NEW FIND IS LINKED TO EVENTS TO EXODUS
PROBING 20 feet into the soil of the Nile delta, American scientists have found tiny glass fragments from a volcano that they say could lend support to a theory linking a volcanic eruption to the seemingly miraculous events associated with the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Scholars for some time have tied the devastating eruption 3,500 years ago on Santorini, a Greek island also known as Thera, with legends of the lost continent of Atlantis and have cited it as a major factor in the fall of the Minoan civilization on Crete.
More recently, the eruption has been invoked to explain phenomena related to the Exodus, as described in the Bible. According to this controversial theory, the ash cloud from the eruption could account for the ”deep darkness over the whole land of Egypt, even a darkness that may be felt,” and the ensuing tidal wave could have created the ”parting of the waves” that swallowed the pursuing Egyptians and allowed the Israelites to escape.
Daniel J. Stanley, a senior oceanographer at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, called the ash discovery ”a nonarcheological, hard-science proof that the effect of the volcano was felt as far away as Egypt.” This, he added, ”lent credence” to the Egyptian and biblical descriptions of daytime darkness during the Exodus.
Dr. Stanley and Harrison Sheng, also of the National Museum, reported at a recent meeting of the Geological Society of America that they had found the ash at four widely scattered sites around Lake Manzala, near Port Said. Their analysis, they said, established the approximate age of the ash as 3,500 years and determined that the glass was virtually identical in structure and composition to debris from the eruption found near Santorini.
”They have the first evidence that vindicates me,” asserted Hans Goedicke, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University who advanced the Santorini-Exodus theory four years ago.
Dr. Goedicke, chairman of the department of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins, interpreted a royal Egyptian inscription to mean that the Exodus occurred in 1477 B.C., about 200 years earlier than had been assumed by most biblical scholars and archeoloists. Dr. Goedicke’s date could make the event coincide with the volcanic eruption and, as he said, ”verify the biblical account to an unexpected degree.”
But Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archeology Review, said the new ash findings were ”fascinating but inconclusive” as far as establishing any link between the volcano and the Exodus. He said that Dr. Goedicke had not won any ”scholarly support” for his theory, although it ”remains a possibility, of course.”
It was Dr. Goedicke’s theory that led Dr. Stanley to search for volcanic debris in core samples of sediments collected by the Egyptian Coastal Research Institute. He is working with the institute and other scientists in a study of the geologic history of the Nile delta.
Evidence Is Discovered
After a year of painstaking work, examining several cores and hundreds of thousands of silt-sized fragments, Dr. Stanley and Mr. Sheng finally isolated 30 grains of volcanic ash that yielded the evidence they were looking for. They used a polarizing microscope to separate the volcanic glass grains, which appeared black under such examination, from the translucent nonvolcanic glass. They used scanning electron microscopes and microprobes to determine the chemical composition of the glass.
Each volcano produces its own chemically distinctive ash. Fragments from the Santorini eruption, believed to have occurred sometime around 1450 B.C., had been found on Crete, 70 miles from the volcano, and on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea at least 250 miles southeast of Santorini – but never as far as the Egyptian coast 500 miles away.
”It is not surprising that the ash reached Egypt,” Dr. Stanley said in an interview. ”But the chances of finding it in sediments were very slim.”
No volcanic ash was found in sediments laid down at the time most other scholars believe the Exodus occurred, in the late 13th century B.C.
This date for the Exodus was established in part from archaeological evidence that the first settlement of Palestine by Israelites seems to have occurred in about 1200 B.C. Mr. Shanks said it was difficult for historians to accept Dr. Goedicke’s conclusion that the Exodus occurred 250 to 300 years earlier because that would leave a gap of three centuries in the known record of the Israelites, from the time of their flight from Egypt to the settlement of Palestine. Some scholars even question whether the Exodus was an actual historical event.
”It’s like a lot of those could-be’s in biblical research,” Mr. Shanks said in an interview. ”You find a shroud and say it could be the shroud of Jesus. You find evidence of a flood and say it could be Noah’s flood. The same thing may be happening with the volcano and the Exodus.”
Interpretation of Inscriptions
According to Dr. Goedicke’s interpretation of Egyptian inscriptions from the reign of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, a woman, the Exodus took place in the spring of 1477 along the shore of the Mediterranean. The Israelites turned to defend themselves against the pursuing Egyptian army at a plateau near Lake Manzala. The Egyptian chariots on the plain below the plateau were suddenly wiped out by a flood of water. Dr. Goedicke said this could have been a tsunami, or tidal wave, set off by the volcanic eruption on Santorini.
Dr. Goedicke said that he still held to his theory and planned to publish a scholarly account of his findings next year. And Dr. Stanley has just returned from another expedition in which he obtained more cores from the Nile delta and the western Sinai and perhaps more evidence suggesting a link between the volcano and the Exodus.