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The 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event: Catastrophic Termination of a Bronze Age Civilization

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This paper overviews the multiple lines of evidence that collectively suggest a Tunguska-like, cosmic airburst event that obliterated civilization-including the Middle Bronze Age (MBA) city-state anchored by Tall el-Hammam-in the Middle Ghor (the 25 km diameter circular plain immediately north of the Dead Sea) ca. 1700 BCE, or 3700 years before present (3.7kaBP). Analyses of samples taken over thirteen seasons of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project (TeHEP) have been and are being performed by a team of scientists from New Mexico Tech, Northern Arizona University, North Carolina State University, Elizabeth City (NC) State University, DePaul University, Trinity Southwest University, the Comet Research Group, and Los Alamos National Laboratories, with remarkable results. Commensurate with these results are the archaeological data collected from across the entire occupational footprint (36ha) of Tall el-Hammam, demonstrating a directionality pattern for the high-heat, explosive 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event that, in an instant, devastated approximately 500km2 immediately north of the Dead Sea, not only wiping out 100% of the MBA cities and towns, but also stripping agricultural soils from once-fertile fields and covering the eastern Middle Ghor with a super-heated brine of Dead Sea anhydride salts pushed over the landscape by the Event’s frontal shockwaves. Based upon the archaeological evidence, it took at least 600 years to recover sufficiently from the soil destruction and contamination before civilization could again become established in the eastern Middle Ghor.
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The 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event:
Catastrophic Termination of a Bronze Age Civilization
Phillip J. Silvia, PhD
Director of Scientific Analysis
Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project
College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University
7600 Jefferson NE, Suite 28, Albuquerque, NM 87109
PJSilvia49@msn.com
CO-AUTHORS: Ted E. Buncha, Steven Collinsb, Malcolm A. LeComptec, Allen Westd
CONTRIBUTORS: A. Victor Adedejie, Dale Batchelorf, T. David Burleighg, Robert E. Hermesh,
George A. Howardi, Charles Mooneyj, E. Clay Swindelk, James H. Wittkel, Timothy Witwerk,
Wendy S. Wolbackm
aGeology Program, School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability, Northern Arizona University,
Flagstaff, AZ 86011; bCollege of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, NM 87109; cCenter of
Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research, Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, NC 27909;
dGeoScience Consulting, Dewey, AZ 86327; eElizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, NC 27907; fEAG
Laboratories, Inc, Raleigh, NC 27606; gMaterials & Metallurgical Engineering, New Mexico Institute on Mining &
Technology, Socorro, NM 87801; hLos Alamos National Laboratory (retired), Los Alamos, NM 87545; iRestoration
Systems, LLC, Raleigh, NC 27604; jNorth Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695; kResearch Associate,
Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research, Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City,
NC 27909; lGeology Program, School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability, Northern Arizona
University, Flagstaff, AZ 86011; mDepartment of Chemistry, DePaul University, Chicago, IL 60614
ABSTRACT: This paper overviews the multiple lines of evidence that collectively suggest a
Tunguska-like, cosmic airburst event that obliterated civilization—including the Middle Bronze
Age (MBA) city-state anchored by Tall el-Hammam—in the Middle Ghor (the 25 km diameter
circular plain immediately north of the Dead Sea) ca. 1700 BCE, or 3700 years before present
(3.7kaBP). Analyses of samples taken over thirteen seasons of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation
Project (TeHEP) have been and are being performed by a team of scientists from New Mexico
Tech, Northern Arizona University, North Carolina State University, Elizabeth City (NC) State
University, DePaul University, Trinity Southwest University, the Comet Research Group, and
Los Alamos National Laboratories, with remarkable results. Commensurate with these results are
the archaeological data collected from across the entire occupational footprint (36ha) of Tall el-
Hammam, demonstrating a directionality pattern for the high-heat, explosive 3.7kaBP Middle
Ghor Event that, in an instant, devastated approximately 500km2 immediately north of the Dead
Sea, not only wiping out 100% of the MBA cities and towns, but also stripping agricultural soils
from once-fertile fields and covering the eastern Middle Ghor with a super-heated brine of Dead
Sea anhydride salts pushed over the landscape by the Event’s frontal shockwaves. Based upon
the archaeological evidence, it took at least 600 years to recover sufficiently from the soil
destruction and contamination before civilization could again become established in the eastern
Middle Ghor.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: “Ghor” is the Arabic term for that portion of the Great Rift
Valley between and including the Sea of Galilee/Tiberias in the north and the Dead Sea in the
south. The Ghor is divided into three sections: Upper Ghor, consisting of the Sea of Galilee and
the first 40 km of narrow (4-10 km) gorge through which the Jordan River flows; Middle Ghor,
2
the 25 km diameter circular plain immediately north of the Dead Sea with the Jordan River
flowing through the middle from north-to-south; and Lower Ghor, the Dead Sea basin itself.
