Since excavations began at Tall el-Hammam in 2005, Steven Collins has been advocating the site’s identification as biblical Sodom. He believes that the biblical data indicates that Sodom should be found on the northeastern side of the Dead Sea and now he has been searching for archaeological confirmation in his six years of work at the site.

Last week we noted a report that the team was preparing to announce that Tall el-Hammam was destroyed in a “heat event.” An interview posted at ASSIST News Service sheds more light on that cryptic notice (HT: Mondo Gonzales). Collins makes some interesting statements about the Middle Bronze destruction of the city:

To put it simply, we have uncovered evidence of a massive, violent destruction.

To begin with, ash and destruction layers in the terminal Bronze Age strata MB-2. But the real big news is that we found skeletal remains that demonstrate a quick, violent death.”

They [two osteologists] found the bodies splayed out, face down, joints twisted, toes hyper-extended, with many signs of violent burial within collapsing debris. In short, the bodies were extremely traumatized in their death.

But generally speaking, skeletal remains were found throughout the area, following the same patterns. One skeleton seems to be crouching, as if in fear, protecting itself from the destruction.

It may be too early to say, but initial evidence points towards a large-scale destruction from a catastrophic event. I say this because, in that area, the skeletal remains were traumatized by an east-to-west directional event, demonstrating that the catastrophe came from a particular compass point.

Collins’ discoveries sound intriguing, but I still contend that every bit of evidence he uncovers for a destruction towards the end of the Middle Bronze Age (circa 1600-1500 BC) makes it all the more unlikely that he is excavating Sodom. The chronology simply will not work, unless you imagine that Abraham died when he was about 30, his son Isaac died when he was about 30, his grandson Jacob died when he was about 30, Joseph died when he was about 30, the Israelite sojourn in Egypt lasted about 40 years, and the wilderness wanderings lasted about 40 years. In short you have to massively compress all of the numbers in the biblical narrative to make everything “fit.” (By “compress” I mean to deny and invent your own to suit your theory.)

Collins cites several authority figures in the interview and so perhaps a word about authority is appropriate here. I’ve noticed over the years of reading updates written personally by Collins or sent by his organization that he is very careful to refer to himself as “Dr. Collins.” Since his title is clearly important to him, I took a look at his university profile and learned that his PhD is from Trinity
College of the Bible and Theological Seminary, an online distance education program for “self-directed adult learners.” (This is not the same school where Collins is now the Dean and “Distinguished Professor of Archaeology,” also a distance educational program without accreditation.) Collins appears to be a professor of archaeology who has never earned a degree from a school with an archaeology program.

It is to be expected that Collins would want to bolster the credibility of his work with scholars who have degrees in archaeology and he mentions two in this recent interview. Robert Mullins, an expert in Bronze Age pottery, is said to confirm Collins’ conclusions that “our findings are correct.” I suspect that Mullins has found some of Collins’ dating of material to the Middle Bronze Age to be accurate, but I doubt that he is endorsing the sensational claims concerning Sodom.

Collins also claims that Leen Ritmeyer was once skeptical but now believes that Tall el-Hammam is “the best candidate for Sodom.” This would be surprising to me, and it would be the first person whom I trust to come close to endorsing this identification.

I agree with Collins on one matter: Tall el-Hammam is a very important site and a careful excavation will be a great service to the world. My concern is that believers of the Bible who are less knowledgeable about biblical chronology and archaeology will be convinced by Collins’ exuberance and not realize that most evangelical scholars find his claims incompatible with Scripture.

For more detail about the chronological problems involved with identifying Tall el-Hammam with Sodom, see this post.