Researchers pinpoint when the first kings ruled Egypt

4 September 2013

Petrie Museum

A team of scientists and archaeologists, including UCL’s Professor David Wengrow and Dr Alice Stevenson, have been able to set a robust timeline for the first eight dynastic rulers of ancient Egypt.

The study, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, shows that Egypt formed far more rapidly than was previously thought and also updates the techniques first developed by Flinders Petrie over 100 years ago,.

Having obtained over 100 fresh radiocarbon dates for hair, bone and plant samples excavated at several key sites, the team from UCL and University of Oxford were able to use mathematical modelling to combine the new radiocarbon dates with existing archaeological evidence to establish the chronology of Early Egypt between 4500 and 2800 BC and the likeliest date for each king’s accession. 

Until now there have been no verifiable chronological records for this period or the process leading up to the formation of the Egyptian state, which occurred several centuries before the first pyramids were built. 

Instead scholars relied on archaeological evidence alone, using a method established by Flinders Petrie in which the evolving styles of ceramics excavated at human burial sites are used to piece together the timings of key chronological events in the Predynastic period and the First Dynasty. 

Dr Alice Stevenson, co-author of the study and curator of the UCL Petrie Museum, said: “Petrie was the first person to really apply a type of mathematical modelling to archaeology by developed the first example of what we now call ‘seriation’ in archaeology to create a relative dating – i.e. an ordering of material that is seen to be equivalent to a timescale. It was arguably his greatest achievement and what he is internationally recognised in archaeology for and not just in Egyptology.”

The museum also holds Petrie’s sequence dating cards - the method by which he put into sequence 900 prehistoric Egyptian graves with their pottery assemblages - providing the first framework for structuring the chronology of the period running up to the emergence of the first kings of Egypt. It is also why the museum has a pottery gallery devoted to showing his chronological sequence of pottery. 

Dr Stevenson said: “This project is the first example of the robust use of mathematical modelling with absolute dates – so there’s a really nice parallel with Petrie’s approach at the end of the 19th century with new approaches at the beginning of the 21st. 

“Petrie’s typology was both a crucial reference point for the project and something we tested with absolute dates and mathematical modelling. We also used materials in the museum excavated by Petrie’s teams – so plant materials, basketry etc. – as the specimens for getting new radiocarbon dates.”

Egypt was the world’s first territorial state to be brought under one political ruler, and the new dating evidence suggests that this period of unification happened far more quickly than previously thought. 

“The period between 4500 BC and 2800 BC witnessed profound changes in social, political and economic conditions that formed the very foundation of the ancient Egyptian state. The results of this project give archaeologists an invaluable framework for not only visualising this sequence, but more importantly for understanding the pace of these cultural transformations. It will allow us to ask new questions about the development of ancient Egyptian society and permit us to link our chronologies with those from surrounding regions, including Mesopotamia,” said Dr Stevenson.   


Links:

UCL Petrie Museum
Dr Alice Stevenson
Professor David Wengrow
Full paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A