Initially thought by early archaeologists of the Ancient Near East (ANE) from the 18th to the
early 20th Centuries to have been originally inhabited during the Iron Age (ca. 1200 BCE),
archaeological reports (mid-20th Century to the present)1 and extensive area surveys (latter part
of the 20th Century)2 have shown the Middle Ghor to have been continuously occupied from at
least the late Neolithic Period (ca. 4600 BCE) through the Middle Bronze Age (MBA;
specifically, MB2, ca. 1700 BCE). All reports and surveys show that there was an occupational
hiatus on the eastern half of the Middle Ghor that lasted 600-700 years (the entire Late Bronze
Period). Resettlement began ca. 1100 BCE (Iron Age I) at Nimrin and ca. 1000 BCE (Iron Age
II) at Hammam.
Two preliminary conclusions can be drawn from the survey of the documented occupational
history of the Middle Ghor:
1. A significant civilization flourished on the eastern Middle Ghor continuously for over
2,500 years with Tall el-Hammam as its cultural center.
2. This civilization, including Tall el-Hammam, came to an abrupt termination toward the
end of the Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1700 BCE, and the area remained unoccupied for the
next seven centuries.
These conclusions raise a big question: What happened to cause this sudden termination of a
thriving civilization and the ensuing occupational hiatus?
PHYSICAL EVIDENCE: The physical evidence of the MBA destruction event (the “Event”)
that we have gathered through thirteen seasons of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project
(TeHEP) is of four types: directional, concussive, chemical, and thermal. The directional and
concussive evidence are totally related as are the directional and chemical evidence. This will
become obvious as we proceed.
Directional Evidence: Our inquiry into the physical evidence of the Event began at Tall el-
Hammam (see Figure 1) with a growing awareness of directionality associated with the MBA
destruction. Within sealed MBA contexts, only field stone foundations of buildings remain
within the excavated areas of the comparatively broad and flat Lower Tall. Virtually all of the
mudbrick superstructures are missing except for pockets containing a mixed matrix of mudbrick
fragments, carbonized wood, ash, and decomposed mudbrick. Very few sections of tumbled wall
have been found, and all of them were found lying to the northeast of the foundation from which
they fell. Some lower portions of the monumental palace walls on the Upper Tall remain, but
everything that projected above the massive rampart walls is missing, presumably sheared off by
the Event.
Deterioration of the rampart wall also seems to be greater on the southern side of the Upper Tall
than on the northern side. This difference cannot be associated solely with water erosion and is
therefore presumed to be another directional consequence of the Event.
1 Kenyon at Jericho (1957), Prag at Iktanu (1988-91), Flannigan at Nimrin (1990-94), Papadopoulos at Kefrein
(2007-11), and Collins at Hammam (2005-present).
2 Most notably Yassine’s survey from 1975-76 in which he documented over 120 settlement areas from the large
urban center of Hammam and its immediate satellite communities to small villages and seasonal encampments.
3
Figure 1 - Tall el-Hammam (Summer 2011)
Concussive and chemical evidence, which are discussed in more detail below, also helped lead
us to conclude that directionality was a feature of the Event, specifically, that the extreme
concussive force of the event originated southwest of Tall el-Hammam traveled in a
northeasterly direction from its point of origin.
Concussive Evidence: The complete absence of standing mudbrick architecture on the Lower
Tall and the near total absence of mudbrick architecture on the Upper Tall except for a few
courses of thick (120+ cm) palace walls suggest that a violent concussive force—a blast—ripped
apart the mudbrick superstructures and blew them off their foundations.
