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Sodom and Gomorrah may have been destroyed by debris from a comet, startling new archaeological and astronomical research suggests. Another bombardment from space may have brought on the Dark Ages.

The research, to be presented to a conference at Cambridge University this summer, provides dramatic evidence for an extraterrestrial cause for the wholesale collapse of several civilisations around 2200BC.

The conference, on natural catastrophes during Bronze Age civilisations, will bring together astronomers, archaeologists, geologists and other scientists to try to find an explanation for the near-simultaneous fall of the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, the Sumerian civilisation in Mesopotamia and the Harrapin Civilisation of the Indus Valley. In all, some 40 cities are thought to have disappeared, in a series of catastrophes.

Astronomers calculate that the Earth is bombarded by a particular dense storm of meteorites over a couple of centuries every 2,500 years - the last two blitzes would have occurred around 2200-2000BC and 400-600AD.

French archaeologist Marie-Agnes Courty will provide powerful corroborative evidence: samples dating from 2200BC from three Middle Eastern regions all containing a calcite material found only in meteorites.

Tradition ascribed the destruction of the Cities of the Plain to the same period. Genesis describes how "the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven" - a fair description of a meteorite storm.

Dr Benny Peiser, of Liverpool's John Moores University who is organising the conference, says the destruction is clear from the archaeological record and that cometary debris could explain it. Previous explanations, like earthquake or volcanic eruption, could not account for destruction over such a vast area, covering most of the then known world.

While sceptical about Biblical chronologies he thinks the story could be a description of the impact of the debris, "a record of a real natural event that ended up as a Biblical tradition".

Dr Victor Clube, senior research fellow in astrophysics at Oxford, says the Biblical account accords well with similar events in Babylonian records. He has calculated that the Earth would have passed through a particularly dense cloud of debris - the Taurid meteorite stream, thought to have resulted from the break-up of a comet 40,000 years ago - between 2200 and 2000BC.

This happened again between 400 and 600AD and may have led to the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages, when contemporaries report "fires of righteous vengeance" falling from the sky.

The Taurid Stream is not due to return until the end of the next millennium but Dr Clube says that similar bombardments from other debris could occur in the meantime. "There is danger in the sky," he warns, "and people would be right to be afraid."