Cosmic collision

Discovery of a crater sheds new light on the end of many Middle East civilisations

Published: Friday 30 November 2001

  Meteors causing craters may< the mystery shrouding the sudden collapse of Middle East civilisations more than 4,000 years ago might just have been solved.

A two-mile-wide circular depression which looks like an impact crater has been found through studies of satellite images of southern Iraq. Scientists say that the depression raises the possibility of a meteor hitting the Middle East with an intensity equivalent to hundreds of nuclear bombs.

Four thousand years ago, there was shallow sea at the place where the crater lies today. It is believed that any impact would have caused devastating fires and flooding which might have wiped away early cultures around 2300 bc including the Akkad culture of central Iraq; the end of the fifth dynasty of Egypt's Old Kingdom, following the building of the Great Pyramids and the sudden disappearance of hundreds of early settlements in the Holy Land.

Before this recent discovery, archaeologists attributed the decline of these civilisations to various factors from wars to environmental changes. Now astronomers have indicated that meteor impacts could be behind these tragedies of history.

A geologist at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Sharad Master found the crater's faint outline on satellite images of the Al 'Amarah region, about 10 miles north-west of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates and home of the Marsh Arabs.

"It was purely an accidental discovery," Master says. "I was reading a magazine article about the canal-building projects of Saddam Hussein, and there was a photograph showing lots of formations - one of which was very, very circular."

On analysing other satellite images, Master found that for many years there was a small lake where the crater occurred. The lake receded as the region was drained in pursuance of Saddam's campaign against the Marsh Arabs. As the lake receded it revealed a ring-like ridge inside the larger bowl-like depression. This, Master found, was a classic feature of meteor impact craters.

Master also believes that the crater is pretty young. He says, "The sediments in this region are very young, so whatever caused the crater-like structure, it must have happened within the past 6,000 years." And according to him, the structure has been caused by a recent meteor impact.

"If we could find fragments of impact glass, we could date them using radioactive dating techniques," he says.

The discovery of the crater could shed new light on the civilisations dating back to 2,300 bc. It has already generated interest not only among the historians but also the scientists.

Benny Peiser, who has studied meteor impacts and who teaches at John Moores University, Liverpool, terms Master's crater discovery as "one of the most significant discoveries in recent years" and it would corroborate the past researches .

Interestingly, in Argentina craters were recently found which date back to the same period as the discovery of the new crater in Middle East. This brings home the fact that the Earth may have been hit by a shower of large meteors simultaneously.

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