Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Sturt W. Manning, A Test of Time and A Test of Time Revisited: The Volcano of Thera and the Chronology and History of the Aegean and East Mediterranean in the mid-second Millennium BC. 2nd Edition (first edition 1999). Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow, 2014. Pp. xxxiii, 494. ISBN 9781782972198. $84.00.

Reviewed by Manfred Bietak (manfred.bietak@univie.ac.at)

Version at BMCR home site

This book deals primarily with the debate about the date of the Minoan eruption of the Thera volcano in the 2nd millennium BC. While scholarly consensus places this event during a late stage of Late Minoan (LM) IA, the absolute date is a matter of controversy. While archaeological evidence fixes the event towards the second half or even at the end of the 16th century BC, radiocarbon analysis dates the eruption to the second half of the 17th century BC.

Over 500 pages of the book are a reprint of the author's A Test of Time (1999, rev. Bietak, BiOr LXI, 2004, 199–222) and the remaining 202 pages are a ten-chapter update that provides a history of this chronological debate and his response to criticisms of the original version. A postscript offers an update of the update! This publication is hardly welcome because it is as repetitive and confusing as its predecessor. In fact, one can find a more concise, straightforward and up-to-date presentation by the author (with co-authors) on more or less the same issues in Antiquity 88, 2014, 1164–79.

Manning's strategy is to close the gap between radiocarbon and archaeological/historical dating and to offer a case for synchronizing the eastern Mediterranean and Egyptian chronologies in agreement with his high date for the eruption in the late 17th century BC. The author relies largely on 14C dates and their evaluation using Bayesian statistics, which employs the IntCal09 calibration curve (the postscript uses IntCal13). The core of his evidence indicates that the date falls between 1632 and 1614 BC with a probability of 68.2%. The author concedes, however, that there is also a nearly 20% probability that this event fell between 1581 and 1536 BC.

The author finds support for his chronology in the dating of a Theran olive tree branch (Friedrich et al. Science 312, 2006, 548), which is now calibrated using IntCal13 to between 1630–1615 BC (68.2%). This range is at the lower end of the date of the eruption proposed by the author, but as the branch's bark is missing and the cavity in the tephra in which the branch was embedded was larger than that branch, suspicion remains that its outer part is missing and that the measurements could predate the eruption by many decades (see Antiquity 88, 2014, 267–91). One wonders why the dating of a second and larger branch from the same environment has still not been published nine years after its discovery.

In order to dismiss the possibility of an influence of volcanic CO2 vents on the 14C-ages of the Theran samples, the author offers similar results for the LM IA period from other parts of the Aegean. One has to question, however, the chronological value of the tsunami deposits at Palaikastro (Crete), since high-energy flood deposits may also include eroded older materials, which would explain the 80-year difference for cattle bones whose carriers should have presumably died at the same catastrophe.

Additional support for the Thera eruption dates is sought in the long stratigraphic 14C-series from Aegina Colonna (Wild et al., Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B 268, 2010, 1013–1021). There, the samples of Late Helladic (LH) I (Phase K) could predate the eruption by nearly 100 years. However, two samples of four: VERA A4633: 1689 (97.4%) 1527 BC and A4631: 1695 (87.9%) 1529 BC, fall fairly well into either the 17th or the 16th century, and one (the only cereal among animal bone samples) even largely into the 15th century: VERA A4033: 1539 (90.2%) 1393 BC. The eruption happened, however, early in LH II (Phase L) from which only a single sample has been analysed and its date range is equally divided between the 17th and the 16th centuries (VERA A 4630). How can one use such evidence to support a 17th century date for the eruption?!?

Greater correspondence with Theran short-lived samples can be found with results of LM IA contexts from Miletus, Kommos, Trianda/Rhodes, but nearly all of these samples are charcoal and one cannot rule out the old wood effect. The three Tzoungiza/Nemea samples show results falling in the 16th century and are younger than the later samples from this site for the transition to LM IB. The series is continued with analyses of short-lived samples of LM IB from Chania, Myrtos Pyrgos, and for LM II from Knossos.

The author has thus far failed to present a convincing case for the high Aegean chronology from archaeological sources, but he is not alone in such efforts. In similarly repetitive articles and lectures Höflmayer has tried to dismantle the framework of the Tell el-Dab'a stratigraphy and chronology by attacking the datum lines within its succession of occupation (see also Antiquity 88, 1174). He casts doubt that the stele, dated to the 5th year of Senusert III, is from the temple of 'Ezbet Rushdi (Phase K), although it was found by Shehata Adam at the site of this temple during excavation. Not only is the temple mentioned in this document, but the text defines, with 26 mh (2600 cubits2 = 711.17 m2), precisely the plot of the older phase of this temple including a 3-cubit-wide stripe around the temple-house (Bietak, Egypt and the Levant 8, 18; Czerny, Tell el-Dab'a XXII, 85). The pottery from this phase fits this date perfectly, reinforcing this datum.

