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Pottery from Bab edh Dhra‘, possibly the biblical city of Sodom

September 6, 2018


And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other.  Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom.  Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD(Genesis 13:13 ESV)


 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.  And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground(Genesis 19:24-25 ESV)




Situated on an intensely hot plain at the base of the Lisan peninsula just east of the Dead Sea and along the Wadi al Karak, the ancient site of Bab edh-Dhra‘ was once a walled city covering 12 acres during the Early Bronze Age (3300-2000 BC).  Along with Jericho (-846 feet), Bab edh-Dhra‘ has the distinction of being among the lowest (ca. -800 feet) ancient settlements on earth.  More significantly, many biblical scholars identify the site with the infamous Old Testament city of Sodom, which God destroyed along with neighboring cities of Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim (Genesis 14:2; 19:24-25; Deuteronomy 29:23).  Over the centuries, various myths and legends grew regarding these now lost cities as well as the Dead Sea region.  Many explorers and scholars have consequently endeavored to rediscover the five biblical cities of the plain (Genesis 13:10-12), including a U.S. Naval expedition to the Jordan River and Dead Sea led by William F. Lynch in 1844 (e.g., Kreiger 1988: 31-75; Jampoler 2005).  An archaeological excursion led by William F. Albright and Melvin G. Kyle in 1924 investigated Bab edh Dhra (Albright 1924: 5-7), but erroneously identified the site as a religious sanctuary and pilgrimage destination, albeit with probable cultic connections to Sodom, Gomorrah and other biblical towns.  Archaeological surveys of the surrounding region and excavations at Bab edh Dhra began in 1965 and continue to clarify the history of the region during the Patriarchal period (e.g., Ortner and Frohlich 2008; Rast 1987; 2001; Rast, and Schaub 2003a; 2003b; Schaub and Rast 1989; and Schaub and Chesson 2007).  While some chronological difficulties remain, many biblical scholars consider Bab edh Dhra as the leading candidate for Sodom (e.g., Howard 1984).  Other experts dispute this claim, and locate Sodom elsewhere.  Following Albright (1924: 7-9), some scholars still believe the city lay submerged beneath the surface of the Dead Sea (e.g., Horn 1952), a position now largely abandoned due to the drying up of the Dead Sea’s southern basin and the paucity of material remains revealed.  Others argue that Sodom is located in the lower Jordan Valley (Genesis 13:10-12) abutting the northern Dead Sea shoreline (e.g., Collins and Scott 2013).  In sum, locating Sodom, Gomorrah and the other biblical cities of the plain still remains an open question.  Nevertheless, despite the chronological questions, Bab edh Dhra, along with the four other Early Bronze Age sites farther south, seem to provide one of the best solutions.


Relevance to the Biblical Account


The biblical references to Sodom originate in Genesis.  In Genesis 13:10-13, Lot chose to move his family and herds into the Jordan Valley as far as Sodom.  In the following chapter (Genesis 14:1-17), a battle in the Valley of Siddim, placed the army of Bela, king of Sodom and the other four cities of the plain against an invasion force led by four kings from the east.  The existence of bitumen pits seems to place the battle near the southern basin of the Dead Sea.  The more famous judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah appears in Genesis 18-19, where God destroys these cities with brimstone and fire because of their wickedness. Later biblical contexts reflect upon this judgement as both a remembrance and a warning for others (e.g., Deuteronomy 22:22-23; Isaiah 1:9-10, 3:9, 13:19-22; Jeremiah 23:14; 49:17-18; 50:39-40; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16:48-50; Amos 4:1-11; and Zephaniah 2:9).  Various New Testament texts also refer to these two wicked cities and their demise (e.g., Matthew 10:1-15; 11:20-24; Luke 10:1-12; 17:28-30; Romans 9:29; 2 Peter 2:4-10; Jude 1;7; Revelation 11:7-8).


