Monday, April 04, 2011

What Happened When? Ancient Near East Chronology

I have always been interested in chronology, perhaps because it promises to apply some numerical rigour to ancient history. Sadly, things are rarely that simple. I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Jones' Centuries of Darkness, but ultimately found its proposal of a radical reform of ancient chronology to be unconvincing. But from time to time, I like to see how the chronological debates in ancient near eastern history (“ANE”) have progressed. The answer is usually, not by very much.

The problem with chronology is the need to pin an absolute date to relative dates. For example, if we have a list of kings of Assyria and how long they all reigned, we have a relative chronology for the Assyrians. If we also have references to the Assyrians sacking an Israelite city in the biblical records, we can pin the Assyrian chronology to the Hebrew one. And if an Egyptian pharaoh marched around Judea and this is recorded both in Egypt and the Bible, then we can attach the chronology of Egypt to our scheme as well. But we also need an absolute date so we can say exactly when a specified event happened. We can then extrapolate all our relative dates from this single absolute date to get an absolute chronology.

And herein lies the problem. Carbon 14 dates are nothing like accurate enough to provide absolute dates. The best that we can hope for is plus or minus thirty years, but there are serious doubts that the technique provides even this level of accuracy. Dendrochronology, dating from tree rings, can give you an absolute date for the year in which a tree was felled, but you cannot easily tie this to a historical event.

In fact, there is only one absolute date that everyone agrees with before the classical period. This is a total eclipse of the sun that took place on 14 June 763BC. NASA helpfully provides a map showing the path of the eclipse moving right across the Middle East (as well as a catalogue of all eclipses). Assyrian records note this eclipse in the 9th year of the reign of King Ashur-dan III. This ties all the ANE chronologies together, at least for the first half of the first millennium BC.

For chronology before 1000BC, things get complicated. Absolute dates have to be derived from observations about the rise of the star Sirius (Sothic dating used in Egypt) or the visibility of Venus (used in Babylon). But neither of these provides a single accurate date. For instance, the observations of Venus that tie to the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon occur every 60 years or so, which means that high, middle and low chronologies (with about 120 years between them) can all be argued for.

These problems could largely be solved if it was possible to date the Thera volcanic eruption that devastated large parts of the Mediterranean basin. Traditionally, this was believed to have happened shortly after 1500BC, but carbon dating and dendrochronology suggested a date of 1627BC. Evidence for the ash and pumice that the volcano ejected is laminated all over Asia Minor but, remarkably, the eruption is not recorded in any surviving records. Worse, it doesn’t even show up in the Greenland ice cores, where it should be very obvious. A likely candidate in 1642BC turns out to have been an eruption in Alaska. Quite why traces of the 60 cubic kilometres of rock ejected from Santorini do not stick out like a sore thumb or feature in any Egyptian records is odd to say the least.

So it seems by dreams of mathematical precision in the field of ancient chronology have been dashed. This probably won’t change until someone figures out how to precisely date the Thera eruption or new eclipse records turn up.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Joel said...

Do you think this is part of why there is such a wide range of opinions on the Old Testament's historicity?

James said...

Hi Joel,

Hmm. I think that you question requires a further blog post. I'll try to write something up when I have a spare moment.

Best wishes


tolkein said...

I read Rohl's A Test of Time - his later works seemed moonbattish to me, but the thesis in ATOT seemed very plausible. If, and it's a big if, Rameses 11 is the same as Sisak, rather than Shoshenq, then Bible chronology around the start of the United Kingdom seems a lot more robust.

The thing is, ancient chronologies depend on just a few, very few, synchronicities and Rohl has at least a plausible story to tell. Shame about his later works.

Duke of Earl said...

Perhaps the solution is simply to accept that we can't form a link between the various dating systems and move on.

The Bible has a chronology that places the Exodus about 1450-1400BC. Who was the Egyptian Pharoah then? Don't know, don't care.

Likewise with trying to link the other histories together. Much easier to just date them relative to themselves and forget about trying to make them interact.

After all, history isn't a science.

Ned - the Origins Activist (NOA) said...

Former aeronautical engineer and award winning SciFi author, James Hogan said, “A comparatively young word – in the sense of the surface we observe today – is compatible with unguided Catastrophist theories…” [1] Hogan states that conventional dating, “was more a product of materialism’s fight with religion than an empirical construct … [it was] manufactured to provide the long time scales that Lyell and Darwin needed.” [2] Hogan maintains that, “Mountain uplifts and other formations show indications of being younger than conventional geology maintains.” [3] One example that Hogan presents that challenges standard dating uses thermoluminescence of lunar material which was dated at less than 10,000 years. [4]

R. A. Lyttleton (F.R.S., astronomer), said that due to tidal friction, “… the Moon would have been almost in contact with the Earth only about 1,000,000,000 years ago…” – far less than the accepted 4.5 billion years. [5] Richard Milton, science journalist and Mensan, is sympathetic to Young Earth Science (YES). Carbon-14 has not reached the equilibrium point and Milton reports that Melvin Cook dated the atmosphere at 10,000 years old based on this fact. [6]

According to Claudia Stolle of Denmark’s National Space Institute,
“At the moment, the Earth’s magnetic field is decreasing by approximately 5 % per century, and scientists are unable to explain the reason for this or describe the consequences this will have” ( Could this support YES?

Scientists in Sweden have discovered that remains of type I collagen, a structural protein, are retained in a mosasaur fossil. Using synchrotron radiation-based infrared microspectroscopy they showed that amino acid containing matter remains in fibrous tissues obtained from a mosasaur bone ( Could these delicate structures really be millions of years old?

Stephen Jay Gould did not consider Ussher’s (4004 BC) work as extreme:

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology…

The Standard Dictionary of Facts, published in 1908 and edited by Henry Ruoff, included Ussher’s date for the Creation of the World (p. 54) as historically valid.

Chinese history begins around 2200 BC. [7] The Mayans placed the beginning at 3114 BC ( British Egyptologist David Rohl has proposed a shortened Egyptian chronology ( Roger Henry has proposed a similar view:

The actual mechanism for resolving the chronological problems is to recognize that two dynasties (the 19th and 20th) are duplicated - they are listed twice by Manetho, first with Egyptian names and then with Greek names. And a third dynasty, the 21st, is actually concurrent with the Persian Era. [8]

The Sumerian King List ( can be compressed to 6,660 years by translating from sexagesimal (base 60) to decimal (base 10). The fact that we get even multiples of sixty and 3600 (sixty squared) verifies this theory.

What evidence would be required to confirm Young Earth Science?

Ned the Origins Activist (NOA)

Ned - the Origins Activist (NOA) said...

Notes for prior post:
1) Kicking the Sacred Cow by James Hogan (Baen, New York, NY, 2004), p. 47.
2) Ibid., p. 175, Note: Hogan is endorsing Velikovsky’s opinion.
3) Ibid., p. 174.
4) Ibid., p. 206.
5) The Earth and Its Mountains by R. A. Lyttleton, (John Wiley & Sons, 1982, Chichester, UK), p. xv.
6) Shattering the Myths of Darwinism by Richard Milton, (Park Street Press, 1997, Rochester, VT), p. 33.
7) Western Civilization (Comb. ed.) by Margaret King (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2000), p. 10.
8) Synchronized chronology: rethinking Middle East antiquity by Roger Henry (Algora Pub., 2003), p. 10.