In the eighteenth century BC a Canaanite palace in Tel Kabri, in present-day northern Israel, was a sight to behold. The huge building – at 65,000 square feet was larger than a modern shopping mall – was filled with murals, an elegant banquet hall, and warehouses filled with more than a hundred huge jars of spiced wine.
Then, at some point during that century, the palace was suddenly abandoned and left empty for nearly a millennium.
About 3,700 years later, starting in 2009, the archaeologists who excavated the palace were baffled. This beautiful and important building obviously served as the political center for the Canaanites in the region. And it had been refurbished just before it fell into disuse. So why did its inhabitants fled?
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The 75-acre site of Tel Kabri is located in a tectonically active region, so it would be easy to blame an earthquake. But archaeologists were hesitant: invoking an earthquake seemed like an easy way out, like the joke among archaeologists to assign a “ritual” purpose to artifacts they could not otherwise explain.
Instead, the Tel Kabri team spent several seasons digging out of the possibilities. With support from the National Geographic Society, they looked for evidence of drought, floods, or other environmental factors that may have driven residents away. They looked for signs of fire, weapons or unburied bodies that could indicate violence or fighting. Nada. Zilch.
Assaf Yasur Landau of the University of Haifa, co-director of the excavation and co-author of a study published today in the journal PLoS One, he said it took him six years to accept the idea that an earthquake could have destroyed the Canaanite palace.
“I wanted to be absolutely sure that we had bet every i and crossed every t before reaching such a conclusion,” he says. “It is very important not to be sensationalists and to do good science. Otherwise it is really bad for science, as well as for the community we serve.”
In 2011, the Tel Kabri team began to discover a trench that appeared to cut directly through the building. At first, archaeologists assumed it was modern, perhaps an irrigation channel for the avocado farm that surrounded the site, or perhaps it was excavated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
“There was a battle in ’48 just across the street,” says Tel Kabri co-director Eric Cline of George Washington University. “In our notes we called it a modern tank trench.”
However, over the course of several seasons of excavation, archaeologists began to notice features in the palace that didn’t seem quite correct. Some walls were slightly offset. Some floors were a bit “wavy,” sloped at odd angles or pitted, probably from heavy objects falling from above.
In 2019, a hundred feet of the trench had been discovered, and archaeologists noted that three courses of a palace wall appeared to have fallen into the trench.
“At that point we looked at each other and the area supervisor said, ‘I don’t think this is a modern trench. I think this is an ancient trench,” recalls Cline. “And one of us said, ‘Um, earthquake?’ And we said, yes, maybe. Let’s call Michael. “
Michael Lazar, a researcher in the Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Haifa and lead author of PLoS One paper, had visited Tel Kabri in 2013, when the team first discovered a wine warehouse. “I saw a bunch of cans that had been broken by a collapsed roof,” he recalls. “Assaf said, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, Earthquake. And Assaf said, ‘No, what do you really think caused it?’ “
Now, six years later, experts stood around the trench and speculated that it was a crack caused by an earthquake. Perhaps it was the result of liquefaction (when waterlogged soil loses its structure), or a direct hit from an earthquake or a secondary result of a more distant earthquake that disturbed the aquifer at Tel Kabri.
The researchers then began analyzing the fine grains of sediment that covered the building’s floor and found that it was a chaotic fall of plaster and a cracked wall, laid in a single event. The lack of mud showed that the floor was not exposed to the elements for some time before the sediment layer covered it. This was an immediate event, not a slow decay.
Taken together, all the strange features began to make sense: the staggered walls; sloping and pitted floors; the huge clay wine jars broken on the spot; microgeological evidence; and the cleft that divided the palace in two. In addition to that, Dead Sea sediment records indicate that an earthquake occurred in the region around 1700 BC, the time when the palace was abandoned. An earthquake would be the only likely explanation.
“This is archeology,” says Cline. “You know, the pieces come together. You discard hypotheses, you get more plausible hypotheses, and then in the end you have to invoke Sherlock Holmes, right? You eliminate the impossible and work with what remains. “
Tina Niemi, a University of Missouri-Kansas City geologist who was not involved in the Tel Kabri project, agrees that the evidence appears to indicate an earthquake, although she says more research is needed to determine exactly where it originated. Could it be the little fault of Kabri, who runs near the site? Or the largest and most dangerous fault in the Dead Sea, about 25 miles to the east? Digging a cross-section of the crack running through the building, he says, can help answer that question.
Yasur-Landau is no longer skeptical when it comes to the earthquake hypothesis. “We’ve been working on the project for about five years on this specific question, so it’s really, really gratifying that we have an answer.”
But for Lazar, the discovery raises new concerns for area residents, especially if Kabri’s fault turns out to be the culprit in the palace’s destruction. “When you talk about earthquakes and Israel, everyone thinks of the Dead Sea fault,” he says. “That’s it, and that everything outside the Dead Sea fault is not considered a major threat.”
Lazar adds that the Kabri fault has been removed from the new map of potentially active faults in Israel. However, if it were truly responsible for the damage done just 3,700 years ago – a mere blip in geologic time – its potential for future activity cannot be ruled out.
“It has a precise meaning for hazard assessment and we need to put it back on the map.”