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Open letter to science editors

 

KRONOS Vol VI, No. 1

Anchors Aweigh

GEOFFREY GAMMON AND PETER J. JAMES

Editor's Note: The preceding article is an updated and slightly modified version of one that previously appeared in the SISR IV:1 (Autumn 1979), pp. 2-3. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors and the SISR. - LMG

"To abandon 1786 BC as the year when Dynasty XII ended would be to cast adrift from our only firm anchor, a course that would have serious consequences for the history, not of Egypt alone, but of the entire Middle East "

Readers of KRONOS and the SIS Review will already be familiar with this quotation from the eminent Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner, typifying the dilemma of Near Eastern archaeologists over Sothic dating.(1) Despite the manifest weaknesses of the Sothic dating theory, and although it is exceedingly difficult to find an Egyptologist who will actually defend it, Sothic dates are still used as absolute reference points for the history of the ancient world. One of the most troublesome Sothic dates has always been that based on the supposed reference to the rising of Sirius in the reign of Sesostris III, from which the chronological benchmark of 1786 BC for the end of the XIIth Dynasty has been calculated.

A few years ago it might have sounded over-optimistic to suggest that the British journal Antiquity , stronghold of conventional archaeological thinking, would publish an article by an eminent Near Eastern archaeologist recommending the abandonment of the precious Sothic date 1872 BC. But such is the argument of an article entitled "Egyptian and Near Eastern Chronology: a dilemma?" (Antiquity 53, March 1979, pp. 6-18), by James Mellaart. (Dr. Mellaart lectures in Anatolian archaeology at the London University Institute of Archaeology, and is best known for his excavation of the Neolithic site of Catal Hüyük.) In developing the arguments for higher dates for Early and Middle Bronze Age Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Anatolia than those generally accepted, Mellaart concludes that "the astronomical date of 1872 for the 7th year of Sesostris III cannot be upheld any longer, it must somehow be wrong astronomically, or refer to some Thirteenth Dynasty king" (p. 8).

Mellaart's starting point is the unexceptional statement that: "The major problem for Near Eastern and Egyptian archaeologists alike is the establishment of a reliable chronology. . ." He points out that the controversy surrounding the absolute dating of the First Babylonian Dynasty, whose most important ruler was Hammurabi, has apparently been settled with the adherence of the majority of scholars to the "middle" chronology advocated by Sydney Smith, and the abandonment of the previously "high" chronology (although a substantial body of opinion favours the "low" chronology of W. F. Albright). However, Mellaart feels, this consensus is not supported by radiocarbon data from ancient Near Eastern material which has been "corrected" by the tree-ring calibration derived from the Californian bristlecone pine. For example, the corrected C14 dates for the Egyptian IIIrd Dynasty king Djoser (Zoser), builder of the famous Step Pyramid, fall around 2900 BC, while his dates in the accepted "middle" chronology are given as 2667-48 BC Rather than "demand that the physicists adjust their dating to the middle chronology", Mellaart attempts to show that the calibrated dates support the "high" chronology which he believes to be justified quite independently of the C14 evidence.

Mellaart accepts the Sothic date of 1537 BC for the year 9 of Amenhotep I, from which a date of 1567 BC is derived for the beginning of the XVIIIth Dynasty and the New Kingdom. However, like other ancient historians, he finds it difficult to accept that the 220 years allowed for Dynasties XIII to XVII are adequate. This is his main argument for rejecting the accepted date for the end of the XIIth Dynasty, and with it the Sothic "date" for Sesostris III. While his claim that the conventional timespan for Dynasties XIII to XVII seems well founded, it is highly questionable in detail. For example, he allows the XIIIth Dynasty 153 years, "as stated in the Turin papyrus". Yet, 153 is only the approximate total of regnal years preserved for 29 named kings of this period, and the fragmentary Turin Canon nowhere "states" this as a figure for the entire Dynasty. There are more than 30 other kings whose reign-lengths have not been preserved, so the XIIIth Dynasty may have been considerably longer. Mellaart also follows Manetho in claiming that two Hyksos Dynasties ruled consecutively the XVth (108 years) and the XVIth (118 years). In the latter case he appears to be following W. C. Hayes' arbitrary reduction of Africanus/Manetho's figure of 518 to 118.

