1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.
K. Kris Hirst

New Dates for Egyptian and Bronze Age History: What About Santorini?

By June 18, 2010

Follow me on:

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

Lahun Papyrus 10419a, Late Middle Kingdom (2025-1700 BC)
Lahun Papyrus 10419a, Late Middle Kingdom (2025-1700 BC). Photo Courtesy of
Ezra Marcus

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.

Period High Low Bronk-Ramsay (95%)
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

Santorini Caldera Wall from the Minoan 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

Saqqara Step Pyramid and the Funerary Complex of Djoser
Saqqara Step Pyramid and the Funerary Complex of Djoser. Photo Courtesy
Anita Quiles

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

Offering Bowl from New Kingdom Deir el-Bahri
Offering Bowl from New Kingdom Deir el-Bahri. Photo Courtesy of
Ezra Marcus

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.

Comments

June 22, 2010 at 2:51 am
(1) Surreyman says:

I don’t think “Santorini is a volcano located on the island of Thera”?
They are alternative names for the same island – and the volcano, of course, virtually is the island!

June 22, 2010 at 5:05 pm
(2) Cindy says:

Perhaps the writer needs to take a trip to Santorini! I highly recommend it. Beautiful sunsets and great wine tasting memories. Ahhhhh

June 23, 2010 at 8:04 am
(3) Kris Hirst says:

A reader just wrote and asked for some suggestions about traveling to Santorini. My colleague at About.com James Martin, who is an ex-archaeologist and the guide for Europe for Travelers, has two excellent articles on sites to see in Santorini.

Santorini Map and Travel Guide
Santorini: Island of the Week

March 16, 2012 at 3:57 am
(4) Stein Vere says:

Kris Hirst,

The article is clear – and helpful!

I appreciate you getting further comment from Higham.

His assessment seems to be the one I assume as well:

The Egyptian chronology is basically right: the New Kingdom starts c1550. The c-date for Thera is basically right: it erupted c1613.

Those who interpret the Egyptian archeological data to mean the eruption happened in c1500 are basically wrong. They are misunderstanding what they are looking at, or there is a problem with their evidence.

December 29, 2013 at 12:02 am
(5) Charles Boden says:

Tree ring analysis have shown that a global cooling took place for a number of years after 1627. In my view, this would seem like the best evidence and basis to establish the year of the eruption of Thera/Santorini.

There is also very little doubt in my mind the Minoan cataclism caused by the eruption is not the basis for the story told by Plato 1,300 years later abt Atlantis. The proximity of Santorini and particularly Crete (one of the names of the two friends in the Atlantean dialogue is called Kritis/Cretis) to the delta of the Nile and the archaeological findings at Akrotiri, on Santorini, and the Palace of Knossos in Crete, have already evidenced the technological advancement of the Minoans for their age.

December 29, 2013 at 12:28 am
(6) Charles Boden says:

There is further evidence in the known famine during and after the reign of Neferhotep III (Reign ca 1629), which is very coincidental w/ what is described in biblical scriptures regarding Joseph and the plagues and seven-year famine in Egypt. “Paharaoh” would be most likely Neferhotep III.

December 29, 2013 at 12:34 am
(7) Charles Boden says:

I am referring to years BC of course…

December 29, 2013 at 12:41 am
(8) Charles Boden says:

During the Exodus, Moses must have crossed the Suez Canal (referred to in the Bible as the Red Sea), which receded prior to the subsequent tsunami caused by the eruption, enabling the Jewish people to cross and then swallowing the Egyptian army that was pursuing them.

December 29, 2013 at 12:47 am
(9) Charles Boden says:

Sorry, upon looking up Google Earth the location of the crossing having been the gulf of Suez does not fit, though nevertheless the Theran tsunami may indeed be related to the “opening of the sea” referred to in the exodus.

December 29, 2013 at 12:59 am
(10) Charles Boden says:

Yes, I just did a little more research and found that Neferhotep III called Thebes/Alexandria “my city” and praised himself as “the guide of victorious Thebes”. From Thebes, the likely route of the exodus towards Israel would likely take them along the coast… Look forward to your views.

Charles

December 29, 2013 at 1:08 am
(11) Charles Boden says:

The coast of the Mediterranean Sea, of course… :-)

December 29, 2013 at 1:22 am
(12) Charles Boden says:

And Crete would have been Atlantis… :-)

December 29, 2013 at 1:33 am
(13) Charles Boden says:

Actually Crete, Santorini and the surrounding islands. The “Minoans” were the “Atlanteans”, and yes, in that region they were surrounded by beauty and abundance and were in paradise…

December 29, 2013 at 2:11 am
(14) Charles Boden says:

More evidence:

More evidence:

Ancient Egypt Cities Leveled by Massive Volcano, Lava Find Suggests
Dan Morrison in Cairo
for National Geographic News
April 2, 2007
Egyptian archaeologists today announced that they have unearthed traces of solidified lava on the northern coast of Sinai that date to around 1500 B.C.—supporting accounts that ancient Egyptian settlements were buried by a massive volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean, they say.

The archaeological team, led by Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, found houses, military structures, and tombs encased in ash, along with fragments of pumice, near the ancient Egyptian fortress of Tharo, on the Horus military road. Tharo is located close to El Qantara, where the Nile Delta meets the Sinai peninsula (Egypt map).

