Ancient record of asteroid impact

UK space scientists have discovered what they claim is an account of a devastating asteroid impact in Europe five thousand years ago. The disaster is chronicled on a mysterious clay tablet that has been stored in the British Museum since geologists found it in the 19th century.

The tablet pictures an asteroid so big that its shape could be made out with the naked eye while it was still in space.

Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell worked out that the asteroid, nearly a mile wide, struck Köfels in Austria as a blazing fireball.

The tablet had been nicknamed the Planisphere because it shows drawings of the constellations and text listing their names.

It was made by an Assyrian scribe and was discovered among 22,000 tablets in the remains of the Royal Palace at Nineveh in what is now Iraq.

Space entrepreneur Bond and astronautics lecturer Hempsell, of Bristol University, used powerful computer programs to analyse the events depicted on the Planisphere.

They discovered it is a copy of a notebook made by a Sumerian astronomer recording events in the sky before dawn on June 29, 3123 BC. The scientists found that half of the tablet notes planet positions and cloud cover, but the rest shows how the asteroid appeared in the heavens.

By analysing the record of the asteroid’s trajectory, the scientists linked the event to a giant landslide in Austria. Researchers had suggested in the 20th century that the landslide was due to a meteor impact but were puzzled by the lack of a crater.

The newly uncovered record shows that this is because the asteroid flew in at a low angle and clipped the top of Mount Gamskogel in the Austrian Alps. This caused the asteroid to explode before it hit the ground seven miles ahead, pulverising the rock.

The scientists say the exploding asteroid would have caused a back plume along its path across the Middle East and Mediterranean.

Mr Hempsell said: “The ground heating would be enough to ignite any flammable material, including human hair and clothes. It is probable more people died under the plume than in the Alps due to the impact blast.”

Bond and Hempsell describe their work in translating the tablet in a new book, A Sumerian Observation Of The Kofels’ Impact Event, published today. Scientists are busy working out ways to protect the Earth against future asteroid impacts.

Picture: An illustration of the clay tablet. Courtesy Gary D. Thompson.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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