Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic Egypt

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Science  18 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5985, pp. 1554-1557
DOI: 10.1126/science.1189395

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Date with the Pharaohs

Ancient Egypt dominated the Mediterranean world for several thousand years. However, the absolute chronology of this civilization has been uncertain, even though the sequence of rulers is well documented. Bronk Ramsey et al. (p. 1554; see the Perspective by Bruins) now provide a detailed radiocarbon-based record using more than 200 samples that spans much of this time and reduces uncertainties in some cases to less than 20 years. To avoid artifacts, the authors dated only short-lived plant remains from known contexts (i.e., that were associated with specific reigns). They then used the known reign lengths as a further constraint to obtain a final chronology. The final dates agree most closely with the previous older chronology but force some revisions to the timing of events in the Old Kingdom, the period in the third millennium B.C.E. when Egypt attained its first continuous peak of civilization.


The historical chronologies for dynastic Egypt are based on reign lengths inferred from written and archaeological evidence. These floating chronologies are linked to the absolute calendar by a few ancient astronomical observations, which remain a source of debate. We used 211 radiocarbon measurements made on samples from short-lived plants, together with a Bayesian model incorporating historical information on reign lengths, to produce a chronology for dynastic Egypt. A small offset (19 radiocarbon years older) in radiocarbon levels in the Nile Valley is probably a growing-season effect. Our radiocarbon data indicate that the New Kingdom started between 1570 and 1544 B.C.E., and the reign of Djoser in the Old Kingdom started between 2691 and 2625 B.C.E.; both cases are earlier than some previous historical estimates.

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