Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Sodom and Gomorrah Update Volume 49 Number 4, July/August 1996
by Andrew L. Slayman

Two geologists think they know how the infamous biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Graham Harris and Tony Beardow argue in the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology that the land near the Dead Sea on which the cities may have stood literally liquefied in an earthquake, swallowing them up ca. 1900 B.C. A similar event, in which loosely packed, waterlogged soils liquefy under seismic force, destroyed an area of nearly 30,000 square miles in China in 1920. Harris and Beardow admit that the "analysis of a past earthquake event, especially one for which there is a lack of data, or even credible eyewitness accounts, is difficult," particularly "when the event is speculative and occurred in the dawn of history." But they suggest that a tidal wave caused by the earthquake might have stranded a large block of salt on shore, inspiring the tale that Lot's wife, ignoring God's command not to look back at the burning cities, was turned into a pillar of salt. Few scholars are likely to believe this hypothesis. "This is Noah's Ark stuff," says ARCHAEOLOGY Contributing Editor Neil Asher Silberman. "The real challenge for biblical archaeologists today is not to search for long-lost cities, but to understand why the ancient Israelites formulated these powerful myths."

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America