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Dating in Egyptian archaeology

The dating of remains is essential in archaeology, in order to place finds in correct relation to one another, and to understand what was present in the experience of any human being at a given time and place. Inscribed objects sometimes bear an explicit date, or preserve the name of a dated individual. In such cases, dating might seem easy. However, only a small number of objects are datable by inscriptions, and there are many specific problems with Egyptian chronology, so that even inscribed objects are rarely datable in absolute terms. In the archaeology of part-literate societies, dating may be said to operate on two levels: the absolute exactness found in political history or 'history event-by-event', and the less precise or relative chronology, as found in social and economic history, where life can be seen to change with less precision over time. The contrast might also be drawn between two 'dimensions', the historical, and the archaeological, corresponding roughly to the short-term and long-term history envisaged by Fernand Braudel. On the one level, events and individuals are placed in an absolute chronology: the exact years and sometimes even months and days of the events and biographies are known. On the other level, the exact years may not be known, but it is known that one feature is earlier or later in relation to another; this is typically the case on an excavation, where the different archaeological strata allow objects found to be placed in a relative historical framework.

For a long period in the 20th century Egyptian and Near Eastern chronology seemed to be the earliest of absolute chronologies, and imports from these areas were used to reconstruct the chronology of European prehistory. With the introduction of objective quantifiable methods such as dendrochronology and Carbon-14 dating, over the past half century, European and North American archaeology have developed independent and more reliable chronologies, that often make it possible to date more precisely than in Egypt.

absolute chronology The chronology in absolute numbers (year dates). For Egypt absolute year dates can only be established back to the beginning of the Late Period, from links to Greek chronology, and then from Assyrian king-lists and other Near Eastern sources, back to the Ramesside Period (still debated). For earlier periods there are several problems. The Egyptians dated by the year of reign of the king on the throne (for example 'year 3 of king X'). If we knew the precise length of reign for every Egyptian king, chronology would be no problem. However, we do not even know the number of kings for all periods, and there is also the possibility that reigns overlapped by coregency or in times of political disunity. For their own religious and administrative purposes, the Egyptians compiled lists of kings, sometimes with the exact length of reign. Fragments of such lists survived ('Palermo stone'); none of them is well enough preserved to solve every detail of absolute chronology. The main surviving kinglists from ancient Egypt beside the 'Palermo Stone' are hieroglyphic inscriptions of Thutmose III (Karnak, probably a list of statues displaced in temple construction), Sety I and Ramses II (both at Abydos), and a fragmentary hieratic manuscript from Thebes (Turin Canon). Kinglists in Greek, apparently compiled by a third century BC Egyptian priest named Manetho, are preserved in summaries by early Christian writers, with excerpts in other writers of the Roman Period and later, notably the Jewish historian Josephus.
relative chronology The relative chronological position of objects, events, and longer periods.

Methods of dating objects


Artefacts often have a distinctive style or design, which developed over a period of time. In archaeology, the gradual changes in motifs were exploited systematically as a dating method by researchers from Montelius onwards. In Egyptology the method was first used by Petrie for dating the Naqada period, from the development of the so-called wavy-handled pottery.


At least some objects belonging to such a typology should be datable by other criteria to fix a typology into a chronological framework. However, there are several problems. An object category or motif might develop not regularly but in staccato 'jumps'. Typological dating may foster the tendency to assume that each step in development is of about the same time length, but this does not need to be the case in reality.

C - 14 dating All living organic materials contain Carbon-14 atoms in a constant number. After the 'death' of these organic materials the Carbon-14 atoms decay. After 5730 years half of them have decayed. Therefore it is possible to measure the number of these atoms in organic materials to obtain quantified information on the date of an item. The method has a margin of accuracy of several hundred years and it is therefore not useful to fix dates in historic periods, but very useful for prehistory (in Egypt before 3000 BC). C-14 dates are often published as dates 'before present' (the 'present' was fixed for analytical reasons at a single point, and the year AD 1950 was chosen for this) with the indication of the inaccuracy. Thus, 3700 + 100 BP means the object in question was in 1950 about 3700 years old with an uncertainty of 200 years - it was therefore produced between 1850 and 1650 BC.
dendrochronology Tree-ring dating: Most trees produce a ring of new wood each year, visible as circles when looking at the cross section of a piece of wood. The annual rings vary in size, depending on the weather conditions in each region, but they are similar for all trees of the same area. If the sequence of rings is know for a certain area it is possible to fit in all new woods found and to date them very precisely. For Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, this method from European prehistory is currently under development in a project based at Vienna.


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