Egyptian Tempest Stela Believed To Be World's Oldest Weather Report
April 3, 2014

Could The Tempest Stela Rewrite Bronze Age Chronology?

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

The Tempest Stela is a 6-foot-tall, 3,500 year old calcite block from ancient Egypt that may just be the world's oldest surviving weather report. A new study from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute suggests it might also hold the key to understanding the chronology of events in the ancient Middle East.

The Stela has a 40 line inscription, which according to a new translation, describes rain, darkness and “the sky being in storm without cessation, louder than the cries of the masses.”

Nadine Moeller and Robert Ritner believe that the horrifying weather patterns might have been the result of a massive volcanic explosion at Thera, which is the modern-day island of Santorini in the Mediterranean Sea. Very large volcanic explosions can have a widespread impact on weather, so it is not inconceivable that the Thera explosion caused significant disruptions in Egypt.

A more modern day example would be the Krakatoa explosion of 1883. This explosion left over 36,000 dead. Magma flows reached as far as 24 miles from the island, and the explosion was heard almost 3,000 miles away. Krakatoa threw so much ash into the air that the temperature of the entire planet was lowered for several years, causing a change in weather patterns and crop harvests.

The new translation, detailed in the spring issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, suggests that the Egyptian pharaoh Ahmose ruled at a time closer to the Thera eruption than scientists had previously believed. This could redefine what is known about this critical juncture in history as Bronze Age empires realigned.

The first pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, Ahmose's rule marked the beginning of the New Kingdom. This is a time when Egypt's power reached its height. The Stela, found in pieces in Ahmose's city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), dates back to the time of Ahmose's reign. If Moeller and Ritner are correct that the Stela does describe the aftermath of the Thera eruption, it could change the correct dating of Ahmose’s reign, currently thought to be about 1550 BC. The true date could be 30 to 50 years earlier.

“This is important to scholars of the ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean, generally because the chronology that archaeologists use is based on the lists of Egyptian pharaohs, and this new information could adjust those dates,” Moeller, assistant professor of Egyptian archaeology at the Oriental Institute, who specializes in research on ancient urbanism and chronology, told Susie Allen and William Harms of UChicago News.

The date of the Thera eruption has been placed at 1621-1605 BC by the radiocarbon dating of an olive tree found buried under volcanic residue in 2006. The radiocarbon dating has been at odds with archaeological evidence, resulting in confusion about the date of the Thera eruption. Felix Hoeflmayer, who has studied the chronological implications related to the eruption, explained that if the date of Ahmose's reign is earlier than has been believed, the shift in chronology "might solve the whole problem."

The dates of other events in the ancient Near East would fit together more logically if the shift of Ahmose's reign is correct. David Schloen, associate professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations on ancient cultures in the Middle East, said that the shift would realign the dates of important events, including the fall of the power of the Canaanites and the collapse of the Babylonian Empire.

“This new information would provide a better understanding of the role of the environment in the development and destruction of empires in the ancient Middle East,” he told Allen and Harms.

The effects of the Thera eruption, and the resulting tsunami, could explain Ahmose's rise to power over the ruling Canaanite rulers of Egypt—the Hyksos. The sea power of the Hyksos' would have been significantly weakened by the destruction of their ports.

The same effects could also explain the fall of the Babylonian Empire to the Hittites — in what is now modern day Turkey — by the disruption of trade and agriculture.

Prior to the new translation, most researchers considered the Tempest Stela to be a metaphorical document describing the impact of the Hyksos invasion. According to Ritner, however, it is more likely a description of weather events consistent with the disruption caused by the massive Thera explosion.

According to his reading of the text, it describes the “sky being in storm” with “a tempest of rain” for a period of days, as well as bodies floating down the Nile like “skiffs of papyrus.”

The weather effects were noted in both the delta region and the area of Egypt further south along the Nile River. “This was clearly a major storm, and different from the kinds of heavy rains that Egypt periodically receives,” Ritner said.

The information from the Stela has been compared to known weather patterns in Egypt by Marina Baldi, a scientist in climatology and meteorology at the Institute of Biometeorology of the National Research Council in Italy, and her colleagues.

Hot dry air is brought into Egypt from East Africa in a weather pattern called the "Red Sea Trough." When this system is disrupted, the effects include severe weather, heavy precipitation and flash flooding. This is similar to the description provided by the Tempest Stela.

“A modification in the atmospheric circulation after the eruption could have driven a change in the precipitation regime of the region. Therefore the episode in the Tempest Stela could be a consequence of these climatological changes,” Baldi explained.