Mellaart suggests that the XVIIIth Dynasty's immediate predecessors were the XVIth (118 years), the XVth (108 years) and the XIIIth (153 years). He thus arrives at dates of c. 2155-1946 BC for the XIIth Dynasty. Then, by accepting the 955 years given in the Turin Canon for Dynasties I to VIII, and assigning Dynasties IX to XI an estimated 290 years, he arrives at a date of c. 3400 BC for the beginning of the dynastic period some 300 years earlier then the "middle" chronology proposed by Hayes in the latest edition of the Cambridge Ancient History.

Mellaart's starting point for his revision of Mesopotamian chronology is acceptance of the tradition that Kassite rule, which ended in 1162 BC (on the conventional chronology), lasted for 576 years. This would imply a date of 1783 BC for the raid of the Hittite Mursilis I, whose sack of Babylon at the end of the First Dynasty is thought to have ushered in the Kassite Dynasty. Since the "middle chronology" bases its dates on calculations from the notorious "Venus Tablets of Ammizaduga", perhaps Mellaart is justified in his alteration of the accepted date for Mursilis's raid, 1595 BC However, his arguments ignore the documentary evidence that Kassite incursions into Babylonia began during the reign of Samsuilana, over 100 years before the Hittite raid, and that Agum II the ninth Kassite ruler was on the throne a mere twenty years after that event. Moreover, since the Hittite king Suppiluliumas I, who reigned in the 14th century (conventional chronology), was separated from Mursilis I by only seven generations, an 18th century date for the latter seems unlikely. Similar problems arise over the 20th century date postulated by Mellaart for Shamshi-Adad I, which can be sustained only if one assumes a 200 year gap in the Assyrian King List for which there is not a shred of evidence.

Mellaart goes on to point out that the accepted date of 3000 BC for the start of the Early Dynastic period in Mesopotamia, when juxtaposed with the date of 3100 BC for the beginning of the Jemdet Nasr period synchronised with the Egyptian First Dynasty, leaves only 100 years for the 11-13 building levels at Uruk assigned to this period. He argues that if the Jemdet Nasr and Egyptian Dynastic periods both began c. 3400 BC the difficulty is resolved.

The final sections of Mellaart's article present a useful series of C14 dates from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine and Anatolia, both uncalibrated and with the MASCA correction based on tree-ring chronology. Corrected, most of the results given conform with the higher chronology advanced in Mellaart's article. For example, material from the period of Shamshi-Adad I (1953-1921 BC) produces calibrated dates of 2020-1960 60, 1925 63, and 1895 61 BC; material from the Jemdet Nasr (Uruk III) period (3400-3100 BC) produces dates ranging from 3440-3390 71 BC to 3110-3010 50 BC; and material from the XIIth Dynasty gives results ranging from 2152 62 BC to 1975-1930 72 BC

Mellaart is at pains to point out the limitations inherent in the use of radiocarbon dates, notably the contamination of material and the paucity of tested samples from Mesopotamia. He also emphasises that the historical and archaeological arguments for a high chronology do not depend on corroboration by C14 dates. Nevertheless, he expresses the conviction that the agreement of his higher dates with the corroborated C14 results provides grounds for a greater use and wider acceptance by archaeologists of calibrated radiocarbon dates, which they have until now regarded with some suspicion.

There is, however, another way of looking at this evidence. The case for applying the tree-ring calibration based on the Californian bristlecone pine to European, Asiatic and African C14 material remains unproven.(2) The uncalibrated dates for the samples referred to above are 1695, 1572 and 1530 BC. for Shamshi-Adad I; between 2664 and 2360 BC. for the Jemdet Nasr period; and between 1760 and 1510 BC. for the Egyptian XIIth Dynasty. Most ancient historians would dismiss these as much too low, but adherents of a revised chronology on the lines pioneered by Immanuel Velikovsky may rather see them as an indication that the generally accepted dates of Near Eastern history are set too high.

