• Name: Paul McLerran
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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Dig Spotlight: Excavating Sodom

If you are familiar with the classic stories of the Bible, you will remember the Old Testament story that comes to mind about Lot and the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Their actual locations on the archaeological landscape have long been the subject of scholarly debate. One prominent scholar, Dr. Steven Collins of Trinity Southwest University, now suggests that the largely unexcavated Bronze Age site of Tall el-Hammam in Jordan just north of the Dead Sea is indeed the remains of the ancient city of Sodom. As Director of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project, he is now leading a team of scholars, students and volunteers in a long term investigation to confirm that hypothesis and bring to light its architectural and artifact remains. You can read more about this fascinating project at the website. Excavations will continue from December 23, 2006 through February 7, 2007. If you are interested in participating, contact Dyan Bowman at Trinity Southwest University, 505-332-4253 ext 1325 for details.


At 1:35 PM, Blogger Dr. Steven Collins said...

It’s terribly sad that so many bloggers have no real understanding of archaeology as a scientific process, and therefore completely miss the importance of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project in terms of its stated purpose: To shed light on the cultural history of the southern Jordan Valley in all represented periods. How can so many miss the fact that this is a cooperative project between our American team and the Jordan Department of Antiquities, in which professional archaeologists from the USA and Jordan work side by side in one of the largest archaeological endeavors presently working in the Near East? This is a well-conceived excavation with meticulous scientific standards. (Some media reports try to be sensational and focus only on the “Sodom” controversy, which stories are usually quite inept and bereft of facts.) For anyone to get side-tracked, even put off!, by my theory that the site is biblical Sodom is to miss the historical importance of our work. My arguments for the location of Sodom are textually solid and geographically sound, and now, archaeologically, quite probably correct. However, that the EB and MB cities at our site may be biblical Sodom should not detract from the excellent scientific work of our professional staff and intrepid volunteers. The directors of other digs in our area are actually quite interested in our site, even its biblical possibilities. It seems that my detractors are only those who know nothing about TeHEP, and who are unwilling to engage me in scholarly interaction and debate in an open forum, which we readily provide. (Many world-class scholars already agree with my theory on Sodom’s location, which theory, by the way, was the dominant one from the 4th century CE until some fallacious reasoning on the subject arose in the Albrightian era). Below is a mini-report on our 2007 season for those who are really interested in the truth.
To Interested Thinkers:
I've just returned from seven weeks in the southern Jordan Valley directing the Tall el-Hammam (Sodom) Excavation Project. I think it would be an understatement to say that TeHEP Season Two was a success.
With well over 100 participants, plus local workers, representing at least four continents and including countries like the USA, Jordan, Canada, England, Australia, Russia and Ukraine, TeHEP '06/'07 was one of the largest digs in Jordan in recent history (at least that's what we were told by our Jordanian colleagues). I deeply appreciated the support and encouragement of the Jordan Department of Antiquities, four of whom served on my dig staff.
When you add in the local workers we hired for just over three weeks of the season, we looked quite like a busy bunch of ants scurrying over the top of massive Tall el-Hammam, which spreads over a square kilometer at the eastern edge of the Jordan Disk.
Of course, for quite a while now I have put forth the idea that Tall el-Hammam is likely the site of biblical Sodom. That it is in the right place, according to the biblical geography, is impossible to question on the basis of even a cursory textual analysis of Gen 13:1-12. But what about the factors of "right time" and "right stuff" necessary to reasonably nail down such an identification? Well, after TeHEP Season One about a year ago, we stated that the archaeology of the site was leaning quite suggestively in the direction of a pretty straightforward biblical chronology for Sodom.
That chronology goes something like this: founded (at least) during the Early Bronze Age (Gen 10); occupied into the Middle Bronze Age, and destroyed during the MBA (Gen 13-19); not re-occupied for at least several centuries [Moses calls the same area "the valley…where Pisgah overlooks the wasteland" (Num 21:20) during the Late Bronze Age]; perhaps re-occupied much later (after the area recovered from the ecological disaster that had put an end to the Bronze Age civilization of the eastern Jordan Disk during the MBA).
Now, after the completion of TeHEP Season Two, this occupational profile has been established quite firmly.
While Iron Age II is well-represented by at least four, and possibly five, strata, the Late Bronze Age continues to be systematically absent. Still largely theoretical at the end of last season (but many pottery sherds), the presence of a fortified MBA city is now dramatically confirmed in multiple ways, not the least of which is the discovery of a massive MB rampart/fortification system that dwarfs the 3m-thick IA city wall built over it for much of its extent.
Last season we had only gotten a look at the top of this structure, and I speculated then that it looked remarkably like typical MB mudbrick/earthen rampart construction. Then it was just an educated hunch. Now it's an archaeological fact. We were able to uncover it to a height of about six meters, which effectively exposed eight to nine meters of its sloping outer face. I estimate that to be perhaps half it's actual height (the rest awaits us next season). But what is showing is pretty impressive, especially when you take a moment to extrapolate how it rings the footprint of the entire upper tall (about 400m east-to-west). The inner/internal construction seems to be a stepped structure of tightly laid mudbrick, faced on the outer slope by a meter or more of compacted earth/clay.
The footprint of the Iron Age city is smaller than that of the MB city. At a cool square kilometer, the EB city's footprint is the largest at the site. This demonstrates how erroneous information about Tall el-Hammam is in almost every source available. That's understandable, since we're the first ones to excavate it, while everybody else was simply guessing. (K. Prag did some probing only on the lower tall about ten years ago while excavating at Tell Iktanu to the south.)
Factually, Tall el-Hammam was THE dominant city in the southern Jordan Valley during the Bronze Age (but unoccupied during the LBA and probably most or all of Iron I) and Iron Age II A, B and C. Isn't it interesting that Sodom is the only major Bronze Age urban center mentioned in the Bible located on the eastern Jordan Disk, and that Tall el-Hammam is, in fact, the only major Bronze Age urban center on the eastern Jordan Disk? (There are at least five others within eight kilometers, but all a fraction of the size of TeH.) We must face the facts. There is no coincidence here.
From the macro (the massive MB rampart) in Field D to the micro (the classic MB piriform juglet) in Field B, we now know that Tall el-Hammam was a thriving center of civilization during the Middle Bronze Age when it seems to have met a fiery end. This event is attested by a meter of ash and destruction debris in Field B where the MB juglet, along with MB storage jars, were unearthed just a few weeks ago. The site then lay abandoned during the LBA, and probably most or all of Iron Age I, until a flurry of building activities in several phases turned the site into a significant city during IA II A, B and C.
At this point, I am willing to say that if Tall el-Hammam's identification as biblical Sodom is still denied after an examination of the growing body of evidence to that effect, then the identification of every single biblical site not confirmed by specific epigraphic evidence must me called into question.
That's it on a thumbnail. So now we have about 700 diagnostic sherds and many whole vessels to "read," and lots of organic analysis and C14 dating to do over the next several months as we assemble our first Preliminary Report later this year.
I’m also scheduled to present papers on the subject at several conferences this year, including ASOR and NEAS in the fall. And with Tall el-Hammam continuing to cover all the criterial bases relative to Sodom, I’ll continue to argue in that vein until the doubters get hold of their senses.
By the way, I got a chance to present my case “live and on site” to quite a few visiting archaeological dignitaries during the season. In those instances, Tall el-Hammam itself did most of the “talking,” almost defying anyone to deny her preeminence as the dominant Bronze Age city in the region (as Sodom was the dominant Bronze Age city on the eastern Jordan Disk in Genesis). After an on-site tour of Tall el-Hammam, with Gen 13:1-12 firmly in mind, the general response, minimally, was always something like, “Well, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it.” To which I usually responded, “Welcome to Sodom!”
Steven Collins, Director, The Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project, Jordan; Dean of the College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, New Mexico USA


