High and Low Chronologies of the Mediterranean Bronze Age

Why Don't Scholars Agree on the Dates for the Reigns of the Egyptian Pharaohs?

Alabaster Figurines Tutankhamen's Tomb (Egyptian museum, Cairo, Egypt)
Alabaster Figurines from Tutankhamen's Tomb (Egyptian museum, Cairo, Egypt). Theo Allofs / Getty Images

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 hinges on a single olive branch. 

Egyptian Dynastic History is traditionally split into three Kingdoms (during which much 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
EventHighLowBronk-Ramsey et al
Old Kingdom Start2667 BC2592 BC2591-2625 cal BC
Old Kingdom End2345 BC2305 BC2423-2335 cal BC
Middle Kingdom Start2055 BC2009 BC2064-2019 cal BC
Middle Kingdom End1773 BC1759 BC1797-1739 cal BC
New Kingdom Start1550 BC1539 BC1570-1544 cal BC
New Kingdom End1099 BC1106 BC1116-1090 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.

In 2013, a paper by Paolo Cherubini and colleagues was published in PLOS One, which provided dendrochronological analyses of olive wood tree rings taken from living trees growing on the island of Santorini. They argued that olive wood annual growth increments are problematic, and so the olive branch data should be discarded. A fairly heated argument erupted in the journal Antiquity, ​

Manning et al (2014) (among others) argued that while it is true that olive wood does grow at different rates responding to local environments, there are several telling pieces of data that support the olive tree date, derived from events once attributed to supporting the low chronology:

  • a geochemical analysis of a spelothem from the Sofular Cave in northern Turkey which includes a peak in bromine, molybdenum and sulphur between 1621 and 1589 BC
  • the chronology newly established at Tel el-Dab'a, particularly the timing of the Hyksos (intermediate period) pharaoh Khayan in the early fifteenth dynasty
  • the timing of the New Kingdom, including some adjustments of reign lengths, to start between 1585–1563 BC, based on new radiocarbon dates

Insect Exoskeletons

An innovative study using AMS radiocarbon dating on the charred exoskeletons (chitin) of insects (Panagiotakopulu et al. 2015) included the Akrotiri eruption. Pulses stored in the West House at Akrotiri had been infested with seed beetles (Bruchus rufipes L) when they burned with the rest of the household. AMS dates on the beetle chitin returned dates of approximately 2268+/- 20 BP, or 1744-1538 cal BC, fitting closely with c14 dates on the legumes themselves, but not resolving the chronological issues.

Sources

This article is part of the About.com guide to Archaeological Dating Techniques.