Varves are annual layers of deposition in the sediments. If we can identify varves in an outcrop or a core we can count years of deposition just like we can count years of growth from tree rings.

A varve typically consists of one light and one dark layer of sediment. The light and dark layers are deposited during different times of the year. Thus, one pair of light and dark layers constitutes one year of time and by counting these couplets (i.e. varves), we can count years of deposition.

Varves are present in salty (aka evaporitic) lakes such as the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, the varves of the Dead Sea are not always well defined. Many of the Dead Sea varves are ambiguous. This means I can’t (for now) determine the exact year when this seismite was formed. At best, I can only define a time span of several years when the earthquake occurred.

To the right is a thin section (i.e microscope slide) created from a core taken near the town of Ein Gedi in 1997. It shows several years of varve couplets with one well defined varve couplet surrounded by a white rectangle. The whitish layer at the bottom of the rectangle is almost pure araganoite; a type of Calcite (CaCO3) that will precipitate out of the Dead Sea at the height of summer (e.g. in August). The darker top layer is flood deposit(s). In the winter and spring, a few rain storms cause the normally dry steams of Ein Gedi to flow with water and as they flow out to sea, they bring sediments with them which are deposited at the sea floor.

Using thin section slides from Ein Gedi, I counted varves from the top of the 31 BC earthquake to the top of this early first century earthquake I am trying to date. I also estimated the accuracy of my date for the earthquake. I concluded that this early first century earthquake appears to have occurred sometime between 26 and 36 AD; the years when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea and when the earthquake of the Gospel of Matthew is historically constrained. My best guess is that the earthquake in the sediments likely occurred sometime between 29 and 33 AD.

Along with some German colleagues, I published this research in 2011. The first page of this article is shown here. If you would like a complimentary copy, please submit a comment with your email address. I will read your comment and I will send you a copy via email. Don’t worry, your comment will not be published.

So, the earthquake in the sediments appears to have occurred more or less during the same time period when Jesus of Nazareth died but we still don’t know if the earthquake in the sediments is the same earthquake reported in Matthew. In fact, we still don’t know if Matthew’s earthquake is an accurate report of an actual geologic event. The description in Matthew could also be pure allegory.

This leads to the current focus of my research; finding temporal patterns in the sediments.

While the biblical accounts are vague about the year of the crucifixion, they are quite specific about the time of year that the crucifixion occurred; the 14th or 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan known as Good Friday.

If there is a way to determine what time of year the sediments immediately on top of this earthquake were deposited, we could determine if this was a summer time earthquake or a spring time earthquake or a winter time earthquake.

And there are other events reported to have occurred on the day of the crucifixion that could have left a a record in the sediments. Next –> 07 Temporal Patterns


 

References and Links

An Early First Century Earthquake in the Dead Sea. If you would like a free copy of this paper, submit a comment with your email address and I will send you a copy.

Here is a link to a report I wrote in 2004 modeling how earthquake shaking deforms the Dead Sea muds. Pages 21-25 cover the earthquake that is the focus of my current research.

Wikipedia entry on varves.

Aragonite precipitation – Although the Dead Sea has been observed to “whiten” during August in particulalrly hot years, I cannot find a photo or a video of such an event. However, here is a link to a photo of a summer precipitation event in a salty lake in nearby Cyprus.

Sediment Deposition from streams – Below  is a YouTube video of a flash flood in Ein Gedi during the winter of 2009. Note the plume of muddy water going out to sea at the end of the video. As the sediments in that muddy plume drop to the bottom of the Dead Sea, they will leave a thin flood deposit.

Sediment Deposition from airborne Dust – The Dead sea also receives sediments in the form of dust that falls from the air onto to the Dead Sea itself. Such sedimentation is particularly pronounced during dust storms; of which half a dozen usually occur during the spring time. Here is a satellite image of a dust storm in the Eastern Mediterranean that is moving towards the Dead Sea.Here is a photo of a dust storm taken from the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. Here is another photo of a dusty day taken from the Israeli side of the Dead Sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 comments
  1. Deborah Hawk said:

    I’d love to keep updated on this information as you go along.

    Keep up the good work.
    I was there only once, and loved it. Drove up to Herod’s mountaintop retreat on the Dead Sea, up to Masada.

