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Nailing Down The Chronology Of Egypt’s Kings

June 18, 2010

After carbon dating plant remains obtained from United States and European museums, scientists have established for the first time clear dates for the ruling dynasties of ancient Egypt, according to research published Thursday.

The results will force historians to abandon previous records and revise them for the two millennia when ancient Egypt dominated the Mediterranean world and hopefully end debate over the subject once and for all.

An international team, led by Professor Christopher Ramsey of Britain’s Oxford University, tested seeds, baskets, textiles, plant matter and fruit obtained from museums in the US and Europe for their landmark study.

“For the first time, radiocarbon dating has become precise enough to constrain the history of ancient Egypt to very specific dates,” Ramsey told AFP.

“I think scholars and scientists will be glad to hear that our small team of researchers has independently corroborated a century of scholarship in just three years,” he said.

Dates for Egypt’s Old, Middle and New Kingdoms had been based on historical documents or archaeological findings, but estimates were disreputably uncertain as each dynasty would reset the clock.

The new findings show the reign of Djoser, the best known pharaoh of the Old Kingdom, was between 2691 and 2625 BC, almost 50 to 100 years earlier than what established records say.

The study also concluded that the new Kingdom started slightly earlier than thought, between 1570 and 1544 BC.

The team working on the research included experts from the universities of Oxford and Cranfield in Britain, the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, and experts from Austria and Israel.

Radiocarbon dating, also known as carbon-14 dating, is a technique that can accurately determine the age of organic material.

They wrote in the Friday issue of the US journal Science, that some of the samples carbon dated are more than 4,500 years old.

Radiocarbon dating of ancient Egyptian objects is nothing new.

“The very first dating done with radiocarbon was dating Egyptian material of known dates, to check that [the method] worked,” said Andrew Shortland from Cranfield University.

“Now, for the very first time, [we] managed to get radiocarbon techniques so good, that we can do it completely the opposite way around. We can say, from using radiocarbon, whether the Egyptian history is correct or not,” he told BBC News.

“Previously radiocarbon hasn’t had a voice on this because the errors had been so great. Now radiocarbon is able to distinguish between different ideas of reconstructing the history,” Shortland said.

Thomas Higham, another member of the team who is from the University of Oxford, explained that many items were found in ancient Egyptians’ tombs and other archeological sites “where we could independently determine their historical age.”

“For example, we used seeds and plant material from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which is very precisely dated. We also used seeds from a room underneath the Saqqara step pyramid dated to a specific year of the reign of King Djoser,” he said.

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