Tall el-Hammam was a Bronze-Age city in current Jordan that is a site of archaeological interest. It is believed by some to be the biblical city of Sodom. According to the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah were cities full of sinners, which were destroyed by “sulfur and fire” sent by God.
A paper published last week in Scientific Reports now claims that Tall el-Hammam was destroyed by a “cosmic airburst”, perhaps by the impact of a meteorite or comet. The article provides evidence of melted pottery and plaster, shocked quartz, and diamond-like carbon, all suggesting the city was exposed to a sudden high-temperature event.
The paper got a lot of media attention. However, several images presented in the paper appear to contain repetitive elements, suggestive of cloning.
The paper and its authors
Here is a link to the paper:
Ted E. Bunch et al., A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el‐Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea, Scientific Reports (2021) 11:18632, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-97778-3 [PubPeer]
Twenty-one authors from 19 different institutions or affiliations are listed on the paper, with Allen West as the corresponding author, in second-to-last position.
Allen West, together with coauthors Ted E. Bunch, Malcolm A. LeCompte, James Wittke, Wendy Wolbach, James P. Kennett, Christopher R Moore, and George A. Howard are all co-founders of the Comet Research Group. The mission of the CRG appears to be to show that ancient cities were frequently destroyed by comets, and to do something about comets before “your city is next”.
The last author of the paper is Phillip J Silvia from the College of Archaeology at Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. According to Wikipedia, TSU is an unaccredited evangelical Christian institution of higher education. Its motto is “flexible adult higher education upholding biblical authority”. It offers Masters and PhD degrees in Biblical Archaeology. The university is located in a strip mall in Albuquerque and the Tall el-Hammam archaeological dig is prominently featured on its website.
The paper was first brought to my attention by Mark Boslough, an expert on airbursts and asteroid collisions. Dr. Boslough wrote several Twitter threads on September 20 2021, criticizing the paper’s results and the expertise of the authors. Boslough has been a fierce critic of Allen West et al. (see Rex Dalton’s report about West’s troublesome past here). Boslough’s critique of the Bunch et al. 2021 paper is outside my knowledge scope, but I obviously took a look at the figures.
The Scientific Reports paper has a whopping 53 figures. Some of these show details of the archaeological dig site, while others show macroscopy and microscopy photos of melted pottery, shocked quartz grain, and ‘spherules’.
Several photos of the dig sites appear to contain cloned parts, small areas that appear to be visible multiple times within the same photo.
I first noticed such cloned features in Figure 15b. The top right corner immediately caught my eye, and I noticed several repetitive elements there.
Not long after I posted my findings on PubPeer and Twitter, Elizabeth Alcinoe noted on Twitter that she found some repetitive elements in Figure 3, shown below with blue boxes. I found some more, and marked these with yellow boxes. Note that three of the cloned areas are in the area-of-interest.
I took a close look at the other images in the paper and found more repetitive areas in Figures 4C, 4D, 7C, and 44C.
Rig at the dig?
With the exception of Figure 3, the repetitive areas in other figures are mostly concentrated on somewhat uninteresting parts of the photos, which quickly resulted in the hashtag #PebbleGate.
On Twitter, Mark Boslough and @JakesMath hypothesized that the authors maybe did not have access to the original photos, but might have used photos previously published on blogs or in books about the Tall el‐Hammam dig, photos that perhaps contained labels or other elements that the authors may have wished to remove.
Interestingly, the Scientific Reports paper presents the images as novel, and does not clarify who originated them, and whether they could have been published before.
Other concerns were raised as well, such as social media posts suggesting that archaeological artifacts and soil samples were taken from the dig site without clarity about permits (see here and here).
In addition, Dr. Steven Collins on Twitter disclosed that he has been a Director and Chief Archaeologist for the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project since 2006. He also stated that Michael Luddini was the official photographer. However neither man is listed as an author on the paper, although their names are included in some of the references.
An author lashes out
Our discussion about the figures and evidence presented in the paper quickly led one of the authors on this blog, George Howard, to lash out at us on Twitter.
Just photoshopping a bit
As I was typing this post, George Howard published a blog post entitled PebbleGate, addressing some of the image concerns and sharing some of the original figures.
In this post, he writes: “You are correct. Our graphic artist made minor, cosmetic corrections to five of 53 images. All of them were distant from any important scientific data and no changes were made to key data, such as bones or potsherds. Four of the original unaltered images are included here. The areas that were changed on each image are discussed below. The other figures were altered for similar reasons. We have already submitted corrected images to Scientific Reports.“
From the images posted there, it becomes clear that Figures 7C, 15B, and 44C were altered to remove labels and arrows present in other versions of these photos. Figures 3 and 4C/4D, however, are not included in the blog post, so as of now it is unclear which elements were altered before they were published in Scientific Reports.
Either way, photographic alteration of parts of photos appears to be in conflict with Nature/Scientific Reports guidelines about image preparation.
On a side note, on his blog post Mr. Howard used a photo of me without giving credit to the source or photographer, Randy Vazquez. He also did not clarify the source or photographer of the photos used in the Scientific Reports paper.
As reported by Retraction Watch, Richard White, the Chief Editor of Scientific Reports, is aware of the concerns raised here and on PubPeer.
So for now, we will have to wait and see if the journal is ok with just a bit of photoshopping for cosmetic reasons — or not.