There are those places in the world where both man and nature are driven to extremes, and are therefore forced to yield up certain truths that otherwise might remain hidden. For as Francis Bacon (that odd hero for my own odd hero Ignatius Donnelly) once said, "you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again." Such a place is the Dead Sea.

In 1972 a man named Tom Leps, knowing of research work I had published on the invisible but calculable flow of groundwater, approached me with the assignment of determining the manner of movement of water beneath the bottom of the south end of the Dead Sea, not far from the town of Sedom. It happened that the government of Israel had contracted with the California firm of Kaiser Engineers (then basking in public gratitude for ship-building in the war) to build some dikes within which they aimed to capture, concentrate, and dry out valuable salts for which that ancient body of water is so famous. I did not know it at the time but the digging of potash in that grim setting is an enterprise into which many past fortunes had sunk without a trace, it having been long said among shrewd investors that "nothing can sink in the Dead Sea but money." It is therefore no surprise that on completion of this latest construction project it was seen that the dikes were entirely ineffective, the water soon leaking beneath them. This fiasco led to a lawsuit at the International Court at The Hague. Leps, who had once worked with the great engineer dam Karl Terzaghi, was retained as an expert on the case.

It was not of course the first time that outlandish things have happened in this land of salt, wet heat, and earthquake faults; for here we have the closest place to hell, land of extremes of both nature and human behavior, of mad saints and zealous outcasts. Lot had settled there, when the land was said to be lush and fertile. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was already an old story when it had been written into the Bible three thousand years ago. The chronicler Josephus claimed to have seen with his own eyes there the seared and salted remains of Mrs. Lot in the first century; seventeen hundred years later Josephus' translator William Whiston impatiently waited the day when the quarrels of local desert princes would subside so that properly scientific studies of these biblical events could be undertaken. Captured by the Arabs in the 1948 war, the remote town had been retaken only to become a disreputable center of drugs and prostitution when the salt works were reopened. The place had long yielded fertile crops of stories; the mystery play History of Lot and Abraham had thrilled the medievals and only a few months ago a colleague of mine, Amos Nur, had announced that the famous biblical fire and brimstone had been produced by an earthquake in that same place in 1900 BC. So we have in this strange land a continuing entanglement of geophysics and morals.

My consulting assignment was successfully completed when the results of this early effort at groundwater modelling -- I used an electrical analogue of the D'Arcy equations which I had developed as a graduate student at London -- showed that the failure of the Dead Sea dikes was an inevitable design defect (the feasibility of building water tight dikes on soluble material such as salt has to be relearned every few years, as we have subsequently seen in various more recent failures of dams built on salt beds). The failure had arisen in layers of cracked and soluble salt that had accumulated sporadically on the floor of the sea over the millennia. I was thirty three years old that year, and the success of this project would next lead me to to a profitable and interesting professional life.

Perhaps more interesting for present purposes than these engineering matters was the odd character of the sea bottom which was composed of salt and marly silt layers that could be "read" as a chronology of past climates, of the wet and dry spells that had come and gone with the rest of the desert wanderers over thousands of years. It occurred to me that there may been something to the biblical story description of the place as a land of fertility and delight when Lot had first arrived there (Genesis 13) Such an abrupt local climatic shift was not entirely implausible, given perhaps a radical northward migration of the Saharan monsoon system. Some time in the late seventies I read of the discovery of bits and pieces of vegetable matter discovered in caves along with the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. These twigs would have their own story that would be revealed with the advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s.

But it would be twenty years before I discovered the facts and circumstances are as follows.

Not far from the southern end of the Dead Sea is an odd formation of flat-topped salt bluffs -- a diaper in geological terms -- several miles in extent and a thousand or so feet high. The formation is known as Mount Sedom, after the ancient place. Prominently exhibited on a rise above the stinking sea is the a salt spire said to be Lot's wife. The area, being most inhospitable, is not often visited; according to the Lonely Planet and Let's Go travel guides the 115 degree walk from the bus stop past the "Mrs. Lot" salt pillar, back up into the hills some several kilometers to the great Malham Cave, is enough to make even the resilient readers of those publications feel as dead as the sea that glitters with dull malevolence in the haze below.

It happens that the caves at the 300 foot level are not only the widest of many that perforate the salt hills but also contain, preserved over the millennia, twigs and leaves of Quercus Calliprinus. These can hardly be assumed to be of local origin considering that the area is salt, not soil, within a searing desert with an annual rainfall of less than two inches, hardly enough to moisten the parched ground much less support oaks. Now it is geologically certain that it was an ancient pluvial age that created caves in the salt; in fact past climate can be inferred by carefully measuring the width of caves formed by salt dissolution. The cavewidths can in turn be compared with correlative glacial advances in northern Europe (bigger caves = more rain = more glaciers) and the cave elevations with ancient sea levels of the Dead Sea itself. The horizon of wide caves found some 300 feet above the present sea level necessarily indicates an extremely wet period in the early Bronze Age, or about 4200 to 5200 radiocarbon years before present. Oak twigs, driftwood, and marl found in the caves must have been transported by floodwater from some other part of the Judiah Hills. when the water level was some 300 feet higher than present, implying heavy flooding on the Jordan River and coupled probably with lower evaporation rates due to cooler weather. These strands of evidence have been carefully pieced together by Israeli scientists, whose conclusions are indicated graphically in terms of level of the Dead Sea in the figure.

Prominently shown is the fact that the land in the great rift valley was wet and the Dead Sea level high up until about 7000 years ago. This conclusion is in agreement with other paleoclimatic information, it being well established that North Africa was lushly tropical in the early Holocene period. Around 7000 years ago the land became drier, much as it is today.

Of greatest relevance here is the is the great hump in the curve that came later, centering on 3000 BC; no other event following the great drying 7000 years ago quite matches this spectacular 300 foot rise in sea level. When exactly did this occur? Radiocarbon dating of both the oaks twigs and the marl show a peak at 4350 radiocarbon years before the present. Clearly there had been a time of great flood in North Africa just before 3000 BC.

The evidence suggests a great flood, corresponding no doubt to a radical arrangement of pastoral or civil life, followed by destruction, dessication, and salting of the earth.

On these events it appears that the bible and the oaks speak in one voice.


[1] Frumkin, Amos (University of Jerusalem, Israel Cave Research Center, Jerusalem) Holocene climatic record of the salt caves of Mt. Sodom, Israel, 1991 The Holocene; vol 1, no. 3, p 191-200.

The many stories of this land including the rediscovery of Masada and of the Dead Sea scrolls are skillfully recounted in Barbara Kreiger's fine historio-travelogue, Living Waters, Myth, History, and Politics of the Dead Sea.

For a nice site on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see >>Dead Sea Scrolls

[2] See Late Quaternary Chronology and Paleoclimates of the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Ofer Bae- Yosef and Renee S. Kra, published by RADIOCARBON, Univ Arizona, 1994. For grass pollen and oak indicators of Holocene summer rains in the Arabo-Persian Gulf, see El-Moslimany; for early bronze age wet periods, notable the spectacular rise in the Dea Sea at 4500 c14 years bp, see Frumkin and Bruins.

Copyright 1996 Kirribili Press. Return to Scientific Summary Chronological Index Ignatius Donnelly and the End of the World