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University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher helps uncover cause of ancient city’s destruction

Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 4:16 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - A University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) researcher helped unravel the cause of the destruction of an ancient city.

According to Gunther Kletetschka, Associate Professor with the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, an archeological research group was originally working in the city when they made an unusual discovery.

“There’s a lot of archeological research in the Middle East, and this was a city, Tall el-Hammam‘” Kletetschka explained. “The research started in 2005, and the entities that were involved were looking at it and they thought, ‘Oh, this is probably a case of war, or an earthquake case.’ But then they found something that did not really go well with the picture. They were finding some pieces of pottery, where the pottery was molten.”

The discovery of the molten pottery indicated that something very hot and sudden occurred near the city.

“Some of it was even looking like there was a bubble in it, like it was boiling,” Kletetschka elaborated. “So that was weird, because a piece of pottery doesn’t really boil by itself. Then there were all these mud bricks, the most common building material back then, and the mud bricks were showing the same thing, like a little portion of it was molten and the rest of it was still intact. So what’s weird was this very large temperature gradient, like when you heat something from one side.”

Kletetschka presented evidence that a cosmic airburst with energy around 5,000 times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima is what caused the destruction of the city of Tall el-Hammam about 3,600 years ago.

“Once you have a temperature so hot, then the radiation is the most efficient way you transport the heat,” Kletetschka said. “Look at the sun, right? The sun is a very nice example to show how to transport heat by radiation. Imagine that you have this object that’s going out of somewhere, and then its coming at, let’s say, 40 kilometers a second - so a really high speed. But now it’s coming into the Earth’s atmosphere, and the atmosphere creates a friction against this object. So what’s happening is this object which was like a sphere, now flattens because of this pressure, and then the material of this object, it cannot hold it anymore because it’s being deformed, so it actually fractures into two or three fragments.”

The explosion also pulled in salt from the Dead Sea due to it’s mushroom cloud effect which left the area unusable for farming for 300 to 600 years according to Kletetschka.

“So suddenly, whatever you started with, the ball, now you have five fragments and therefore there is even larger friction,” Kletetschka continued. “Then again, all these pieces fragment more and more, and suddenly you have a big explosion, and the reason is that all this kinetic energy... you dump all this energy and you can get a temperature like 6,000° Celsius, like on the surface of the sun because it expands really fast and goes upwards. So it would kind of remind you of a nuclear explosion because it will make this mushroom cloud that will go up.”

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