In the 18th century B.C., a Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, in what is today northern Israel, was a sight to behold. The enormous building—at 65,000 square feet it was larger than a modern shopping mall—was replete with wall paintings, a fancy banquet hall, and storage rooms packed with more than a hundred enormous jars of spiced wine.
Then, at some point during that century, the palace was suddenly abandoned and left vacant for almost a millennium.
Some 3,700 years later, beginning in 2009, archaeologists digging up the palace were stumped. This beautiful and important building obviously had served as a political center for Canaanites in the region. And it had been renovated shortly before it fell into disuse. So why did its inhabitants flee?
The 75-acre site of Tel Kabri lies in a tectonically active region, so it would be easy to lay the blame on an earthquake. But the archaeologists were hesitant: Invoking an earthquake felt like an easy way out, like the joke among archaeologists of assigning a “ritual” purpose to artifacts they can’t otherwise explain.
Instead, the Tel Kabri team spent several dig seasons ruling out the possibilities. With support from the National Geographic Society, they looked for evidence of drought, flood, or other environmental factors that may have driven away the residents. They looked for signs of fire, weapons, or unburied bodies that may have indicated violence or combat. Nada. Zilch.
Assaf Yasur Landau of Haifa University, co-director of the excavation and a co-author of a study published today in the journal PLoS One, said it took him six years to warm to the idea that an earthquake may have destroyed the Canaanite palace.
“I wanted to make absolutely sure that we dotted every i and crossed every t before we reached such a conclusion,” he says. “It’s super important not to be sensationalist and to do good science. Otherwise it’s really bad for science, as well as for the community we serve.”
In 2011 the Tel Kabri team began uncovering a trench that appeared to cut straight through the palace. At first the archaeologists assumed it was modern, perhaps an irrigation channel for the avocado farm that surrounded the site, or maybe it was dug during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
“There was a battle in ’48 right across the road,” says Tel Kabri co-director Eric Cline of George Washington University. “In our notes we were calling it a modern tank trench.”
Yet over the course of several excavation seasons, the archaeologists began to notice features in the palace that didn’t seem quite right. Some walls were slightly offset. Some floors were a little “wavy,” sloped at odd angles, or pockmarked, likely by heavy objects falling from a height.
By 2019, a hundred feet of the trench had been uncovered, and archaeologists noticed that three courses of a wall from the palace appeared to have fallen into the trench.
“At that point we kind of looked at each other, and the supervisor of the area said, ‘I don’t think this is a modern trench. I think this is an ancient trench,’” Cline recalls. “And one of us said, ‘Um, earthquake?’ And we were like, Yeah, maybe. Let’s call Michael.”
Michael Lazar, a research scientist at the University of Haifa’s department of marine geosciences and lead author of the PLoS One paper, had visited Tel Kabri in 2013 when the team first uncovered a storage room for wine. “I saw a bunch of jars that had been smashed by a roof collapse,” he recalls. “Assaf said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, Earthquake. And Assaf said, ‘No, what really do you think caused it?’”
Now, six years later, the experts stood around the trench and speculated that it was a fissure caused by an earthquake. Perhaps it was the result of liquefaction (when water-saturated soil loses its structure), either from a direct hit by an earthquake or a secondary result from a more distant earthquake that disturbed the high-water table at Tel Kabri.
The researchers then started analyzing the fine grains of sediment that covered the palace floor and found that it was a chaotic tumble of plaster and broken wall, laid down in a single event. A lack of mud slurry showed that the floor was not exposed to the elements for any amount of time before the sediment layer covered it. This was an immediate event, not a slow decay.
Taken together, all the odd features began to make sense: the offset walls; the sloping, pockmarked floors; the enormous clay wine jars smashed in place; the microgeological evidence; and the fissure that split the palace in two. Adding to that, sediment records from the Dead Sea indicate that an earthquake occurred in the region around 1700 B.C., the time the palace was abandoned. An earthquake would be the only likely explanation.
“This is archaeology,” says Cline. “You know, pieces come together. You discard hypotheses, you get more plausible hypotheses, and then eventually you have to invoke Sherlock Holmes, right? You eliminate the impossible and work with whatever’s left.”
Tina Niemi, a geologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who was not involved with the Tel Kabri project, agrees that the evidence seems to point to an earthquake, though she says more research is needed to determine exactly where it originated. Could it be the small Kabri fault, which runs near the site? Or the bigger and more dangerous Dead Sea fault, some 25 miles to the east? Excavating a cross section of the fissure that runs through the palace, she says, may help answer that question.
Yasur-Landau is no longer a skeptic when it comes to the earthquake hypothesis. “We’ve been working on the project for five years or so on this specific question, so it’s really, really gratifying that we have an answer.”
But for Lazar, the discovery raises new concerns for the residents of the area, particularly if the Kabri fault turns out to be the culprit for the palace’s destruction. “When you speak of earthquakes and Israel, everyone thinks of the Dead Sea fault,” he says. “That’s it, and that everything off 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. Yet if it was indeed responsible for the damage wrought just 3,700 years ago—a mere blip in geological time—its potential for future activity cannot be ruled out.
“It has definite meaning for hazard assessment, and we need to put it back on the map.”