Also noteworthy is the dearth of whole pottery vessels at Tall el-Hammam. During thirteen
seasons of excavation, we have recovered an average of about 10,000 pieces of broken pottery
each year. During the first eight seasons, however, we recovered only 82 whole or nearly whole
vessels. We nearly tripled that number in Season 9 when we found a cache of vessels protected
by the thick walls of a palace(?) storage room. Only a small number of whole vessels have been
added to the collection since then. We also find very few occurrences of vessels “broken in
place” where the majority of the vessel’s pieces are easily recoverable. Pottery sherds at Tall el-
Hammam are almost always contained within a mixed matrix of sherds from other vessels, ash,
mudbrick fragments, and chunks of carbonized wood. All of this churning of destruction debris
adds to our conclusion that the Event was highly destructive in the concussive force that it
delivered.
Within every architecturally defined space, the debris field of pottery fragments, grain,
fragmented mudbrick, and chunks of charcoal was consistently scattered in a northeasterly
direction.
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Chemical Evidence: From almost the beginning of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project
(TeHEP) in 2005, we observed a significant salt “haze” on the surface of the ground of the
Lower Tall. This became even more apparent in 2009 as we began excavating on the Lower Tall.
What looked like clean brown dirt at the end on one day’s excavation developed an obvious
white salt haze overnight as the nighttime humidity leached salt to the surface. In 2014 we took
soil samples above, through, and below the Lower Tall ash layer from the MBA destruction and
had it analyzed at a laboratory in Canada. The test results showed a salt + sulphate content of 6%
on the ash layer which tapered off quickly above and below the ash layer (see Figure 2). The
chemical composition of the salts and sulphates was also noted to be virtually identical to the
chemical composition of Dead Sea water. Since we have never observed an obvious salt haze on
the Upper Tall, we concluded that only the Lower Tall seems to have been inundated with a
wash of water, pushed by the Event in a northeasterly direction from the Dead Sea.
Figure 2 - Salt Content from MB2 Destruction Layer
Thermal Evidence: Mixed within the thousands of pottery sherds that we have recovered at Tall
el-Hammam is a very small and unique collection of partially melted (“vitrified”) sherds (see
Figure 3), all of which have been recovered from sealed MB2 contexts on both the Upper and
Lower Talls. Each of these sherds has been exposed to an extremely high-temperature, short-
duration thermal profile. Using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) to image the detail of
selected sherds, we have identified specific melted zircon crystals that have melting temperatures
of 2,200°C which is higher than the melting temperature of the clay (about 1,700°C) that
formed the glass. The most recent SEM examination (using a more powerful device than
before) identified vesicles within the melted zircon crystal that indicate boiling of the
melted material at 4,000°C.
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Figure 3 - Vitrified Pottery Sherds
Legend: (1) Top 1 mm of 5 mm thick sherd is melted to glass. (2) Much deeper melt, but not through and
through. (3) Expanded clay matrix caused by moisture trapped in the clay. (4) Partial melt all around,
possibly from being tumbled in the air. (5) Expanded matrix, nearly a through-and-through melt.
The materials scientists on our analysis team concluded that the sherd shown in Figure 4 (which
is the cut edge of #1 shown in Figure 3) was exposed to an extremely high temperature profile
that lasted for a very short duration. This conclusion is based upon the following:
1. The average thickness of the sherd is 5 mm.
2. Only the top 1 mm of the clay (which contains the melted zircons) melted to glass.
3. The next 2 mm of clay are darkened by the thermal exposure.
4. The bottom 2 mm of clay are the natural color.
5. Most important: The whole sherd did not melt into a glob of glass!
It is not possible at this time to quantify the actual temperature to which the sherd was exposed,
but it had to be hot enough to penetrate the sherd’s surface and boil the zircons, yet of a short
enough duration to avoid a complete meltdown. Clearly, this is not a temperature/exposure
profile that was within the capability of MBA people!
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Figure 4 - Thermal Impact on Pottery Sherd
Another very interesting item was found in 2010 near Tall Mweis, about 8.5 km SW of Tall el-
Hammam—a 672 g mass of partially melted and fused grains of quartz and sandstone that is
almost entirely coated with a glass veneer (see Figure 5). SEM analysis of the “melt rock” glass
revealed the inclusion of melted zircons, as was also found in the vitrified pottery sherds. The
vesicles within the melted zircons of the melt rock were much larger than those in the vitrified
pottery sherds, however, and this—combined with the much larger mass of the melt rock—led
the materials scientists to conclude that the material of the melt rock was exposed to a similar
temperature profile but for a longer duration. Although the melt rock was a “surface find”, it
was found in a verified MBA site, and its composition and structure strongly suggest that it was
created during the Event.
