The Preface from Centuries of Darkness

A superbly fashioned hand-axe or a solid gold Egyptian funerary mask may work as a picturesque museum-piece, but by itself can actually tell us very little about the past. Unless we know more exactly where it was discovered at an archaeological site and what it was found with - it will remain a curio without a context. Date, of course, is a crucial aspect of context. One of the first things anyone wants to know about an ancient find is simply: how old is it?

Despite this, dates in archaeology and history seem to have acquired a bad name, perhaps not surprisingly, given the generations of school children forced to digest tedious lists of events with no apparent logic in their order other than their chronological sequence. Trainee archaeologists and ancient historians, too, have to learn basic sets of dates and, having absorbed the information, put it to the back of their minds. From then on it can be taken for granted, and chronology, for those eager to press on with the deeper study of ancient societies, is all too often treated as a necessary evil. Unfortunately there are also some scholars who, like poor history teachers, become totally preoccupied with the minutiae of dating and miss the point of the exercise. These prompted the great Sir Mortimer Wheeler to write: "we have... been preparing time-tables; let us now have some trains."

The problem with Wheeler's impatient demand is that timetables in themselves are not enough; they have to be accurate before the trains can start running, otherwise you'll miss the connections between them. In archaeological terms, the cultural interactions of the ancient world remain a complete jumble unless we have a reliable time-scale.

When the authors of this book met at the London Institute of Archaeology in 1985, we discovered a mutual scepticism of the claimed accuracy for the timetables of Old World archaeology. Above all, we became increasingly convinced that something was seriously wrong with the conventional picture of a centuries-long Dark Age descending over a vast area at the end of the Late Bronze Age c. 1200 BC. With a background of research in many different but related fields (specifically prehistoric Britain, Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, biblical archaeology and Pharaonic Nubia), we pooled our resources and began an in-depth investigation of the archaeological chronology of the entire ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Everything we found confirmed our suspicion that the original spanner in the works was the Egyptian time-scale, and that the 'centuries of darkness' inserted into the histories of so many areas between 1200 and 700 BC were largely illusory.

Initial questions and conclusions were then circulated in the form of a discussion paper, published in Studies in Ancient Chronology volume 1 (1987). The responses we received from scholars in fields ranging from Egyptology to astronomy were immensely encouraging, and the expansion of the project towards an eventual book followed naturally.

We were now also confident that we had fingered a genuine solution to the widespread problems. In the meantime a steady stream of new papers was spontaneously appearing in the archaeological literature, in which the framework of ancient Mediterranean chronology was beginning to be laid bare. The feeling is now in the air that it is time to return to basics and re-examine fundamental assumptions. To mention only two examples: in 1987, a special international conference was held at Gothenburg in Sweden under the title of High, Middle or Low? with the aim of resolving the long-standing uncertainties in the Middle Bronze Age chronology of the Near East and Aegean; the second concerns the latest issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (Spring 1990), which was entirely devoted to a debate on a major question of biblical archaeology - which levels of the ancient cities of Palestine belong to the time of King Solomon, Israel's most famous monarch? Neither of these prestigious ventures came to a definite conclusion.

But how can there still be such a degree of uncertainty? After all, scientific methods of dating, such as the radiocarbon technique which should have resolved the problems, have now been available for a generation. Despite this, take-up of the new methods has been surprisingly slow; all too often a dozen or so radiocarbon dates are included in an archaeological site report merely as scientific window dressing. This attitude is clearly reflected in a regrettably common practice: when a radiocarbon date agrees with the expectations of the excavator it appears in the main text of the site report; if it is slightly discrepant it is relegated to a footnote; if it seriously conflicts it is left out altogether.

Lack of understanding of the method by many archaeologists has led to the submission of large numbers of samples of little or no value in dating the contexts from which they come. There have also been problems caused by inconsistent treatment of samples by different laboratories. As the senior radiocarbon scientist Professor Ingrid Olsson frankly concluded at the Gothenburg conference: "Honestly, I would say that I feel that most of the dates from the actual Bronze Age are dubious. The manner in which they have been made... forces me to be critical."

Where there have been enough good-quality radiocarbon dates available, for example in tracing the spread of agriculture across Europe, the technique has been of immense value. In the Near East and Aegean, however, the lack of systematic sampling means that radiocarbon is still too blunt a tool to resolve the perennial controversies of Bronze to Iron Age chronology. (Relevant radiocarbon dates are generally discussed here [i.e. in the book] in the notes to individual areas). It needs to be stressed that the youngest dates from a given context or cultural phase are really the most significant. Old, residual material can always be present to supply misleading dates for a context; the younger dates will more accurately reflect the time when the deposit was formed and when most of its assemblage was made. Simply averaging the results for a phase or context, as is often done, will obviously produce a false impression of antiquity. On the other hand, we are able to note for many areas an increasing number of radiocarbon dates which, though currently treated as anomalous , are consistent with our theory; but they fall to be decisive because of the general problems affecting the method and its application. Sadly, for the later part of the period under review in this book, radiocarbon may never be able to provide meaningful answers (see Appendix 1 [i.e. in the book]).