At 3:38 PM, Blogger Dan McLerran said...

While Dr. Collins may possibly be correct in his assertion that "so many bloggers have no real understanding of archaeology as a scientific process", implying of course that this writer has no understanding of this process, please allow me to respond by stating that the purpose of this blog is not to address a scholarly audience with a scholarly statement. It's appeal is to a much broader readership. It's purpose is primarily to make others who may have an interest in participation in archaeological excavations aware of the opportunities. If it means appealing at first to the popular sense, then so be it. Moreover, as far as this particular article is concerned, it was not written to leave any impression that this project is NOT "a well-conceived excavation with meticulous scientific standards". With all due respect for Dr. Collins as a scholar and all players in the cooperative project, I am sorry to see this rush to judgment regarding bloggers, and by implication, me personally. If he knew me at all, and if he knew the purpose of this blog, I would hope that he would not have made such a statement.

These comments aside, I am very interested in posting Dr. Collins words following his line, "To Interested Thinkers", in a future post, with any amendments/updates he would like to make.......with his permission, of course. I do see him as making an important contribution to scholarship on the "cultural history of the southern Jordan Valley in all represented periods".


At 9:24 AM, Blogger ziddina said...

I am not nearly as familiar with archaeological methods as you, sir; but one thing bothers me about the Tall el-Hammam site.... What evidence for a Vesuvian-style eruption has been found at - or near - this site? Has any evidence been found that this city was buried by a pyroclastic flow or lahar? The biblical account is a CLEAR description of such an eruption - which, just as the Israelites were unable to discern the mountain that "shook and roared" in Exodus 19: 16-19 as an erupting volcano [yes, I know, mythology; but probably inspired by an actual eruption, given the active volcanic fields in Israel's Golan Heights and Jordan}, they were likewise unable to recognize the cause of the destruction of "Sodom and Gomorrah" as a volcanic eruption. Are there any potential sites beneath volcanic deposits that would also fit the general area 'described' by the biblical account?


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