Shortly after my buddy Jeff Medkeff died in 2008, a joint book review of ours was published in Skeptic Magazine. Here we criticised a book by Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell, two aeronautics engineers, where they claimed that a 7th century BC cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia described an asteroid striking the Austrian Alps in 3123 BC. Their argument was in our opinion extremely speculative or pseudoscientific, regardless of whether you saw it from an astronomical, geological or archaeological point of view.
Bond & Hempsell self-published their book. But to my surprise, the summer issue of the prestigious archaeology quarterly Antiquity contains a paper on a similar topic. The head author is one Barbara Rappenglück who gives her affiliation as the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Gilching, Bavaria (pop. 17 000).
Briefly, Rappenglück et al. argue that the Greek myth of Phaëton joy-riding and crashing the sun chariot records a meteorite strike in the Chiemgau region in Bavaria some time in the Bronze Age. In their opinion, details in the various versions of the story found in Greek and Roman literature all agree with the circumstances of that strike.
Rappenglück et al.’s case is stronger than Bond & Hempsell’s in that the written sources they appeal to are not difficult to understand on the level of basic language, and the myth of Phaeton is quite likely to have been in existence about the time of the alleged meteorite strike. Overall, they also present and discuss their evidence in a far more sober manner than Bond & Hempsell. It’s not a crazy paper. But nor do I find it convincing.
The authors’ pattern-seeking willingness to see every little detail of the texts as relevant to their case is a bad sign. And a serious problem with their interpretation is that in order for it to work, there must be some way for eyewitness accounts to have travelled from Bavaria to Greece, and to impress Greek poets enough that they put the matter into their mythology. Rappenglück et al. don’t even tell us from what direction the meteorite approached Bavaria. I think we can assume that it did not pass over Greece, or they would have made a point of informing us.
Large meteorite strikes are no laughing matter, and the Mediterranean area would in all likelihood have felt the climatic after-effects of an impact like the one alleged for Chiemgau. But to think that Greek story tellers would have connected the atmospheric dust and the series of poor harvests they experienced to wild tales of crashing fire balls from the sky told in proto-Celtic by refugees or traders from across the Alps – that’s just silly in my opinion.
Still, the main weakness of Rappenglück et al.’s work is one that it shares with Bond & Hempsell’s book. The latter could point to no impact crater at all. And the Chiemgau features are not accepted as impact craters by most professional geologists. The idea in fact originates with a group of amateur metal detectorists who formed a research group after finding odd metallic remains in 2000.
So Antiquity’s peer review has failed in this case. Rappenglück et al. say “These meteorite craters date from the Bronze Age, and we think they can explain a motif in Greek mythology”. But the reviewer (an archaeologist? a classicist?) doesn’t seem to have picked up on the fact that at this point in time, belief in those meteorite craters is a speculative minority position. And before geologists reach a consensus that the craters exist and are due to an impact (as seems unlikely right now), archaeologists and historians cannot use them to explain anything. Greek mythology certainly can’t be used to strengthen the impact hypothesis.
Atlanta area denizens, don’t miss the Charity Star Party in Jeff Medkeff’s memory on September 2! George Hrab and the hosts of the Astronomycast will be there. The proceeds will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Barbara Rappenglück, Michael A. Rappenglück, Kord Ernstson, Werner Mayer, Andreas Neumair, Dirk Sudhaus, & Ioannis Liritzis (2010). The fall of Phaethon: a Greco-Roman geomyth preserves the memory of a meteorite impact in Bavaria (south-east Germany) Antiquity, 84, 428-439