Dating the Pharaohs

Image: Jeff Dahl, Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Jeff Dahl, Wikimedia Commons.

No, not a sensationalist virtual reality TV show for some so-called celebrities seeking to marry into the family of the ancient rulers of Egypt. Rather, work that attempts to ascribe actual dates to the reigns of the Pharaohs who ruled that ancient African former kingdom from about 2650 bc to 1100 bc. Until now, the chronologies for ancient Egypt were based on inferences of reign lengths using written and archaeological evidence. Unfortunately, that gives ‘floating chronologies’, which provide an enduring source of debate amongst scholars of that period. Using radiocarbon measurements from short-lived plants, Christopher Ramsey and colleagues (Science 328: 1554–1557, 2010) have produced a chronology that indicates – amongst other revelations – that the New Kingdom started between 1570 and 1544 bce, earlier than some previous historical estimates (‘Before Current Era’ in case you’re wondering where the extra e came from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B.C.E.). Whilst it is hoped that the work will settle some long-standing disputes among Egyptologists – e.g. dates of the reigns of such famous Pharaohs as Tutankhamen and Ramses – the work also has relevance to several major religions whose histories have numerous mentions of Egyptian personalities and events. It is also possible that the data might help to date the explosion of the volcano Thera, whose eruption destroyed much of the Greek island of Santorini and represented a major turning point in Mediterranean civilisation. However, the results are not without controversy – see the ever-expanding commentary and discussion from members of the public at http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100617/full/news.2010.304.html.  For those who want to know more about the science behind the techniques, visit http://c14.arch.ox.ac.uk/embed.php?File=index.html.

– Nigel Chaffey