimrin) will retain a few intact courses (as they describe) and a very thick (meters thick) layer of essentially dried mud containing chunks of mudbrick, intermingled with ceramic sherds. 4/

These sherds were not only used as a binding agent in the mud bricks, but also are debris that either washed in from elsewhere, or occasionally, were dumped in that location. Often the ceramics in this debris can date much earlier than the period it was actually deposited. 5/

For instance, in my excavations along the Petra’s late 1st century/early 2nd century A.D. northern city wall, we discovered debris that had been cleared from inside of the city wall after the 363 AD earthquake, but the large majority of ceramics dated to the 1st century A.D. 7/

For instance, in my excavations along the Petra’s late 1st century/early 2nd century A.D. northern city wall, we discovered debris that had been cleared from inside of the city wall after the 363 AD earthquake, but the large majority of ceramics dated to the 1st century A.D. 7/

In addition, delineating mudbrick walls form the surrounding detritis is difficult, and generally one excavates until clear brick and mortar lines can be seen. As a result, the gloppy, bumpy mudbrick over that is removed, and the appearance of the wall looks “sheared”. 8/

Re: the stratigraphic deposits, the article only cites unpublished site reports that excavation directors submit to the DOA at the end of each field season. There is no oversight, no editing for content, and definitely no peer review. 9/

Normally this would not be a problem, but in the case of this excavation, where the director has a clear objective to prove elements of the Bible actually occurred (otherwise he will lose his 1 million dollar endowment), this is a huge cause of concern. 10/

It’s frankly like trusting a publication demonstrating the efficacy of a drug that was paid for by the drug manufacturer – but at least in that case, this conflict of interest is clearly stated. I guess they can’t say their conflict of interest involved god. 11/

Re: human remains. There is no evidence that someone actually trained in human osteology, let alone someone with expertise in skeletal trauma and taphonomy, was utilized in this study. They cite a “medical doctor” providing the skeletal analysis. This is simply laughable. 12/

MDs may know the basics of anatomy, but they generally are NOT experts in interpreting bone taphonomy or distinguishing between antemortem, perimortem, and postmortem trauma. Bioarchaeologists and human osteologists are.Some terms in the article indicate the lack of expertise.13/

For instance, they state that the skeletal data provide “forensic evidence” (this is not a case of medicolegal significance, therefore it is not “forensic evidence). The skeletal remains in Figure 44c are of partial lower limbs and feet, not the lower part of a torso. 14/

The calvarium in situ in Fig 44c does not clearly have perimortem crushing of the right eye socket, which is implied by the text (I.e., it happened around the time of death). The orange tint is not necessarily indicative of >200 degrees C temps (though @tjuthompson would know) 14/

The article continuously stresses importance of fragmented bone surrounding the humans remains. First of all, as they state, it is not clear if they are human or animal because the fragments are so small. 15/

As anyone who has excavated a tell knows, animal bone fragments are plentiful and found in many diverse contexts, and if these are animal (or human), the proximity to the human remains is likely not significant – especially in disturbed contexts, which they imply is the case. 16/

That the bodies are embedded in loose mud brick debris (and surrounded by fragments of bone, charcoal, and other artifacts) is not necessarily indicative of anything – this is what we see in Aqaba, when bodies were buried in the debris of older mudbrick houses 17/

While the dates are consistent, C14 dating of the charcoal is meaningless because there is no clear evidence that any was in primary context. 18/

The femora in Fig 44c: supposedly show signs of burning, but in this appears to be no different from the cortical fracturing and exfoliation one sees with exposure to water. Hyperflexed toes can be due to many factors, and the foot bones show no heat exposure. 20/

I really cannot speak to other aspects of the article (and sorry that I got so excited that I skipped or repeated post numbers in the thread :Grimacing face:) 21/

Many of these issues were already pointed out by @ChrisStantis. This project in general demonstrates the danger of being strongly wedded to one hypothesis (really, a goal) and cherry-picking data to support it (see: Shroud of Turin). end/

There are also criticisms of the credibility of the archaeologists at Tall el-Hamman, who are based at a small Christian university and a tiny unaccredited Christian institution. Of the eight people who did the geological fieldwork, only one has a degree in geology from an accredited university (a Gunther Kletetschka, analysis from a certain Mark Boslough on corporate social media – but in another post B. falsely states that the paper claims Tall el-Hamman is biblical Soddom so you might want to double-check). The project was also funded by something called the Comet Research Group which was formed to argue that we should prepare to spot and deflect asteroids and comets headed towards Earth. However, scientists acquire skills outside their PhD program, and scientists often take funding from people who hope their research will have a specific result, so these criticisms don’t seem very strong.

In the article and an interview with CBC’s Quirks and Quarks (episode of 25 September 2021), the natural scientists seem measured in their conclusions and curious about ways to test them such as excavating nearby sites to see whether destruction radiates from a central point or follows the wind. The people who wrote the article don’t seem to be engaged in motivated reasoning, although the people who presented the archaeology to them may have been.

Some people might look at this situation and despair about the impossibility of convincing people in one discipline that they are overlooking another discipline’s ways of thinking. But I don’t see that at all. I see an impressively multidisciplinary team which may have been mislead by their archaeological advisors. If the people who are excited on corporate social media turn their criticisms into journal articles, I am confident that in a few years, the academic consensus on this site will reflect all these points of view. The scientific way of thinking and the mechanism of formal evidence-based debate are powerful. Just like the debate between the Database of Religious History and SESHAT about moralizing gods, this disagreement is not a cause for despair but evidence that the scientific process is working its merciless way forward.

Further Reading: Bunch, T.E., LeCompte, M.A., Adedeji, A.V. et al. “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.” Science Reports 11, 18632 (2021).

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(scheduled 26 September 2021)

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