On the whole, Mellaart's speculations are to be welcomed as a fresh approach to old problems; and it is gratifying to see that an archaeologist of Mellaart's reputation is now prepared to challenge at least one Sothic date. All the same, one does not have to accept the reason for Mellaart's abandonment of this date, which is simply a convenient expedient for allowing his higher chronology. It would have been better if Mellaart had been aware of the faults of Sothic dating per se: outside of Velikovsky's own work,(3) it has now been shown that the deductions from the papyri and the astronomical calculations on which it is based are both tenuous.(4)

Thus, while much of Mellaart's case for lengthening the XIIIth Dynasty and Hyksos period is sound, he has been trapped by his uncritical acceptance of later (XVIIIth Dynasty) Sothic dates into revising all his dates upwards , running the danger of creating new gaps and "dark ages" in other areas, particularly within Hittite and Assyrian history. In a recent issue of the SIS Review John Bimson showed how the revised chronology which lowers considerably the date for the beginning of the XVIIIth Dynasty could accommodate the lengthening of the XIIIth Dynasty and Hyksos period required by Mellaart, without raising the dates for the XIIIth Dynasty and earlier periods.(5) It is to be regretted that Mellaart did not focus more attention on the slender scientific basis of Sothic dating as a whole, and extend his investigation of chronological difficulties into the time of the New Kingdom where the evidence amassed by Velikovsky and others shows that a radical lowering, rather than raising, of dates is required.

REFERENCES

1. See Eva Danelius: 'The Identification of the Biblical 'Queen of Sheba' with Hatshepsut 'Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia' ", KRONOS I:3 (1975), pp. 5-6; eadem: "Did Thutmose III Despoil the Temple in Jerusalem?", SISR II:3 (1978), p. 65; Peter J. James: "A Revised Chronology for the Ancient Near East", SISR I:5 ( 1977), centrefold, p. 3.
2. Don Robins: "Isotopic Anomalies in Chronometric Science", SISR II:4 (1978), pp. 108-110; John Dayton: Minerals, Metals, Glazing and Man(Harrap: London, 1978), pp. 416-418; Peter J. James: "Metallurgy and Chronology" (review of Dayton), SISR III:4 (1979), p. 82; [see also Herbert C. Sorensen, 'The Ages of Bristlecone Pine", Pensee IVR IV (1973), pp. 15-18 - LMG] .
3. I. Velikovsky: "Astronomy and Chronology", supplement to Peoples of the Sea, pp. 203-244.
4. R. D. Long: "A Re-examination of the Sothic chronology of Egypt", Orientalia 43, Nova Series, 1974, reprinted KRONOS II:4 (1977), pp. 89-101; and A. S. Roy: 'The Astronomical Basis of Egyptian Chronology", to appear in the Proceedings of the Glasgow Conference, reported SISR III:1 (1978),pp. 3-4.
5. J. J. Bimson: "A Chronology for the Middle Kingdom and Israel's Bondage", Part II, SISR IV:1 (1979), pp. 11-18.

Postscript (May 1980):

Mellaart's proposals for a "high" chronology have so far met with a cool reception in archaeological circles. Antiquity has since published a double rejoinder to Mellaart sharply criticising both his methodology and conclusions. For all his radiocarbon dates for the Palestinian Early Bronze Age, Mellaart had relied on an article by Joseph Callaway and James Weinstein.(l) The latter, Visiting Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Cornell University, has published a response in the March 1980 issue of Antiquity pp. 21-24, "Palestinian radiocarbon dating: a reply to Mellaart" expressing "surprise. . . to see Mellaart misuse" the data they presented to fit his high chronology. Weinstein takes Mellaart to task for his omission of several results, which, when added to the other dates cited by Mellaart do not present such a clear cut discrepancy between the popular "middle" chronology and the calibrated C14 picture. Concluding his attack on Mellaart's study, Weinstein felt that: "In fact, it is almost methodologically faulty, so that at times it seems as if the author has deliberately set out to misuse the data in order to stir up the proverbial hornet's nest among scholars who favour the more traditional archaeological schemes."

Barry Kemp, Lecturer in Archaeology at Cambridge University began his response pp. 25-28, "Egyptian radiocarbon dating: a reply to Mellaart" by defending the value of Sothic dating, stressing caution in the use of Manetho in Second Intermediate Period chronology, and pointing out some of the flaws in Mellaart's argument dealt with in the above review. There is a wide scatter in the published radiocarbon results from Egypt, and Kemp, like Weinstein, accuses Mellaart of concentrating on "one end of a spectrum of radiocarbon dates" to support his high chronology, based on "opting for a high number whenever the opportunity arises because it appeals to him".