New scientific work in progress holds out interesting prospects for absolute chronology. Recently, attempts have been made to date the volcanic explosion which devastated the Minoan colony on the Aegean island of Thera (towards the beginning of the Late Bronze Age) by tracing climatic effects in the tree-ring records from California and Northern Europe and peaks of acidity in ice cores from Greenland. The difficulty with this is that it is impossible to be sure whether such effects always originate from volcanic eruptions, and, if so, which volcano was responsible. As volcanologist David Pyle (1989, 90) wrote concerning the Thera eruption:

Direct radiocarbon dating has so far yielded a large scatter of dates that can, at present, be interpreted according to one's prejudice. Indirect methods (acidity peaks, tree rings) are beguiling, being potentially more precise but at the same time highly ambiguous, and should only be treated with the utmost caution.

The outcome for the absolute dating of Minoan civilization thus remains uncertain. More definite results may come from the ongoing development of a tree-ring sequence for ancient Anatolia (Turkey) and Greece. When complete, the Anatolian dendrochronology will provide a more precise calibration for Near Eastern radiocarbon dates. Further, if it can be firmly linked with local Bronze Age archaeology, we will also have an invaluable control on historical chronology, including that of Egypt itself, because of the close connections which existed between the Hittite kings and the pharaohs.

In the meantime, radiocarbon dating is still of little help in providing answers to the conundrum of Dark Age chronology. In practice, we have to fall back on traditional methods, primarily pottery dating. Being virtually indestructible, pottery is found in vast quantities on ancient sites, and constitutes the bread-and-butter of archaeologists. Basic typological sequences for the development of ceramic styles are well established (though the pigeonholing into minute phases by some experts can be excessive). Pottery thus enables the strata of a given site to be easily dated within a local sequence. Discoveries of imported pottery allow links to be made between the chronologies of different cultures, while finds of key styles of pottery in those areas with written records allow the whole framework to be attached to historical dates.

Ancient history has often been compared to a mosaic, a patchwork built up from tiny scraps of evidence. A jigsaw puzzle is a much better metaphor, especially when dealing with chronology. For well-known periods (such as the time of the Roman Empire) the edge pieces of the puzzle, representing the dating framework, can be set down with confidence. But before about the 7th century BC the task is different. The edges of the puzzle, in this case the chronologies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, are not as certain as they are usually thought to be. The major argument of this book is that the dates conventionally attributed to ancient Egyptian history are inflated by as much as two and a half centuries. Imagine, then, trying to complete a jigsaw where the sides are far too long. Frustratingly, many pieces will appear to fit into two places in the puzzle, while many 'ghost pieces' will be needed to fill the space that is unaccounted for.

This is precisely the dilemma into which so many archaeologists have been forced, dating and redating artefacts backwards and forwards across the span of the Dark Age, in attempting to fit their evidence into a framework defined by Egyptian chronology. Stretching the sides of the time puzzle by raising the dates further would only make the problems more acute. The only remedy, as our investigation shows, would seem to be to shorten the sides and compress the overall scheme.

The idea of a radical shift in the chronology of this period is not entirely new. At the turn of the century the classical scholar Cecil Torr and Egyptologist Jens Lieblein stood firm against the newly established 'high' Egyptian chronology, but their arguments for a lower dating fell on stony ground. The next challenge to the status quo came in the 1950s from Immanuel Velikovsky, the wayward polymath whose work outraged scientists in many fields other than ancient history. [For a discussion of Velikovsky, catastrophism, and other chronology viewpoints, see The Society for Interdisciplinary Studies.] His model for a 'revised chronology', based on a new series of links between Egyptian and Israelite history, proved to be disastrously extreme. Involving a reduction of Egyptian dates by a full eight centuries at one point, it produced a rash of new problems far more severe than those it hoped to solve. Sadly, while he pointed the way to a solution by challenging Egyptian chronology, Velikovsky understood little of archaeology and nothing of stratigraphy.

Rocking the boat, of course, has never been popular in any field of study. Torr went against the grain of contemporary trends, while Velikovsky was too much of an outsider. But the major problem with the attempts of these writers was that they were working as individuals, and realistically could never have tackled the vast range of material from the many disciplines embroiled in the argument. Since their time, academic inertia and the convenience of following long established teachings has discouraged any serious challenge to the accepted chronology. Further, modern archaeologists are not immune to the fascination with the sheer antiquity of their finds in their search for the origins of any given development.

What has been conspicuously lacking is a workable alternative to the conventional chronology. This volume provides the outlines of a comprehensive model, covering every major region from the Western Mediterranean to Iran. Clearly, a colossal amount of work lies ahead in building new detailed chronologies for individual areas. What is here is only a beginning, but one which is long overdue. As James Mellaart wrote in 1979:

Conventional chronologies have served us long enough and not too well as an interim tool. Most tools need sharpening over the years and finally replacement.

© P. James et al. 1991

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