Thursday, May 14, 2009

Have we acquired 250 years too much prehistory?

Is it possible that 250 extra years have accidentally been inserted into the conventional chronology for the years around 1000BC? This idea has been around for a while but I have only just got around to reading Centuries of Darkness by Peter Jones et al (now out of print). This book gives the most rigorous defence of the idea. You can get a good idea of his ideas from his website.

I should say at the outset that I’m not very convinced, but before explaining why, let me run through Jones’s thesis. The absolute dates applied to almost all archaeological findings prior to 700BC are ultimately derived from the sequence of Egyptian pharaohs and their regal years. During the period between about 750BC and 1250BC, Egypt was a bit of a mess with more than one pharaoh ruling at once. This makes it harder to assign exact dates to them all. Jones believes that the pharaohs who we think ruled in about 1250BC were actually reigning in about 1000BC. Now, when you find a scarab of Ramses II in an archaeological stratum, it means you should date the stratum near to the reign of Ramses II. But if we don’t know when he reigned, we don’t know the absolute date of the stratum either. All we have is a relative sequence that can be stretched, contracted, raised or lowered as we see fit. So the challenge is fixing absolute dates to nail down the relative chronology.

Jones’s schema has a number of advantages. The most important is that there was a ‘dark age’ between about 1250BC and 750BC during which archaeological remains are very slight compared to the previous and subsequent periods. We have no good explanation for this dark age except the traditional theory of invasions by Dorians and Sea Peoples. The trouble is, the evidence for this is close to nil and we don’t even know who the Sea Peoples were. The dark age extends right the way across the Mediterranean basin. And of course, you know what I think about labelling periods as dark ages!

Another advantage is that Jones’s revised chronology aligns much better with the Old Testament than the conventional chronology. Apart from the minimalists, most historians continue to treat David and Solomon as historical for good reasons, but we have difficulty placing them in the extant remains.

The final advantage is that the Jones chronology explains how the Hittites contrived to disappear in one place and reappear somewhere else two hundred years later. These neo-Hittites are a difficult anomaly for archaeologists.

The revised chronology has been kicked around for years (Jones and his team first published their theory back in 1992). David Rohl, whose books I have not read, has given alternative chronologies a bad name by some wacky theories and pot-boiling bestsellers. But Centuries of Darkness, although an excellent and informative read recommended strongly on this ground alone, is a much more scholarly and sober proposition than Rohl.

Ultimately, though, I’m unconvinced. And to Jones’s great credit he lays out the problems with his theory very clearly. You see, we not only have lists of Egyptian pharaohs, we also have contemporaneous lists of Assyrian kings. It seems quite plausible that one list is largely wrong. But the Assyrian evidence, while not watertight, is very hard to explain away (although Jones tries). Ultimately, I was left with the impression that while each bit of evidence for the conventional chronology can be questioned, the scheme as a whole hangs together quite well.

That is not to say that matters are entirely clear cut. A few anomalous carbon 14 samples or tree ring analyses might just open a real can of worms. For the sake of seeing egg liberally splashed over the faces of very many professors of archaeology, let’s hope so.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing about Rohl before. I'm a bit halfhearted about it though. It's a big restructuring job.