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Massive Cosmic Airburst Behind the Destruction of An Ancient Jordanian City

Massive Cosmic Airburst Behind the Destruction of An Ancient Jordanian City

Wednesday, 22 September, 2021 - 10:15
Researchers at the Tall el-Hammam site. Credit: University of California - Santa Barbara

Around 113 years ago, on January 30, 1908, a meteorite pierced the earth’s atmosphere over the eastern segment of the Siberian taiga, close to the Tunguska river in Russia around 60 meters above ground, creating a blast 1000 times stronger than the nuclear bomb that hit Hiroshima.


The first scientists to investigate the impact site expected to find a meteorite, but they found nothing.


While it created a 12 megaton blast, which had been thought to be the largest ever seen on earth, researchers at the University of California, in a paper published two days ago in the “Scientific Reporter,” claim a bigger one had occurred in modern day Tall el-Hammam around 3,600 years ago. The city devastated by the blast goes back to the Middle Bronze Age and lies south of the Jordan Valley, to the northeast of the Dead Sea. The researchers came to this conclusion after they found extremely unusual materials in the Bronze Age stratum of the city.


Alongside the debris one would expect to find from destruction via warfare and earthquakes, the researchers found pottery shards with outer surfaces melted into glass, “bubbled” mudbrick, and partially melted building material, all of which are signs of a highly unusual rise in temperature, far higher than any the technology of the time could produce.


James Kennett, Professor Emeritus of Earth Science at the University of California, who led the recent study, had previously uncovered the details of another cosmic airburst that exploded over 12 thousand years ago, triggering massive fires and climate changes, and leaving some species extinct, which helped him imagine what happened in Tall el-Hammam.


“We saw evidence for temperatures greater than 2,000 degrees Celsius,” adding that the charred and melted materials in Tall el-Hammam seemed familiar and that a group of researchers joined them to write a more detailed account of what had happened.


Kennet and his colleagues found additional evidence of an airburst by conducting many different kinds of analyses on soil and sediments from the critical layer. Tiny iron and silica rich spherules turned up in their analysis, as did melted metals. Kennet refers to the fact that: “I think one of the main discoveries is shocked quartz. These are sand grains containing cracks that form only under very high pressure.. that means there were incredible pressures involved to shock the quartz crystals—quartz is one of the hardest minerals; it’s very hard to shock.


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