  2. Regarding your point about the darkness possibly being caused by a khamsin, the three synoptic gospels mention Mary Magdalene and other women first standing by the cross and later watching from afar.

    I’ve never experienced a khamsin, but it seems like a severe event that lasts several hours. Could they have watched from afar during one?

    • admin said:

      Interesting observation. The possibility of a dust storm is a speculative idea that was proposed well before I began this research. At this point, I am focused on determining if there is a dust storm deposit within +/- 5 years of the formation of the seismite. There is great variation in the intensity of dust storms from relatively mild storms that darken but don’t block out the sun to the “day into night” storms shown in the videos on this page. During severe dust storms, it can be very difficult to breathe and you are strongly advised to go indoors. In the milder storms, you can still see things from “afar”.

  3. Matt said:

    Thank you very much for the site: it’s always great to find an accessible but academically sound source of information. I’d also be very interested to read a copy of your “early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea” article, if you’re willing to send it!

    Having studied under (some excellent!) Biblical minimalists I wouldn’t have seriously considered the possibility of a real earthquake. That said, I’m sure such an event would have been seen to have great significance, especially in a religious movement (and reminds me of the recent theory that the Vesuvius eruption may have helped to spread Christianity).

    I wonder though; is there any way of telling (even approximately) the relative magnitude of the ~AD 31 event, say, compared to 31 BC? And is there any indication of how long it had been since a comparable event (Event A?): how accurate is Josephus likely to have been in calling the 31 BC earthquake “such a one as had not happened at any other time [in Judea]“, at least within his timeframe?

    Finally (sorry for the long comment), the Huffington Post’s article on your research says your plans to investigate if dust storm deposits coincide with the earthquake “were being re-evaluated”. Is there any more on this?

    • admin said:

      Some responses

      I wonder though; is there any way of telling (even approximately) the relative magnitude of the ~AD 31 event, say, compared to 31 BC? And is there any indication of how long it had been since a comparable event (Event A?): how accurate is Josephus likely to have been in calling the 31 BC earthquake “such a one as had not happened at any other time [in Judea]“, at least within his timeframe?

      I did some modeling work in a Master’s report and came up with a magnitude between 6.0 and 6.5 for ~AD 31 with an epicenter in the South Dead Sea and around 7.0 + for the 31 BC earthquake which appears to have broken the Jericho Fault in the northern part of the Dead Sea and well up into the Jordan Valley. Other researchers have estimated ~31 BC to be magnitude 6.5 – 7.5 but no-one have done any modeling to estimate the magnitude of the ~31 AD earthquake. I believe the two who estimate the 31 BC earthquake at 6.5 are wrong and they are wrong because they did not look at outcrops. The outcrops show that the deformed layer for the 31 BC earthquake is the thickest and most extensively deformed layer in the Dead Sea for at least 1500 years (~750 years before and ~750 years after). I think Josephus was correct to call the earthquake “such a one as had not happened at any other time [in Judea]“, at least within his timeframe although it should be noted
      that Josephus said the 31 BC quake killed 10,000 in one book and 30,000 in another. He wasn’t completely consistent in his reporting. The next omparable earthquake before 31 BC appears to have been the Amos earthquake which is commonly listed as occurring in 759 BC but is, I believe, historically constrained from 750 BC-759 BC. That was a big
      quake with a possible epicenter in Southern Syria/Southern Lebanon.

      1
      Finally (sorry for the long comment), the Huffington Post’s article on your research says your plans to investigate if dust storm deposits coincide with the earthquake “were being re-evaluated”. Is there any more on this?

      I am currently pursuing this research at Cambridge University where I am writing grant(s) with Professor Colin Humphreys to do some field and lab work try to get a better date for the ~31 AD earthquake; both in terms of year and time of year. Included with that will be some examination of dust storm deposits however, identifying Dust Storm deposits in Dead Sea sediments appears to be a difficult problem. This is primarily because the drainage area surrounding the Dead Sea is covered in Dust and soils derived from dust that was blown in over the past 20,000 years. So how does one distinguish dust blown and rained in from a dust storm from dust that is washed in from the drainage area from a rain storm ? Several research groups are working on this problem so hopefully some techniques may emerge to identify dust storm deposits in the Dead Sea but as this is emerging research I have found myself reposing the question about whether dust storm deposits are present. In addition, I realized that I should not confine my search for dust storm deposits more or less coincident with the earthquake. I should expand out the search for dust storm deposits up to 5 years earlier or later than the earthquake since I have no way of knowing that the Biblical narratives got the timing correct on all these events (if the events occurred). So, there has been some re-evaluation of the dust storm
      deposit question and there will likely be more re-evaluation in the future. But, I haven’t given up looking for dust storm deposits.