Three points of interest for the student of a Velikovskian revised chronology emerge from the exchange:

1. It is noteworthy that an archaeologist of Mellaart's standing should see the need for an effort to come to grips with some of the serious difficulties that lurk behind current assumptions on Sothic dating, Second Intermediate Period chronology, and C14. However, raising dates to solve the problems cannot really be justified by the evidence, and it seems doubtful that C14 could support a "high" chronology for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages even with the bristlecone pine "correction".

2. With regard to Sothic dating in general, Mellaart was seemingly unaware of the studies of Velikovsky and Long criticising its theoretical basis. Nevertheless, with regard to the XIIth Dynasty Sothic date, he did suggest that the observation could have been faulty, and stressed that the papyrus in question does not name the king to whose reign it is dated. Kemp refers to Long's attack on Sothic dating, adding that it "provoked a lengthy and careful response from the scholar whose name is most closely associated with the mathematical aspects of Egyptian calendars and chronology, R. A. Parker".(2) Kemp claims that: "This response provides a ready-made answer to Mellaart's criticisms."* The debate over the validity of Sothic dating, it seems, is not yet completely resolved.

[*See Parker's article, reprinted elsewhere in this issue, and the accompanying responses - LMG]

3. Many Egyptian radiocarbon tests have been performed on reeds, and both Weinstein and Kemp raise doubts about the suitability of grasses grown in or near the Nile for C 14 testing. Citing a series of 25 results from New Kingdom samples published in 1977, Kemp reports that while 11 "may reasonably be said to be consistent with accepted dates", the remainder are too high for the conventional chronology by amounts ranging from 100 to 400 years. The scientists responsible for the tests had commented that: "Comparisons between radiocarbon dates of wood, charcoal, and grass samples derived from the same structure suggest that grasses growing in or close to the Nile or its previous flood waters may have acquired some older carbon from water-soluble carbonates and may thus have become unsuitable for C14 dating."(3)

Weinstein agrees that the plant materials usually used by the Egyptians as bonding between brick courses, when growing around the Nile, "assimilate carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, which results in isotopic fractionation", citing a study by Olsson.(4) "If older carbon is taken in from water-soluble carbonates, a C 14 date which is earlier than expected on the basis of the archaeological context may thus result."

This, hitherto rarely publicised, discovery regarding C14 is of great importance with regard to the evaluation of a revised chronology by the radiocarbon method. Reeds have always been considered to be excellent short-lived samples. Thus Burgstahler and MacKie's discussion of " Ages in Chaos in the Light of Archaeometry" included reeds in a list of materials that "should provide dates that are closer to the true historical age than samples obtained from material having a comparatively long-growing lifespan, eg. wood beams, planks, and derived charcoal. . ."(5) MacKie has pointed out elsewhere that such results as the date of 1060 + 80 BC., from reeds in the wall of the Ramesseum of Ramesses II "favour the conventional date for that Pharaoh", especially when the bristlecone pine calibration is applied. And referring to his earlier study with Burgstahler, he felt that the "obvious conclusion is that the vast majority of these dates support the conventional, not the revised shorter chronology".(6)

This negative picture of C14 dates with regard to a revised chronology may well be radically altered when the unreliability of reeds is taken into account especially since the tendency is for reeds to give higher dates because of the absorption of old carbon from the river. Ironically, a substantial proportion of Egyptian radiocarbon tests so far performed were done on reeds, deliberately selected as good "short-lived" samples they must now be rejected as invalid, including the many results that gave a good agreement with the conventional chronology.

PJJ

REFERENCES

1. J. Callaway & J. Weinstein: "Radiocarbon dating of Palestine in the Early Bronze Age" Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 205 (1977), pp. 1-16.
2. R. A. Parker: "The Sothic dating of the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties", in Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 39: Chicago, 1977), pp. 177-189; [Reprinted elsewhere in this issue of KRONOS - LMG].
3. B. Fishman, H. Forbes & B. Lawn: "University of Pennsylvania radiocarbon dates XIX", Radiocarbon 19 (1977), p. 195.
4. I. U. Olsson: "Some problems in connection with the evaluation of C14 dates", Geologiska Foreningens i Stockholm Forhandlingar 96 (1974), pp. 311 -320.
5. A. W. Burgstahler & E. W. MacKie: "Ages in Chaos in the Light of Archaeometry", Pensee IVR IV (1973), p. 34.
6. E. W. MacKie, letter in SISR I:3 (1976), p. 23.

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