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Open letter to science editors


KRONOS Vol VI, No. 1



Editor's Note: The material presented here has been reprinted from John Dayton's book MINERALS METALS GLAZING & MAN by permission of George C. Harrap & Co. Ltd. The book may be obtained by writing to the publisher at the following address: P.O. Box 70, 182-184 High Holborn, London WCIV 7AX. - LMG

This date is based on the work of Parker (1950) and Neugebauer (1938). Examination of the facts, however, shows that the date rests on certain very doubtful assumptions, and that there is absolutely no evidence at all for a Sothic cycle having had any effect on the ancient Egyptians.

It is assumed by Parker (a) that a lunar calendar existed (which is a quite reasonable assumption since all primitive peoples recognise the lunar cycle, which, however, repeats itself every 25 years ); (b) that the Egyptians, after years of observation and written records, introduced a civil calendar (in Parker's opinion in c. 2937 BC) which at its introduction was NOT tied to the heliacal rising of Sothis ; (c) that since the first day of the civil year had come to be the date of the rising of Sothis in c. 2773 BC, the civil calendar must have been introduced between c. 2937 and 2871 BC

It is obvious that assumptions (b) and (c) are quite unjustified, and as Neugebauer has argued that Borchardt's corpus of Egyptian astronomers who fixed the civil year on 19 July 4241 BC were fictitious, so undoubtedly is Parker's corpus of astronomers of 2773 BC; but Neugebauer is right that only well-organised and developed economies need calendars to control labour forces, holidays and tax gathering. The Middle Kingdom was such an example of discipline and order, and the Ebers Papyrus seems to equate civil and lunar years, but this has nothing to do with the Sothic cycle. Here it states that in year 9 of Amenhotep I, the 9th of month smw III saw the rise of Sothis, i.e., the beginning of the New Year. Now such an observation shows clearly that two calendars were in existence, but in the writer's opinion this was the civil calendar tied to the heliacal rising of Sirius after an absence of seventy days, every year at the same time in mid July, in the eastern sky just before dawn. The reappearance of this very bright star coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile. Now the feasts of Ancient Egypt were governed by the phases of the moon, eg., the feast of the harvest goddess Renutet, while at full moon there was a great feast at harvest time. This would have been at the same time every year and could easily have been the first moon after the rising of Sirius, also at the same time every year ( 17-19 July). Only the time of the new moon would vary over a twenty-five-year cycle.

Now Egypt has one great difference from areas with other lunar calendars, that the rising of the very bright star Sirius (Sothis) occurs more or less at the time of the peak of the Nile floods in Lower Egypt. The Egyptians thus had a superb fixed point of 17-19 July for the start of their New Year. Now if (and it is a big if) they started to count the days from a hypothetical 19 July, they would find that after each 365-day sequence they would be a quarter of a day out (our leap year). If, however, they stuck to the annual rise of Sirius and the regular lunar cycle, they could arrange things very well indeed with no need for a 365-day calendar at all. It is in just this way that the Moslem year proceeds on its way with Ramadan and the various feasts corresponding to the lunar cycle, sometimes in summer, sometimes in winter, and nobody seeming to worry. In Egypt, for example, only foreigners, eg., Greeks and Romans (and perhaps Middle Kingdom or Hyksos rulers) would have needed a comparison with their own systems. When we have the decree of Canopus where it states "that feasts which should be celebrated in winter should not be celebrated in summer" by Roman times, then the civil calendar had certainly got out of step.

Let us now return to the famous date for Sesostris III, the fixed anchor-point of archaeology. The basis for this date rests upon papyrus from Illahun (the Middle Kingdom centre) recording when, at the end of a lunar month, one temple Phyle or priest handed over to another: eg., Year 3 of King X in month III smw day 16 equalled lunar day 1. Now this is fine for the twenty-five-year lunar cycle, but for nothing else, for in no case is the name of any king mentioned . It is assumed that as these papyri were found in the mortuary temple of Sesostris II, they must date to the reign of Sesostris III and to Amenemhet III. This is reasonable, but does not help us to establish the fixed and absolute dates for these rulers. There is absolutely no evidence nor any need for some unknown Egyptian to have stated that a new 365-day calendar would now begin so that it could be found out in, say, a hundred years time that things were twenty five days out of step, which is the complete basis of the Sothic cycle argument and calculations. As Winlock noted, the Egyptians did not leave a single trace of a fixed calendar. "Of the thousands of documents which have survived, not one gives dates in the known 'wandering' year and the hypothetical 'fixed' year." Their year was divided into three natural divisions flooding, seed time in the autumn and low Nile and their dates were no more definitive than is our Easter. So much for the myth of c. 1872 BC for the 7th year of Sesostris III, and, of course, for the fixed dates for the XIIth Dynasty, the anchor-stone of Near Eastern archaeology.

By the time of Censorinus (c. AD 238) the Romans had employed the Julian Calendar for almost three centuries, and the Romans of Caesar's day were quite aware of the need for the extra day every four years if one based one's calendar on counting. If one used a lunar calendar, as did the Greeks, or the annual rising of Sirius, as did the Egyptians, the quarter-day discrepancy would not become evident. This would only happen after, say, the introduction of the Roman system, which itself was not corrected until the Romans encountered the Egyptian year in the reign of Julius Caesar, which is an interesting coincidence. The Egyptian Great Year began with the rising of Sirius, always about 17-19 July. If anybody had bothered to count, they would have found that some years were of 365, others of 366 and perhaps others of even 364 days. They probably did not bother to count at all until Roman times.


Richard A. Parker, The Calendars of Ancient Egypt (Chicago, 1950).

Otto Neugebauer, "Die Bedeutungslosigkeit der 'Sothis periode' fur die-alteste agyptische

Chronologie,"Acta Orientalia 17(1938),pp. 169-195. H. . Winlock, The Rise and Fall of the Middle Kingdom in Thebes (N. Y., 1947) .

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