Amos M. Nur swayed from a rope ladder on a rugged cliff by the Sea of Galilee.
Nur, a 1998-99 AAPG Distinguished Lecturer, came to this remote location to pursue a 2,000-year-old mystery.
Four decades earlier, in a cave in the cliff face above, Israeli archaeologists had found a scroll fragment with writing in Hebrew.
Could the caves in these cliffs hold a treasure of undiscovered Dead Sea Scrolls?
At the moment, the question was secondary to Nur. He came here searching for the skeleton of a man buried under collapsed rock.
A member of the Israeli expedition claimed he'd seen the bones in a chamber of the deep cavern. More than that, he had snatched from them a piece of belted robe.
The robe appeared to be Essene, worn by a member of the sect believed to have written and stored the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Nur heard this story first-hand. He now had a map to guide his way. And he had a theory.
If it was right, the man in the cave had died in 31 BC.
After scaling the cliff face, Nur and his companions made their way into the pitch-dark, 600-foot-deep cavern. Moving carefully, they entered the chamber marked on the map.
They clambered over stones and boulders scattered on the cave floor and reached the designated spot, only to find ...
But first, a little background.
Long Ago and Far Away
Nur holds one of the premier posts in academic geoscience, serving as head of the geophysics department at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.
He is the Wayne Loel Professor of Earth Sciences, a professor of geophysics and also director of the Stanford Program in Crustal Fluids.
Nur, who received his doctorate in geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has published three books and more than 180 papers, on subjects ranging from evaluation of seismic velocity to measurement of gas hydrates.
A specialist in rock physics, and particularly propagation of liquids in rock, Nur is known for his pioneering work in 4-D seismic. He may even have named it -- others have mentioned it, but he downplays the connection.
"I believe our work at Stanford was the first that defined 4-D seismic," he said, quietly. "I don't know if I coined the term or not."
Anyway, those credentials have little to do with Nur's AAPG lecture. His topic arose as much from his location as his vocation.
Tremors along northern California faults have damaged buildings at Stanford, sometimes extensively. One practically wrecked Nur's own office.
This local seismic activity triggered his curiosity about the time-space pattern of such events. But he knew it would take hundreds or even thousands of years of data to complete a meaningful study.
Nur needed to find a place with both high seismicity and a long recorded history -- a place where reports of damage and destruction could be traced back as far as possible, even as far as Biblical times.
So, Biblical lands were a logical choice. He began to research the eastern Mediterranean region, eventually developing an interest he calls as an "addictive hobby."
What destroyed the greatest cities of the Ancient World?
What tumbled the walls of Jericho?
What force is mighty enough to cause destruction at Armageddon?
Nur believes he knows the answer:
I've Got a Crush on You
Specifically, it was the power of the Earth's geology, Nur said, that buried the Dead Sea Scrolls, brought Knossos to ruins and leveled ancient Troy.
Speaking at a meeting of the Tulsa Geological Society in February, Nur displayed a battery of maps, illustrations and photographs to support his theory.
One photo showed a slipped keystone in a Roman-style arch, evidence of the force that had shaken the structure. Nearby excavation revealed an unburied skeleton.
"Many historians prefer to interpret destruction in places like this in terms of human action -- attacks by armies," he said. "A crushed skeleton is hard to explain because even in those days, people buried the victims of war.
"In Jericho you can find crushed human skulls in the collapse. They didn't bury their dead under rubble in those days. Similar things are found in Mycenae -- humans crushed under the fall of houses."
Nur said archaeologists have unearthed evidence of repeated destruction at the strategically located city of Megiddo, or Har Megiddon (Mount Meggido). The name is better known in its Greek form.
"Armageddon is just a corrupted translation of the name from the Hebrew," he explained. "It's the single most excavated site in the Holy Land."
In addition to its religious link with the Bible's book of The Revelation, Armageddon is interesting for its importance in history, according to Nur.
"Its location on a travel route through a key valley gave it a crucial role in both trade and conflicts in the region," he said. "Armageddon was a strategic fort that controlled the passage through this narrow zone, especially when war was contemplated."
Cycles of destruction and rebuilding make Armageddon a complex site to understand, Nur said, and "the more they excavate, the more complicated it gets. A lot of things don't make sense here."
For example, he displayed a photo of an excavated area where the foundation of a stable overlaps the foundation of an older stable. To Nur, it looked as if the older stable had been destroyed suddenly, or shaken to the ground, and the next stable constructed from its building stones.
Whole Lotta' Shakin'
Armageddon's destruction may be not only a prophetic vision, but also a remembrance and reflection of an actual historic event, according to Nur.
Megiddo sat near an active fault that extends to Haifa, part of the Dead Sea fault system. In the Book of Revelation, Armageddon is singled out as the site of earth-trembling destruction "such as was not since men were upon the earth."
"Surprisingly," Nur said, "this is what the archeological and geological record also would suggest."
Throughout this region, excavations show cities being rebuilt time after time, with telltale layers of construction gone to rubble, Nur explained.
"Troy was destroyed and rebuilt 45 times in its history, something like that," he said. "Armageddon has at least 32 layers. That means it was destroyed at least 32 times.
"Jericho has collapsed and been repaired many times," he continued. "Jericho has 22 layers of destruction and therefore rebuilding. On average, every 500 years that place was destroyed."
Ancient historians surely saw each destructive episode as a unique event, never to be repeated, Nur believes.
"In nine out of 10 instances, they refer to this as a singular occurrence in the history of the universe," he said.
Nur's study of such catastrophic events has given him an appreciation for sudden and violent change in nature.
"They are the ultimate examples, together with volcanoes, of catastrophes," he said. "Catastrophes preceded evolution. Until Darwin's time, catastrophism was taken as the rule and considered the wrath of God."
Today geologists are more willing to accept wrenching change as a factor in the Earth's development -- along with slower evolutionary processes, he said.
"In the last 30-40 years, catastrophism has come back in a respectable way," Nur wryly observed.
Throughout the fault-branch areas of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, Nur can see evidence of the broad destruction that struck time and again through history.
"At one place I was doing some field work with an Israeli, and we drove by a ruined Crusaders site on the Syrian border," he recalled. "We decided to stop and take a look, and it became pretty obvious what had happened."
Based on his studies, Nur co-wrote the award-winning film The Walls Came Tumbling Down, which explores the theory of seismic activity as a destructive force in Biblical times.
I Ain't Got No Body
And the skeleton in the cave?
The man who claimed he'd found it first saw The Walls Came Tumbling Down on Israeli television and contacted Nur.
Watching the film helped him understand what must have happened to the body in the cave, he said. With the mystery solved, he told Nur that "he'd had his first night of good sleep in 40 years."
More than that, he provided a map to pinpoint the location of the bones.
So Nur traveled to the site and found the cave, accessible only by rope ladder. He and his companions made their way to the spot marked on the map, only to find -- no skeleton, but hundreds of rocks and boulders that might have concealed it.
Nur climbed out of the cave and called his source on a cellular phone. So much time had passed, the man apologized, that he couldn't be precise about the location. He couldn't even be certain which chamber he had entered.
Now, Nur says he himself might not get a good night's sleep until this new mystery is solved.
He has a theory about it, in part drawn from the work of the Jewish historian Josephus, who described a major seismic event that killed 10,000 people and devastated the region in 31 B.C.
Recent carbon dating has placed the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls in that period, Nur said.
So it might have been that a member of the Essene sect entered this remote cave more than 2,000 years ago.
He made his way into one of the deep chambers, perhaps with an oil lamp, tightened his belt around his robe, and then -- Earthquake.