Figure 5 - Melt Rock from Tall Mweis
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EVIDENCE ANALYSIS: The physical evidence gathered from Tall el-Hammam and her
neighboring sites for the MBA terminal Event exhibit signs of a highly destructive concussive
and thermal Event with exceedingly high temperatures and very short exposure durations. From
the matching occupation profiles across the Middle Ghor, it is also clear that this was a regional
Event and not an isolated, single-site demise.
The observed temperature/duration profile of the Event is not within MBA anthropogenic
capability. The regional scope of the civilization collapse caused by the Event also exceeds the
capability of every MBA military force, so conquest is not a viable cause.
The “big question” raised above in the historical background must now be modified: What
happened to cause this sudden termination of a thriving civilization and occupational hiatus and
produce the observed physical evidence?
PROPOSED SOURCE: There is only one naturally occurring source of energy that is capable
of producing the concussive force and thermal profile observed in the material evidence from
Tall el-Hammam and its neighbors, namely, a Tunguska-class meteoritic airburst. The June 30,
1908 Tunguska Event blew down over 80 million trees in 2,200 km2 of Siberian forest and laid
the trees out radially from “ground zero” of the airburst. The yield of the blast is estimated at 20
megatons of TNT with a burst altitude of 10 km. A similar but smaller airburst Event occurred
over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on February 15, 2013 (see Figure 6). That airburst had an estimated
yield of 500 kilotons of TNT with a burst altitude of 12 km.
Figure 6 - Chelyabinsk Airburst
The soil contamination by Dead Sea salts as well as the directionality indicators observed at Tall
el-Hammam suggest that the north end of the Dead Sea was ground zero for the 3.7kaBP Event.
The size and altitude of the Tunguska airburst is a reasonable analog for the proposed airburst at
Tall el Hammam. Although it is impossible at this time to estimate impactor size, density,
trajectory, burst altitude and yield, the size of their damage footprints and magnitude of the
resultant destructions are comparable. It should also be noted that all of the damage from the
8
3.7kaBP Event was apparently contained by the surrounding walls of the Middle Ghor.
Archaeological evidence gathered from the Jordanian Plateau to the east and the Judean
Highlands to the west shows no interruption of occupation associated with the Event.
Typical markers (“proxies”) of an airburst Event include:
High levels of elemental platinum, typically 600% above normal background levels.
A high platinum-palladium ratio with traces of iridium and osmium.
(These noble elements occur in some meteorites (asteroids) with nickel but are much
rarer in terrestrial primary crust rocks.)
A high incidence of scoria-like objects (SLOs), frequently in pelletized, spherule forms
(see Figure 8) or agglomerations of melted materials (see Figure 6, above).
A high incidence of magnetic spherules.
(Both of the above are produced from the impactor as well as the target.)
Figure 2 – Iron-enriched Magnetic Spherule found at Tall el-Hammam
Preliminary analyses of materials from and around Tall el-Hammam have revealed some of these
proxies, but not at compelling levels. Tall el-Hammam is still an active excavation project, and
the research is ongoing with the hope that clarification of the Event cause will be achieved.
9
CONCLUSION: Our team originally discovered a directionality in the pattern of destruction at
Tall el-Hammam which motivated a sensitivity to the material evidence that we were finding. A
few serendipitous discoveries of what turned out to be partially melted pottery sherds and local
rocks caused us to collect and send off samples for analysis. These samples turned out to be
consistent with an impact origin and not with Middle Bronze Age anthropogenic activity.
Subsequent analysis continues to support a high-temperature Event best attributed to a meteoritic
airburst similar to Tunguska based upon the proxies uncovered to date. Research continues with
the objective of finding evidence to more convincingly confirm the impact narrative. This is a
work in progress.
