This week, a research team based at Oxford University reported in the journal Science on the results of an extensive radiocarbon dating effort on ancient Egyptian dynastic history, which helps with existing chronologies. But, despite the analytical examination, the report still leaves a central question about the Santorini eruption and its place in Mediterranean history unresolved.
Ancient historical records and relative dating information, as well as radiocarbon dates on various sites within the Egyptian dynasties have of course been completed in the past, but the absolute dates of the kings of the three major periods of Egyptian history are the ongoing focus of debate. So, at the moment, there are several chronologies for the Old (best known for the Pyramids at Giza), Middle, and New (best known for the "boy king" Tutankhamen) Kingdoms of Egypt.
High and Low Chronologies
Egyptian Dynastic History is traditionally split into three Kingdoms (during which a big hunk of the Nile valley was consistently unified), separated by three intermediate periods (when non-Egyptians ruled Egypt). The two most-used chronologies today are called "High" and "Low"--the "Low" being the younger--and with some variations, these chronologies are used by scholars studying all of the Mediterranean Bronze Age.
As a rule these days, historians generally use the "High" chronology. These dates were compiled using historical records produced during the lives of the pharaohs, and other radiocarbon dates of archaeological sites, and have been tweaked over the past century and a half. The Oxford University team contacted museums and obtained non-mummified plant material (basketry, plant-based textiles, and plant seeds, stems and fruits) tied to specific pharaohs. These materials were newly radiocarbon-dated, providing the last column of dates.
|Old Kingdom Start||2667 BC||2592 BC||2691-2625 BC|
|Old Kingdom End||2345 BC||2305 BC||2423-2335 BC|
|Middle Kingdom Start||2055 BC||2009 BC||2064-2019 BC|
|Middle Kingdom End||1773 BC||1759 BC||1797-1739 BC|
|New Kingdom Start||1550 BC||1539 BC||1570-1544 BC|
|New Kingdom End||1099 BC||1106 BC||1116-1090 BC|
In general, the new dating supports the conventionally used High chronology, except perhaps that the dates for Old and New Kingdoms are slightly older than that of the traditional chronologies.
Dating the Santorini Eruption
This photo shows the caldera wall of Santorini, looking to the north. The light layer is the pumice and ash of the Santorini eruption, also known as the Minoan eruption. The site where the olive tree was found is visible right above the head of the sitting person. Photo courtesy Science © 2006 (Friedrich et al.)
For me, pretty much clueless when it comes to Egyptology, the interesting part of this story is the implications for the Santorini eruption dates.
Santorini is a volcano located on the island of Thera in the Mediterranean Sea. During the Late Bronze Age of the 16th-17th centuries BC, Santorini erupted, violently, pretty much putting an end to the Minoan civilization and disturbing, as you might imagine, the civilizations within the Mediterranean. Archaeological evidence sought for the date of the eruption has included local evidence of a tsunami and interrupted groundwater supplies, as well as ice core evidence as far away as Greenland.
Dates for when this massive eruption occurred are startling complicated. The most precise radiocarbon date for the occurrence is 1627-1600 BC, based on an olive tree that was buried by ashfall from the eruption; and on animal bones on the Minoan occupation of Palaikastro. But, according to archaeo-historical records, the eruption took place during the founding of the New Kingdom, ca. 1550 BC. None of the chronologies, not High, not Low, not the Bronk-Ramsay radiocarbon study, suggest that the New Kingdom was founded any earlier than ca. 1550.
Correcting Late Bronze Age Dates
So, I asked the Oxford team why they think this discrepancy still exists, and Thomas Higham, Deputy Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, sent along this comment:
"The dating of the eruption of Santorini has proven difficult to date because when you radiocarbon date single samples, the calibrated age ranges you obtain can be very wide. Typically, for a single date we obtain ranges of ~1700-1600 BC, but with another possible date range in the 1500s, albeit at a lower probability. This uncertainty is why until the last 5-10 years radiocarbon has not been able to pin down a precise date for the eruption itself. Archaeological dating, based on the relative comparisons of artefacts and pottery associations across the Egyptian and eastern Mediterranean worlds, is sometimes ambiguous, but conventionally the Theran eruption has been dated to 1500-1525 BC.
"In 2006 our group published a new chronology for Santorini in Science which was based on a Bayesian statistical analysis of a large series of carefully dated short-lived samples from impeccable contexts. This showed the earlier chronology, ie a date within the 1600s BC, to be the correct one. The age we obtained was 1660-1616 BC. Similar high precision dating of an olive branch in the deposits of the eruption mirrored this result, lending further confidence.
"Our new research shows that there are no substantial offsets between radiocarbon dating and the Egyptian historic chronology, although there are some parts of the historic chronology, as long suspected, that do indicate a slightly earlier age is more likely for the start of the Old and New Kingdoms. What is important, is that we can demonstrate no regional differences in C14 of the type that have often been invoked to explain the older than expected results from sites dating, for instance, to the Theran eruption. We show a very small (c.19 years) local effect, which can become important when dating to very high levels of precision. This suggests to us that some of relatively dated archaeological linkages within the eastern Mediterranean chronologies may well be in need of modification."
Sources and Further Info
- Egyptian Timeline
- Minoan Culture
- What is Radiocarbon Dating?
- Dating the Theran Eruption: Akrotiri
- Temple of Deir el Bahri (New Kingdom)
- Step Pyramid of Djoser (Old Kingdom)
Baillie MGL. 2010. Volcanoes, ice-cores and tree-rings: one story or two? Antiquity 84(323):202-215.
Balter, Michael. 2010. New Dates for Egypt's Pharaohs. Science. News release on line.
Bronk Ramsey C, Dee MW, Rowland JM, Higham TFG, Harris SA, Brock F, Quiles A, Wild EM, Marcus ES, and Shortland AJ. 2010. Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic Egypt. Science 328:1554-1557.
Bruins HJ. 2010. Dating Pharaonic Egypt. Science 328:1489-1490.
Bruins HJ, MacGillivray JA, Synolakis CE, Benjamini C, Keller J, Kisch HJ, Klugel A, and van der Plicht J. 2008. Geoarchaeological tsunami deposits at Palaikastro (Crete) and the Late Minoan IA eruption of Santorini. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(1):191-212.
Friedrich WL, Kromer B, Friedrich M, Heinemeier J, Pfeiffer T, and Talamo S. 2006. Santorini Eruption Radiocarbon Dated to 1627-1600 B.C. Science 312(5773):548.
Gorokhovich Y. 2005. Abandonment of Minoan palaces on Crete in relation to the earthquake induced changes in groundwater supply. Journal of Archaeological Science 32(2):217-222.
Manning SW, Bronk Ramsey C, Kutschera W, Higham T, Kromer B, Steier P, and Wild EM. 2006. Chronology for the Aegean Late Bronze Age 1700-1400 B.C. Science 312(5773):565-569.
Zielinski GA, and Germani MS. 1998. New ice-core evidence challenges the 1620s BC age for the Santorini (Minoan eruption). Journal of Archaeological Science 25:279-289.