The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 has captured the imagination of story-tellers and preachers alike. Sermons have been preached and moral lessons taught. From these stories terms such as "sodomy" and "pillar of salt" have passed into the English language. Naturally many have been eager to identify the ruins of this legendary city and prove that it all actually happened.

The setting for the story is the plain of the Dead Sea. The northern third of this lake is now a body of deep water. The southern sector is quite shallow and as ruins that could be identified with the "cities of the plain" did not come to light elsewhere, some scholars speculated that they lay beneath this shallow end. In recent years, however, as water from the Jordan River is taken to irrigate the Negev, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped dramatically, exposing the sea bed. Archaeologists have been able to make a survey and they report that there is no sign of any habitation ever being in this region.

When excavations were conducted at Bab ed-Dhra on the east side of the Dead Sea back in the 1970s, the archaeologists reported a layer of ash about three feet thick. Some enthusiasts siezed on the idea that here was evidence of the fire and brimstone that consumed the wicked cities. However this layer of ash was dated to the end of the Early Bronze Age and that did not fit anyone's chronology. By the traditional dating it would have been before Abraham arrived on the scene and by the revised chronology it would have been well after his time. In any case, the ash seemed to come from the destruction of the city by an invader, not from some supernatural cause.

For the last few years two men, Ron Wyatt (now dead) and Jonathan Gray, have given lectures and circulated videos claiming that they have found substantial remains of the doomed city on the west side of the Dead Sea in the vicinity of Masada. In the video they point to impressive formations which they claim are walls and buildings. They also show lumps of sulphur as "evidence" of the brimstone which consumed Sodom. The idea is appealing and seems very convincing to those who would like to see evidence confirming the Bible narrative.

In the September 1998 edition of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) there is an appraisal of their video "Discovered: Sodom and Gomorrah". The reviewer says, "Ron Wyatt claims to have discovered Noah's Ark, the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah, the 'real' Mount Sinai (the one in Saudi Arabia), chariot wheels from the Red Sea, the Ark of the Covenant - well, you name it ... We respond that we - and the academically trained archaeologists we deal with - give Wyatt little credence. If it sounds too good to be true, we say, it probably is. Wyatt is an amateur archaeologist; he makes his living as an anaesthetist. Wyatt calls himself a 'Biblical archaeologist' but he would be more at home in the 19th century."

In view of the litigious nature of these two men, BAR very wisely did not just express its own views on the matter. It took the precaution of having a qualified geologist go to the Dead Sea and examine the so-called evidence. Elizabeth H. Gierlowski-Kordesch made an analytical report on her conclusions. After remarking that Wyatt has no academic background in archaeology or geology, she concludes that "the geological formations that Wyatt mistakes for ancient cities are simply lake sediments that accumulated when the Dea Sea was larger and deeper than it is today."

In his video, Wyatt crumbles some substance in his hand, claiming that it is ash from the fire and brimstone which fell on Sodom and Gomorrah. Elizabeth points out that these lake sediments have not solidfied into rock yet and this leads Wyatt to confuse them with ash. There is an abundance of these lake sediments in the Dead Sea area.

Wyatt points to some geological formations and suggests that they could be the buildings or walls of ancient Sodom. Elizabeth says that "the normal erosional pattern of the drainage areas dissecting the whitish chalk formation could even resemble streets to someone with a wild imagination."

The Bible record says that "the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah" (Genesis 19:21) The Hebrew word used here and translated brimstone" literally means "suphur". In fact the New International Version uses the word "sulphur". Wyatt delves into the earth and finds some small globules which he says are balls of sulphur.

This, however, is not significant. Elizabeth points out that this type of chemical feature in lake sediemnts can be found in many ancient lakes elsewhere in the world. Actually, sulphur is particularly common around the Dead Sea. There is a chemical factory at the south end of the sea which extracts salt and other minerals from the area and when I first visited there in 1958 I found a huge mound of yellow sulphur ready for treatment and export.

In conclusion Elizabeth asks, "The verdict on this video? Beware of junk science."

All of this does not prove that the Bible story is fiction. It simply supports the view that these ancient cities have not yet been found.

© David K. Down 2002

Natural formations caused by erosion through lake-bed sdeiments.
Natural formations caused by erosion through lake-bed sdeiments.

Just as an aside to the above, I recently received some acrimonious correspondence from someone who had been on a tour organised by these charlatans and who had seen the "ruins" near Masada and been totally convinced by them. To back up his tale he sent me a photograph of himself standing in the "ruins" - and I must admit that provided one has a good enough imagination the formations do vaguely look like ruins, as the picture opposite shows.

After pointing out some of the facts mentioned above and failing to disabuse the gentleman of the ideas he had paid good money to be taught, I suddenly thought of the killer argument: I asked him if he had noticed any pottery embedded in the earth burying these supposed ruins or lying on the ground beneath them. Pottery is not destroyed by fire, even divine fire, for heat merely bakes it harder. I reminded him of the vast numbers of pottery fragments to be found all over ancient sites such as Jericho or Megiddo and invited him to compare genuine ancient sites with what he observed at this spurious one.

I haven't heard from him since.

I find it difficult to be too hard on people who have been taken in by Wyatt, Grey and their imitators. Unless one is acquainted with the facts, it is very easy to reach wrong conclusions. I remember on our first trip through the Middle East in 1958, we came across an extensive area of ruins on the outskirts of Hamadan, in Iran. We didn't know what they were but we knew that there were ruins in the area, so we took photograph after photograph of the broken walls and crumbling buildings. It was only later that we discovered that the "ruins" were the remains of British Army barracks dating back to the first World War!

Do take our course and come on one of our tours. You will be much less easy to deceive after that.

© Kendall K. Down 2010