A clay tablet that has baffled scientists for more than a century has been identified as a witness's account of an asteroid that destroyed the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah 5,000 years ago.
Researchers believe that the tablet's symbols give a detailed account of how a mile-long asteroid hit the region, causing thousands of deaths and devastating more than one million sq km (386,000 sq miles).
The impact, equivalent to more than 1,000 tons of TNT exploding, would have created one of the world's biggest-ever landslides.
Scientists claim the tablet, thought to be a 700BC copy from an even earlier civilisation, describes how a mile-long asteroid hit the Earth
The Old Testament story describes how God destroyed the 'wicked sinners' of Sodom with fire and brimstone but allowed Lot, the city's one good man, to flee with his family.
The theory is the work of two rocket scientists - Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell - who have spent the past eight years piecing together the archaeological puzzle.
At its heart is a clay tablet called the Planisphere, discovered by the Victorian archaeologist Henry Layard in the remains of the library of the Royal Palace at Nineveh.
Using computers to recreate the night sky thousands of years ago, they have pinpointed the sighting described on the tablet - a 700BC copy of notes of the night sky as seen by a Sumerian astrologer in one of the world's earliest-known civilisations - to shortly before dawn on June 29 in the year 3123BC.
Half the tablet records planet positions and clouds, while the other half describes the movement of an object looking like a 'stone bowl' travelling quickly across the sky.
The description matches a type of asteroid known as an Aten type, which orbits the Sun close to the Earth. Its trajectory would have put it on a collision course with the Otz Valley.
'It came in at a very low angle - around six degrees - and then clipped a mountain called Gaskogel around 11km from Köfels,' said Mr Hempsell.
'This caused it to explode - and as it travelled down the valley it became a fireball.
Biblical proportions: Researchers claim the tablet is a witness's account of the asteroid responsible for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as described in the Old Testament
'When it hit Köfels it created enormous pressures which pulverised the rock and caused the landslide. But because it wasn't solid, there was no crater.'
The explosion would have created a mushroom cloud, while a plume of smoke would have been seen for hundreds of miles.
Mr Hempsell said another part of the tablet, which is 18cm across and shaped like a bowl, describes a plume of smoke around dawn the following morning.
'You need to know the context before you can translate it,' said Mr Hempsell, of Bristol University.
Geologists have dated the landslide to around 9,000 years ago, far earlier than the Sumerian record. However, Mr Hempsell, who has published a book on the theory, believes contaminated samples from the asteroid may have confused previous dating attempts.
Academics were also quick to disagree with the findings, which were published in A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels's Impact Event.
John Taylor, a retired expert in Near Eastern archaeology at the British Museum, said there was no evidence that the ancient Sumerians were able to make such accurate astronomical records, while our knowledge of Sumerian language was incomplete.
'I remain unconvinced by these results,' he added.