The creation of a reliable Chronology of Ancient Egypt is a task fraught with problems. While the overwhelming majority of Egyptologists agree on the outline and many of the details of a common chronology, disagreements either individually or in groups have resulted in a variety of dates offered for rulers and events. This variation begins with only a few years in the Late Period, gradually growing to a decade at the beginning of the New Kingdom, and eventually to as much as a century by the start of the Old Kingdom. The reader is advised to include this factor of uncertainty with any date offered either in Wikipedia or any history of Ancient Egypt.
Counting regnal years
The first problem the student of Egyptian chronology faces is that they used no single system of dating: they had no concept of an Era similar to Anno Domini, Anno Hajirae — or even the concept of named years like limmu used in Mesopotamia. As a result, the chronologer is forced to compile a list of pharaohs, determine the length of their reigns, and adjust for any interregnums or coregencies. This leads to other problems:
- All king lists are either comprehensive but have significant gaps in their text (for example, the Turin King List), or textually complete but fail to provide a complete list of rulers, even for a short period of Egyptian history.
- There is conflicting information on the same regnal period from different versions of the same text; the Egyptian historian Manetho's history of Egypt is only known by extensive references to it made by subsequent writers, such as Eusebius and Sextus Julius Africanus. Unfortunately the dates for the same pharaoh often vary substantially depending on the referring source.
- For almost all kings of Egypt, we lack an accurate count for the length of their reigns.
- Religious bias due to the Bible. This was most pervasive before about 1850s, when the figures preserved in Manetho conflicted with:
- The age of the Earth as believed at the time, and
- The date of the Biblical Flood.
A useful way to work around these gaps in knowledge is to find chronological synchronisms. Over the past decades a number of these have been found, of varying degrees of usefulness and reliability.
- Synchronisms with other chronologies. The most important of these is with the Assyrian and Babylonian chronologies, although synchronisms with the Hittites, ancient Palestine, and in the final period with ancient Greece are also used. The earliest such synchronisms appear in the 15th century BC, during the Amarna Period, when we have a considerable quantity of diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian Kings Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, and various Near Eastern monarchs.
- Synchronisms with inscriptions relating to the burial of Apis bulls begin as early as the reign of Amenhotep III and continue into Ptolemaic times, but there is a significant gap in the record between Ramesses XI and the 23rd year of Osorkon II. The poor documentation of these finds in the Serapeum also compounds the difficulties in using these records.
- Astronomical synchronisms. The best known of these is the Sothic Cycle, and careful study of this led Richard A. Parker to argue that the dates of the Twelfth Dynasty could be fixed with absolute precision. More recent research has eroded this confidence, questioning many of the assumptions used with the Sothic Cycle, and as a result experts have moved away from relying on this Cycle. For example, Donald B. Redford, in attempting to fix the date of the end of Eighteenth dynasty, almost completely ignores the Sothic evidence, relying on synchronicities between Egypt and Assyria (by way of the Hittites), and help from astronomical observations.
- Kate Spence, "Ancient Egyptian chronology and the astronomical orientation of pyramids", Nature, 408 (2000), pp. 320-324. She offers, based on orientation of the Great Pyramid with circumpolar stars, for a date of that structure accurate within 5 years.
- Carbon-14 dating. Evidence from excavations, Carbon-14 recalibrations due to demonstrated uneven absorption of radioactive carbon in living things.
The attraction of alternative chronologies
Although Professor Heinrich Otten has called the current scholarly consensus a "rubber chronology" that could be stretched or shrank, by arbitrarily established lengths of co-regencies between rulers and even overlapping dynasties, the outlines and dates have not fluctuated very much in the last 100 years. This can be seen by comparing the dates when Egypt's 30 dynasties began and ended from two different Egyptologists: the first writing in 1906, the second in 2000. (All dates are in BC).
|Egyptian dynasty||J. H. Breasted's dates||Ian Shaw's dates|
|1st & 2nd dynasties||3400 – 2980||c.3000 – 2686|
|3rd dynasty||2980 – 2900||2686 – 2613|
|4th dynasty||2900 – 2750||2613 – 2494|
|5th dynasty||2750 – 2625||2494 – 2345|
|6th dynasty||2623 – 2475||2345 – 2181|
|7th & 8th dynasties||2475 – 2445||2181 – 2160|
|9th & 10th dynasties||2445 – 2160||2160 – 2025|
|11th dynasty||2160 – 2000||2125 – 1985|
|12th dynasty||2000 – 1788||1985 – 1773|
|13th to 17th dynasties||1780 – 1580||1773 – 1550|
|18th dynasty||1580 – 1350||1550 – 1295|
|19th dynasty||1350 – 1205||1295 – 1186|
|20th dynasty||1200 – 1090||1186 – 1069|
|21th dynasty||1090 – 945||1069 – 945|
|22th dynasty||945 – 745||945 – 715|
|23th dynasty||745 – 718||818 – 715|
|24th dynasty||718 – 712||727 – 715|
|25th dynasty||712 – 663||747 – 656|
|26th dynasty||663 – 525||664 – 525|
All of the differences can be explained as the result of increased knowledge and refined understanding of the material. For example, Breasted adds a ruler in the Twentieth dynasty that further research showed did not exist. Breasted also believed all the dynasties were sequential, whereas it is now known that several existed at the same time. And of these revisions, the most important difference is that dates in the Old Kingdom are now placed 300 years later.
Many "revised" Egyptian chronologies have been suggested over the years; the following list includes a number discussed by P. John Crowe in 1999:
- An Outline History of Revising Ancient History - Up to 1952
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Immanuel Velikovsky and Other Revisionists 1952-1974
- Donovan Courville, Eddie Schorr
- SIS and the Pro-Ages in Chaos Era 1974-1982
- Glasgow Conference and the 'Glasgow Chronology', John Dayton
- 1982-1990. P. James, D. Rohl, and G. Heinsohn lead in New Directions.
- Peter James, David Rohl, Gunnar Heinsohn
- The 1990's - Open Season for Revisionists
- Mainstream: Martin Sieff, Tony Rees, Bob Porter, Geoffrey Barnard
- Ages in Chaos Revisionists: Tony Chavasse, Michael Reade, Jan Sammer, Dale Murphie
- More Radical Revisionists: Emmett Sweeney, Eric Aitchison, Jesse Lasken, Heribert Illig and Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko
- 'Significant Others': Phillip Clapham, Carl Olof Jonsson
- Set forth in "Excursus C: The Twelfth dynasty" in his The Calendars of ancient Egypt (Chicago: University Press, 1950).
- One example is Patrick O'Mara, "Censorinus, the Sothic Cycle, and calendar year one in ancient Egypt: the Epistological problem", Journal of Near Eastern studies, 62 (2003), pp. 17-26.
- Redford, "The Dates of the End of the 18th Dynasty", History and Chronology of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt: Seven studies (Toronto: University Press, 1967), pp. 183-215.
- One discussion of recalibrating radiocarbon dates is Colin Renfrew, Before Civilization (Cambridge: University Press, 1979), pp. 69-83. ISBN 0-521-29643-9
- Breasted's dates are taken from his Ancient Records (first published in 1906), volume 1, sections 58-75; Shaw's are from his Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (published in 2000), pp. 479-483.
- "The Revision of Ancient History - A Perspective"