      If you have any more comments or questions, I’d like to hear them. I’ve learned a lot from those who have contacted me and it sounds like you have a good background on the subject.

  4. Hugh Farey said:

    I am the current editor of the newsletter of the British Society for the Turin Shroud, and would very much like a copy of your paper on the Early First Century Earthquake if you would be so kind.

    However that is not really why I write. There has recently been a speculative article published in the journal Meccanica by A. Carpinteri, suggesting that some aspects of the Turin Shroud might be explained by atomic radiation anomalies derived from the earthquake.

    Some studies seem to have shown that plutonic neutron and proton emission increases during some earthquakes, and this has also been achieved experimentally using “very brittle rock specimens” via piezonuclear fission reactions. However I think this would apply almost exclusively to igneous rock, and it is unlikely that the sedimentary nature of the rocks around the Dead Sea would produce similar effects.

    Would you like to comment on this?

    Many thanks,
    Hugh Farey

    • admin said:

      Hugh,

      Like you, I read the speculative article published in the journal Meccanica by A. Carpinteri with considerable interest. I was intrigued by the possibility that such a phenomena could create isotopic clues in the outcrops about earthquake magnitude. However, piezonuclear fission reactions in rocks is something new to me and, for now, I don’t know enough to evaluate it.

      You are correct to question whether the effects discussed in the paper would occur in sedimentary rocks. In fact, I emailed the author and asked him almost the exact same question while supplying him with whatever cross sections I could find online. The cross-sections show the various rock types and there are in fact some crystalline (i.e. igneous) rocks at depth.

      However, my main comments concern speculation about a M 8.2 earthquake in 33 AD.

      The authors of the Meccanica article appear to have conflated an earthquake from 29 AD in Northern Anatolia (modern day Turkey) with one in Judea in, they presume, 33 AD to come up with an 8.2 magnitude earthquake.

      The 29 AD earthquake was apparently associated with a solar eclipse and this was reported to be the earthquake of the crucifixion in ancient Christian apologetic literature as various gospel accounts report 3 hours of midday darkness and an earthquake on the day of the crucifixion. However, the crucifixion occurred on the day of a full moon (14 or 15 Nisan in the Jewish calendar) when a solar eclipse is not possible. Further, it is very unlikely an earthquake from modern day northern Turkey would have been felt in Jerusalem. So, this was not an earthquake which occurred during the crucifixion.

      In the article, Williams et. al. (2012), dated a M 6.0 – M 6.5 earthquake that created a deformation layer in the Dead Sea sediments to have occurred between 26 and 36 AD. Such an earthquake would have produced moderate shaking in Jerusalem (MMI scale VI to VII) but nothing close to the 15 minutes of intense shaking described in the Meccanica paper from a M 8.2 earthquake.

      As to whether there is some reason for a highly localized source of nuclear or chemical flux in Jerusalem around 33 AD, I don’t know enough to comment but I am certain there was not an 8.2 magnitude earthquake in Judea between 26 and 36 AD. The Dead Sea is simply incapable of producing such large earthquakes and the outcrops show that the earthquake between 26 and 36 AD was no bigger than M 6.5. Most estimates I have read and heard from seismologists is the maximum possible magnitude earthquake for the Dead Sea region is between M 7.0 and M 7.5.

      Regards,

      Jeff

      Jeff Williams

      PS A link to the Meccanica paper is below
      http://www.springer.com/about+springer/media/springer+select?SGWID=0-11001-6-1454151-0

  5. Brad said:

    Interesting information. I had no idea that earthquakes could leave a signature in the sediment in that way. I’m an amateur student of scientific evidence relating to the Bible. Very interesting to see some work being done in Geology. I’d love to receive a complimentary copy of your paper. Thanks

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