High/Low Chronologies of Bronze Age

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Determining the Dates of Ancient Egypt
Lahun Papyrus 10419a - Courtesy of Ezra Marcus
Lahun Papyrus 10419a, Late Middle Kingdom (2025-1700 BC). Courtesy of Ezra Marcus
Updated August 23, 2015.

One very long lasting debate in Bronze Age Mediterranean archaeology has to do with attempting to match calendar dates to those associated with Egyptian regnal lists. To some scholars, the debate henges on a single olive branch.

Egyptian Dynastic History is traditionally split into three Kingdoms (during which a big hunk of the Nile valley was consistently unified), separated by two intermediate periods (when non-Egyptians ruled Egypt).

(The late Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, established by Alexander the Great’s generals and including the famous Cleopatra, has no such problem). 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 some radiocarbon dates of archaeological sites, and have been tweaked over the past century and a half. But, the controversy continues, as illustrated by a series of articles in Antiquity as recently as 2014.

A Tighter Chronology

Beginning in the 21st century, a team of scholars led by Christopher Bronk-Ramsay at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit contacted museums and obtained non-mummified plant material (basketry, plant-based textiles, and plant seeds, stems and fruits) tied to specific pharaohs.

Those samples, like the Lahun papyrus in the image, were carefully selected to be ”short-lived samples from impeccable contexts”, as Thomas Higham has described them.

The samples were radiocarbon-dated using AMS strategies, providing the last column of dates in the table below.

High and Low Bronze Age Chronologies
Event High Low Bronk-Ramsey et al
Old Kingdom Start 2667 BC 2592 BC 2591-2625 cal BC
Old Kingdom End 2345 BC 2305 BC 2423-2335 cal BC
Middle Kingdom Start 2055 BC 2009 BC 2064-2019 cal BC
Middle Kingdom End 1773 BC 1759 BC 1797-1739 cal BC
New Kingdom Start 1550 BC 1539 BC 1570-1544 cal BC
New Kingdom End 1099 BC 1106 BC 1116-1090 cal BC

In general, the radiocarbon 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.

But the issue has yet to be resolved, in part because of the problems associated with dating the Santorini eruption.

The Santorini Eruption

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, all the civilizations within the Mediterranean region.

Archaeological evidence sought for the date of the eruption has included local evidence of

a tsunami and

interrupted groundwater supplies,

as well as acidity levels in ice cores as far away as Greenland.

Dates for when this massive eruption occurred are startlingly controversial.

The most precise radiocarbon date for the occurrence is 1627-1600 BC, based on the branch of 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.

 
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