Blast in the Past: Image concerns in paper about comet that might have destroyed Tall el-Hammam

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”.

Screenshot taken from the Comet Research Group website at https://cometresearchgroup.org/

The Comet Research Group is linked to the Rising Light Group, a 501(c)3, tax-exempt charitable organization with a clear Christian and biblical agenda, registered in Allen West’s name.

Source: https://www.bizapedia.com/az/comet-research-group.html

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.

Image concerns

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.

Figure 15B. Boxes of the same color highlight areas that look unexpectedly similar. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3/figures/15

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.

Figure 3. Boxes of the same color highlight areas that look unexpectedly similar. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3/figures/3

I took a close look at the other images in the paper and found more repetitive areas in Figures 4C, 4D, 7C, and 44C.

Figure 4C and 4D. Boxes of the same color highlight areas that look unexpectedly similar. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3/figures/4
Figure 7C. Boxes of the same color highlight areas that look unexpectedly similar. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3/figures/7
Figure 44C. Boxes of the same color highlight areas that look unexpectedly similar. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3/figures/44

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.

17 thoughts on “Blast in the Past: Image concerns in paper about comet that might have destroyed Tall el-Hammam”

  1. photos that perhaps contained labels or other elements that the authors might wanted to remove.

    That was my impression for Fig 44C, at least. “Cortinarius Olivaceoluteus” posted a more complete image found on a blogpost:

    The differences between the two images are confined to a rectangle in the lower right, consistent with the possibility that the Sci.Rep. didn’t have access to the photograph shown in the blogpost, but did have a version with an overprinted label, so they had to fill in that area with copypaste.

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  2. I totally missed these Twitter attacks on you by one of the scholars behind this scientifically-theological masterpiece. So much for Scientific Reports and Nature Publishing Group to be proud of. On top of a “peer-reviewed” paper which proves Bible right and claims God would drop comets on sinful cities while warning humanity to change it ways or else. But hey, the authors paid good money to publish that trash.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not read this article yet, but I did see three YouTube videos, one an amateur enthusiast who lapped it all up and two that were more strignet academic critiques casting doubt on the validity of the original paper’s methodology and conclusions.

    They also queried the fact that members of this group had published a paper which reached the same conclusions at another site. This would be most unusual and statistically very improbable, unless the Earth passed through a comet or meteor “cloud” at some point in the bronze age.

    While such an event would quite probably be the source of ancient myths and legends, I’d like to see more reviews of the research as I don’t have the background to critique it myself. I was a molecular biologist.

    I would say, though, that in your second paragraph an “air burst” is not an “impact” on the ground.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. One was “Did An Asteroid Destroy A Biblical City? Take These Claims With a Pillar Of Salt” by Scott Manley and the other “Meteor Explosion Destroyed Ancient City In 1650BC, Was It Biblical Sodom?” by Anton Petrov.

        They are both quite brief, but there are links in the discussion and pinned comments.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Amazing effort to find copies in a photograph. But photographs are not scientific results; they merely illustrate it. The investigation discovered microscopic material that is evidence of an ET event. It appears to me, therefore, that this article is inspired by the desperate need of today’s academia to find reasons to dismiss anything that comes from independents, and they go quite far in their pursuit, no differently than the churches did a few centuries ago, but if we are quarreling about minute details on photos,. then at least get the data right. An airburst is not an impact.

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    1. Nonentiti,
      This isn’t quarrelling about minute details motivated by desperation. If the evidence provided to support a claim shows evidence of tampering it naturally raises eyebrows. These are exactly the same standards Dr Bik applies to all studies.
      There’s no auto-da-fé here, just a reasonable scepticism about images which even the authors concede were altered.

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  5. It is believed by some to be the biblical city of Sodom.

    All the suggestions that Tall el-Hammam should be identified with Sodom seem to spring from earlier reports from the contentious archeology covered in the present paper. “Tall el-Hammam was destroyed by fire; Sodom was destroyed by fire; therefore Tall el-Hammam = Sodom.” There is no other reason to equate the two.

    I just mention this in case anyone tries to argue that “We already knew that Tall el-Hammam = Sodom; now we know that Tall el-Hammam was destroyed by fire; therefore Old Testament = True”. That would be circular reasoning.

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  6. If your image of choice has an unwanted caption, you could cover it with a blank white rectangle, and say in the caption “White rectangle covers caption added to an earlier version.” You may come in for some criticism for not having the original photos, but if the paper is solid I think you can overcome that.

    Using Photoshop instead has a huge downside: if detected, it obviously raises questions about the veracity of the photos. I would recommend NEVER doing this. If the absence of the original photos is going to sink your paper then the use of Photoshop to conceal that you don’t have them is outright lying to the editor.

    The cosmetic removal of measuring sticks strikes me as particularly odd and unnecessary. These are data. Why take them out?

    I think a very solid rule of thumb is “Don’t beautify images.” Adjusting contrast may be warranted, but almost everything else has a significant chance of getting you in trouble. And it’s not necessary. Science readers are grownups and can handle a picture with a measuring stick in it.

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  7. I guess those who aren’t capable of contributing to real scientific research and making genuine contributions to the world can always find a career trolling real contributors as Degenerate Malefactors. It must give them a huge burst of pride in their ego’s as they pontificate with their ad hominem attacks!

    Like

    1. Kevin Maloney,
      You don’t explicitly state it, but I read this as criticism aimed at Dr Bik?
      So, you call her incapable, a troll, egotistical and pontificating. Then you object to ad hominem attacks.
      Did I summarise your post accurately?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The first reference in the article: “Collins, S., Kobs, C. M. & Luddeni, M. C. The Tall al-Hammam Excavations, Volume 1: An Introduction to Tall al-Hammam: Seven Seasons (2005–2011) of Ceramics and Eight Seasons (2005–2012) of Artifacts from Tall al-Hammam. (Penn State Press, 2015).” The alleged photographer Michael Luddini is probably the same person who is spelled Luddeni here, and in the actual publication: https://doi.org/10.1515/9781575063706

    Like

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