Ancient Tsunami Smashed Europe, Middle East, Study Says (December 4, 2006)
According to Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the council, the lava and ash hail from Santorini, an eastern Mediterranean volcano that has been linked to the myth of Atlantis. (Related: “‘Atlantis’ Eruption Twice as Big as Previously Believed, Study Suggests” [August 23, 2006].)

The new find seems to confirm accounts from ancient artwork and documents that recount the destruction of coastal cities in Egypt and Palestine during the 15th dynasty (1650-1550 B.C.), when foreigners known as the Hyksos ruled Egypt.

The scientists suggest that trade winds may have carried a blizzard of ash to Egypt from Santorini, located about 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) from Tharo.

The archaeologists also theorize that the volcano created a giant tsunami that swept the lava all the way to Egypt. A Santorini-caused tsunami is believed to have helped wipe out the Minoan civilization, based on nearby Crete.

But other experts doubt that lava from the volcano could have reached Sinai that way and suggest the deposits were carried in sometime later by regular ocean currents

December 29, 2013 at 2:17 am
(15) Charles Boden says:

Here we go:

First of all there is the plague of darkness. This might have been the result of a massive cloud of fallout ash. After the Mount Saint Helens eruption the sun was obscured for hours over 500 miles from the volcano. According to Exodus 10: 21-23:

And there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days.

The plague of hail (above) and the plague of boils (below) by an unknown eighteenth-century illustrator.
In Exodus 9:23-26 we are told that Egypt is afflicted by a another plague – a terrible fiery hailstorm:

And the Lord sent thunder and hail… So there was hail and fire mingled with the hail… And the hail smote all throughout the land of Egypt, all that was in the field, both man and beast, and brake every tree in the field.

This would be an accurate description of the dreadful ordeal suffered by people in the shadow of the Mount Saint Helens fallout cloud in 1980 – pellet-sized volcanic debris falling like hail; fiery pumice setting fires on the ground and destroying trees and houses; lightning flashing around, generated by the tremendous turbulence inside the volcanic cloud. For days volcanic debris fell like hailstones, flattening crops for miles around.

The Exodus account of another of the plagues could easily be a report given by someone living in the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana, over which the volcanic fallout cloud was blown after the Mount Saint Helens eruption of 1980:

December 29, 2013 at 2:18 am
(16) Charles Boden says:

And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast… (Exodus 9:9.)

Fine dust causing boils and blains! Hundreds of people were taken to hospital with skin sores and rashes after the Mount Saint Helens eruption due to exposure to the acidic fallout ash, and livestock perished or had to be destroyed due to prolonged inhalation of the volcanic dust. According to Exodus 9:6:

And all the cattle of Egypt died.

December 29, 2013 at 2:19 am
(17) Charles Boden says:

The Plague of Blood painted by the French artist James Tissot in 1896.
After the Mount Saint Helens eruption fish also died and were found floating on the surface of hundreds of miles of waterways. The pungent odor of pumice permeated everything and water supplies had to be cut off until the impurities could be filtered from reservoirs. According to Exodus 7:21:

And the fish that was in the river died: and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the river, and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.

As well as the grey pumice ash volcanoes blast skywards, many volcanoes have another, more corrosive toxin in their bedrock – iron oxide. (This is the same red material that covers the surface of Mars.) After the Mount Saint Helens eruption thousands of tons of iron oxide were discharged into the rivers killing fish for miles around. It would certainly explain the Exodus reference to the Nile turning to blood, as iron oxide would turn the river red:

And all the waters that were in the river turned to blood. (Exodus 7:20).

Over the years various scholars have individually attributed these plagues to different natural phenomena. The darkness could have been due to a particularly violent sandstorm and the hail the result of freak weather conditions. The boils could have been caused by an epidemic and the bloodied river may have been the result of some seismic activity far to the south, near the Nile’s source. However, the likelihood of them all happening at the same time seems just too remote. A volcanic eruption would account for them all.

December 29, 2013 at 2:44 am
(18) Charles Boden says:

Given this possible route to the exodus, in my view the strongest probable mount Moses would have climbed and, according to the scriptures, received the 10 commandments, would be the mount next to Bir El Malhi, where there is a large well to which the Jewish people could probably have been led to by guides through the desert, which no doubt would have been contracted for such a task.

December 29, 2013 at 3:01 am
(19) Charles Boden says:

The “rivers turning to blood” would be due to the residue lava from the eruption, and the plagues a consequence of it…

December 29, 2013 at 3:05 am
(20) Charles Boden says:

The death of 1st born children could have been caused by the venemous gases, as they often had the best sleeping place which was usually higher than their brothers’, or because of the 1st served meals which had the right to, where higher levels of bacteria may have at the top of the food in their storing places may have poisoned them? I would go w/ the 1st option, as supposedly they all died in one night.

December 29, 2013 at 3:08 am
(21) Charles Boden says:

Sorry, re-posting the last msg:

The death of 1st born children could have been caused by the venemous gases, as they often had the best sleeping place which was usually higher than their brothers’, or because of the 1st served meals, which they had the right to, where higher levels of bacteria may have developed at the top of the food in their storing places and may have poisoned them? I would go w/ the 1st option, as supposedly they all died in one night.

December 29, 2013 at 3:29 am
(22) Charles Boden says:

Can we announce the theory together, Kris? :-) I would like a reputable archaeologist to back it up…

Leave a Comment


Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.