Physical Description


Physical evidence at Bab edh Dhra‘ and its adjacent cemetery confirms the occupation of the site throughout all four periods of the Early Bronze Age (3300-2000 BC).  Resettlement of the site on a much smaller scale occurred after its destruction in ca. 2350 BC.  The final abandonment of Bab edh Dhra‘ took place in ca. 2000 BC, probably due in part to changing climactic conditions (Sauer 1994).  Pottery from the Early Bronze Age was handmade, using clay coils and paste preparation, often augmented by a tournette.  Surfaces were bare, slipped, burnished or pattern combed. Thin walled vessels, “pie crust” ledge, loop, or pierced lug handles, rope molding and finger-impressed or incised bands characterized ceramics during the final phase of the Early Bronze Age (Hendrix; Drey; and Storfjell 1996: 96-124).


The Horn Museum has a large collection of pottery from Bab edh Dhra‘, most of the vessels date to the Early Bronze IV period, but some to earlier phases as well.  The museum acquired this fine assemblage over many years, but mainly between 1971 and 1978 in Jerusalem.  Notable among the vessels are a distinctive spouted pot or jar (66.034) also acquired in Jerusalem.  Other Bab edh Dhra‘ pottery the Horn Museum collection are jugs and juglets (72.0004; 72.0007; 72.0009; 72.0010; 72.0012; 72.0015; 72.0020; 78.0003), bowls (72.0013; 72.0016; 78.0011; 78.0012, 78.0013; 78.0014; 78.0015; 78.0016; 78.0017; 78.0018; 78.0019; 78.0020), a cup (78.0002), jars (72.0018; 78.0005; 78.0007; 78.0008; 78.0009; 78.0010), and cooking pots (78.0004; 78.0006).  Descriptions and treatments of this pottery are available in various reports and notable synthetic treatments (e.g., Amiran 1969: 58-77; Homès-Fredericq and Franken 1986: 69-105; Herr 1996: 72-79; Hendrix; Drey; and Storfjell 1996: 96-134).


Historical Significance


The events recorded in Genesis 14-19 are potentially extremely important for determining the dates of Abraham by correlating them with archaeological data.  For here, the Bible provides the names of kings and destruction accounts relating to specific cities.  Interestingly, Bab edh Dhra‘ and the site of Numeira, some 15 km to the south, apparently shared a catastrophic fate (Rast 1987: 194-195).  Fire destroyed both cities around 2350 BC, based upon Carbon 14 and ceramic evidence.  While it is quite tempting to connect these sites with Sodom and Gomorrah as many scholars do, the date of their demise does not seem to match the time of Abraham, which most conservative scholars place slightly later, during the first third of the second millennium BC. Even though much circumstantial evidence exists supporting the historicity of various aspects of the Sodom and Gomorrah accounts (e.g., Kitchen 1994; Sauer 1994: 390-391; Udd 2011 with references), the two names do not appear in any ancient archive and no conclusivearchaeological data yet exists enabling scholars to place these great biblical sagas in a specific historical and geographical context.




The pottery recovered from Bab edh Dhra‘ and its huge, expansive cemetery did not exist in a vacuum. Archaeologists have unearthed similar pottery at other Early Bronze Age towns and sites throughout the southern Levant (e.g., Richard 1987; 2003: 286-330; Hendrix; Drey; and Storfjell 1996: 96; Chesson 2011).




Albright, William F.

1924    The Archaeological Results of an Expedition to Moab and the Dead Sea.  Bulletin of                   the American Schools of Oriental Research 14: 2-12.


Amiran, Ruth

1969    Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land:  From Its Beginnings in the Neolithic Period to the                  End of the Iron Age. Jerusalem:  Massada.


Chesson, Meredith S., editor

2011    Daily Life, Materiality, and Complexity in Early Urban Communities of the Southern                    Levant: Papers in Honor of Walter E. Rast and R. Thomas Schaub.  Winona                                Lake: Eisenbrauns.


Chesson, Meredith S., and Schaub, R. Thomas

2007    Death and Dying on the Dead Sea Plain:  Fifa, Khirbat al-Khanazir, and Bab adh-Dhra‘              Cemeteries. Pp.