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The about 6-km diameter, near-circular Waqf as Suwwan structure located at E36°48′/N31°03′ in eastern Jordan was only recently recognized as a somewhat eroded, complex impact structure. Surface geological mapping, geophysical interpretation, remote sensing, and petrographic and mineralogical analyses have been carried out to understand the structure. In particular, the complex geology of the remnant of the central uplift has been scrutinized. A recent drilling project afforded an opportunity to expand the investigation of the structure to previously inaccessible strata of the ring syncline in the environs of the central uplift. Three boreholes were drilled, two to 140 and 110 m depth to the north and outside of the central uplift, and a further short hole to 5 m depth into the innermost part of the central uplift. Preliminary assessment of these cores has revealed the presence of around 11 m of fluvial breccias (wadi deposit) that are dominated by chert fragments at the top of the syncline fill. This is underlain by a normal succession of late Maastrichtian to Campanian strata. A variety of microstructures such as fracturing with vertical, as well as inclined at 45° and 30° fractures occurs throughout the cores. Some joints have slickensides along their walls. Limestone and marly limestone constitute the most abundant rocks in the boreholes. Distinct shock deformation effects are entirely lacking in the cores from the syncline. These observations are interpreted as a result of substantial erosion of the impact structure down to a level within the crater floor. The microstructures and the preliminary results of the analyses of sediment ages, textures, and compositions (nanofossils and sediment mineralogy) show that sediments as old as Campanian and as young as late Maastrichtian were affected by the impact. Unfortunately, the drilling did not expose any lithologies such as impact melt breccias that could lend themselves to absolute chronological analysis for a better constraint of the impact age.
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One explanation of the abrupt cooling episode known as the Younger Dryas (YD) is a cosmic impact or airburst at the YD boundary (YDB) that triggered cooling and resulted in other calamities, including the disappearance of the Clovis culture and the extinction of many large mammal species. We tested the YDB impact hypothesis by analyzing ice samples from the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 (GISP2) ice core across the Bølling-Allerød/YD boundary for major and trace elements. We found a large Pt anomaly at the YDB, not accompanied by a prominent Ir anomaly, with the Pt/Ir ratios at the Pt peak exceeding those in known terrestrial and extraterrestrial materials. Whereas the highly fractionated Pt/Ir ratio rules out mantle or chondritic sources of the Pt anomaly, it does not allow positive identification of the source. Circumstantial evidence such as very high, superchondritic Pt/Al ratios associated with the Pt anomaly and its timing, different from other major events recorded on the GISP2 ice core such as well-understood sulfate spikes caused by volcanic activity and the ammonium and nitrate spike due to the biomass destruction, hints for an extraterrestrial source of Pt. Such a source could have been a highly differentiated object like an Ir-poor iron meteorite that is unlikely to result in an airburst or trigger wide wildfires proposed by the YDB impact hypothesis.
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Dirt, soil, call it what you want-it's everywhere we go. It is the root of our existence, supporting our feet, our farms, our cities. This fascinating yet disquieting book finds, however, that we are running out of dirt, and it's no laughing matter. An engaging natural and cultural history of soil that sweeps from ancient civilizations to modern times, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations explores the compelling idea that we are-and have long been-using up Earth's soil. Once bare of protective vegetation and exposed to wind and rain, cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations. A rich mix of history, archaeology and geology, Dirt traces the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. We see how soil has shaped us and we have shaped soil-as society after society has risen, prospered, and plowed through a natural endowment of fertile dirt. David R. Montgomery sees in the recent rise of organic and no-till farming the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the fate of previous civilizations. © 2007, 2008, 2001, The Regents of the University of California.
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The Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project (TeHEP) is a joint scientific project between Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA and the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The goal of TeHEP is to study the relationship of this immense and strategically-located site within its ancient period socio-cultural, economic and political contexts, and to ascertain its position, function and influence within those contexts. In addition to this broader focus incorporating historical and archaeological data from neighboring sites in the southern Jordan Valley and beyond, the Project is studying the site as a microcosm of life and activity within its own local environment, seeking to determine its phases of settlement, urbanization and the reasons for its decline, destruction and/or abandonment at archaeological period interfaces. Within this micro-context the Project seeks to shed light on how the inhabitants of Tall el-Hammam adapted to the local environment and environmental changes, and utilized available resources, enabling them to attain levels of city planning and building on a resultantly large scale, particularly during the Bronze Age. The present report seeks to provide a general overview and introduction to the geographical, chronological, and archaeological data distilled from six seasons of exploration and excavation at this remarkable site, and to foster interest in Tall el-Hammam as a significant source of present and future information regarding the history of the southern Jordan Valley and, indeed, of the southern Levant.
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