Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Speaking of the Catastrophists...

Fox News is running an article about a pair of researchers out of the University of Bristol and their interpretation of a nearly 3,000 year-old cuneiform tablet. Astronautics lecturer Mark Hempsell and a fellow named Alan Bond whose area of expertise is less clear (though he does work at a high level in a company called Reactions Engines Ltd., so I assume he has some sort of physical sciences training) believe that the tablet, called the Planisphere, may be from the night diary of an astronomer from 3123 BC that records the approach of an oncoming asteroid. This is not the reading of, as far as I know, any of the others that have worked with the tablet, but now that interpretation will get its day, I suppose.

Most interestingly, they believe that the asteroid may be responsible from one of history's largest landslides - the gigantic slide, or series of slides, that took place at Köfels in the Austrian Alps. The idea that the Köfels event was caused by an asteroid was popular for a while some decades ago, though today the primarily interpretation is that it was caused by earthly geological forces (though not everyone is in agreement on this point). Most notably, there's no impact crater, though Hempsell claims that the trajectory indicated by the Planisphere would account for that by flinging the asteroid into the atmosphere at a very shallow angle, allowing it to be broken up along the way by striking other terrain features.

Fascinating if true.

The weird thing is that the Köfels slide is dated at approx. 8,700 years ago, not around 5,200 years ago as Hempsell posits. (The 3123 B.C. date comes from using a computer to compare the Planisphere with various projections of what the night sky looked like in the past. The best match was June 29, 3123 B.C.) I'm curious to see what actual geologists and astronomers make of this - the Köfels site is one of the best studied landslide events in the world, so I'm sure they'll be no paucity of opinion. I also note that Hempsell and Bond are publishing their research not as a refereed journal article, but as a popular book.

Anyway, I don't know how this will turn out, but we get to see some science at work here. A couple of fellows have a made a claim that is somewhat at odds with the current interpretation and, as other analyze and try to replicate their work, we'll see if it holds up to the test of scrutiny or if it falls by the wayside.

One thing that is absolutely wild to me, however, is that the Fox headline is "Research Shows Asteroid Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah". (Note that the British coverage omits such hyperbole.) Hempsell does mention Sodom and Gomorrah, but he does so as an example of myths that may be attributable to ancient observations of asteroid impacts. He also mentions the Greek myth of Phaeton, son of the Sun God Helios, crashing the "sun chariot" into the earth. Hell, using that standard, the headline could just as easily have said "Research Shows Ancient Greek Sun God Caused Alps Landslide". To be fair, I've not read the book, so maybe Hempsell is all over Sodom and Gomorrah like salmonella on old chicken, but thus far I'm not quite compelled to lump him in with Velikovksy just yet. To all appearances, Fox News is ignoring the actual point of this work - a new attempt to explain the Köfels event - in favor of concocting an attention-generating healdine that means squat when it comes to the actual story.

It should be noted that Sodom and Gomorrah were almost certainly mythical cities and never actually existed. In attention to the abject lack of real archaeological evidence, "Sodom" even comes from a root word that means "scorched" - hardly the name that you'd give to a city before it was immolated.


JAK said...

A similar situation is the City of Ai. The name means "ruin" or "pile of ruins".

The archaeological evidence at the site of et-Tell, which is identified as the site of the Biblical Ai in Joshua, points to a city that had been abandoned for at least a thousand years prior to when the Biblical conquest was supposed to have occurred.

Stories like this have all the hallmarks of etiological tales - stories to explain how places (or people, or things) were named or came to be. They don't ring true as actual history, and indeed the archaeological record strongly suggests they are not.

Garret said...

Hi Skippy...
"It should be noted that Sodom and Gomorrah were almost certainly mythical cities and never actually existed. In attention to the abject lack of real archaeological evidence, "Sodom" even comes from a root word that means "scorched" - hardly the name that you'd give to a city before it was immolated."

A couple of points here-

A. Archaeology is continuing, it hasn't ceased to exist- new discoveries could very easily disprove the notion of mythology in regards to Sodom and Gemorrah.

B. The area that Sodom was estimated to be is volcanic- the area is known for brimstone, and sulphur, making a name such as "scorched" VERY appropriate.

You have spoken the truth there in PART regarding Ai- having left out the established fact that next to the ruins was an iron age town. Old Ai, the pile of ruins, was HUGE- over 27 acres, much bigger than Jericho- but the newer Ai, appears to be just a fraction of that. The bible claims the rounded number of 12,000 total people- but refer to the account Joshua chap 8- the account lists the town of Bethel having participated in the battle as well (verse 17)- the battle's body count may have included the dead of Bethel as well.

So,in sum, visualize the account as archaeology currently reveals it, and we discover a long hidden irony- Ai, a huge pile of ruins, had a town that was thriving, and Joshua came along and turned IT to into a pile of ruins too. Then he killed the king of Ai and did what- piled rocks on top of him (verse 29)- who said Joshua didn't have a sense of humor?

JAK said...

Garret, the problem with your solution to the Ai problem is that the Iron I village shows no signs of any sort of conquest. It just sort of appears at the older site, indicating a peaceful settlement, and doesn't really fit the chronology that you need.

Your Bethel idea is a little better, but not much. You've still got to deal with the fact that Ai was an uninhabited pile of rubble at the time of the supposd conquest.

You also have the problem that there is absolutely no mention in the Egyptian record of an Exodus (and the excuse that the Egyptians wouldn't keep records of embarrassing events doesn't get you off the hook), and that there is no evidence whatsoever of a nearly 40 year encampment at Kadesh-Barnea by about 2.5 million people.

Moreover, you've got to deal with the fact that the archaeological evidence doesn't support any grand conquest of the Canaanite region, and very strongly supports the emergence of the Hebrews from the indigenous Canaanite population.

Archaeology isn't your friend here. When you make the statement that new discoveries might disprove thing, you ignore the fact that if we know where to look and what to look for (and in many cases we do), and we don't find it, that's a very significant negative.