The Hyksos Khayan is associated with phases late E/1 and D/3 by seal impressions. They were found in offering pits and on a fireplace (not in secondary positions) of a later phase of a Hyksos palace and are not considered by us as a datum line. The evidence is repeated at a new excavation at 'Ezbet Rushdi, where only one seal impression of this king seems to originate from phase E/1 and all the others from Phase D/3 contexts (Reali, Egypt and the Levant 22/23, 71). While these seals represent only termini post quems, their position within the stratigraphy and ceramic chronology fits the position of Khayan as assessed by text analyses (Ryholt, OLA 192, 122-4; Schneider, ÄAT 42/1, 74; Hornung et al. Chronology, 194). The only name in the Manethonian kinglist of the 15th Dynasty fitting Khayan is Apachnan, who ranges at the third or fourth position of the six kings of this dynasty. His son Yanassy is to be identified with the Manethonian Iannas who was late in this dynasty, even after Apophis. Khayan cannot be placed at the beginning of the 15th Dynasty. The first king in the Manethonian list is Salitis (perhaps Shalek on the Memphite priest list) to be followed by Bnon. The archaeological argument by N. Moellers et al., Egypt and the Levant 21, 2011, 87-121, that sealings of Khayan and Sebekhotep IV of the 13th Dynasty found in the same context at Tell Edfu in association with pottery of the late Middle Kingdom make these two kings nearly contemporaries, is unacceptable. Already Ilin-Tomich, JEH 7, 2014, 143-93, has dismantled this theory, for which I present a short resume.

Forty seal impressions of Khayan and six of Sebekhotep IV were found clustered in an abandonment horizon of an administrative building at Edfu, which was used from the Middle Kingdom onwards. The extraordinary claim to make Khayan contemporary with the 13th Dynasty rests on ceramic evidence and a single 14C sample of old wood. Unfortunately, the ceramic development in Upper Egypt is not as precisely studied as in Lower Egypt. Well-dated contexts are missing and one can only say that the Middle Kingdom tradition lasts much longer in the south (Seiler, OLA 192, 42-7). Among the only four pottery items presented for the abandonment horizon is a modelled rim jar of Marl A3, dating to the 17th Dynasty (Moeller et al., Egypt and the Levant 21, fig. 16/ED2654.3/1; Ilin-Tomich, JEH 7, 150) with a seal impression belonging to the Late Palestinian Group that doesn't date before the Hyksos Period and is absent from 13th Dynasty contexts (Ben-Tor, Ms Khayan Conference, Vienna 2014). As it is the latest artefacts that date an assemblage, it is unfeasible to date it to the 13th Dynasty. It is more likely that Sebekhotep IV's seals were still used in the Hyksos Period—a frequent phenomenon during the Second Intermediate Period. Furthermore, there is no evidence from the northern part of Egypt that the 13th and the 15th Dynasty overlapped; ceramic development and seal typology are distinctly different. As Sebekhotep IV still maintained relations with Lebanon, like Neferhotep I, it is unlikely that was possible with the Hyksos ruling in Avaris. Thus, Khayan's position before Apophis within the Hyksos succession remains the same as previously assumed, with perhaps one king in between the two (Yanassy?). Manning seems to overlook that a 13th and 15th Dynasty overlap would shorten the SIP by about 50-80 years. This would enlarge the gap between historical and radiocarbon dates for this period considerably.

Höflmayer also does not accept Tell el-Dab'a/Avaris's abandonment at the end of the Hyksos occupation as a datum line for its conquest during the second decade of Ahmose. Objects with Ahmose's name are missing from this horizon, but one does not know how else to interpret the abandonment level, especially as the ceramic dating fits perfectly with the end of the Hyksos Period; subsequent levels on one part of the ruins date to the 18th Dynasty (Phases D/1, C/2–3). The final level of this occupation (C/2) can be dated by scarabs that were found in a workshop, with Ahmose to Thutmose III and Amenhotep II; the latest seal dates the assemblage. The attempt to separate Phase C/2 from the rest of the stratigraphy because walls of a workshop abut the weathered outer phase of the rampart of a Thutmosid palace does not work, because the ceramics of Phases C/2 and C/3 cannot be differentiated typologically; both are typical of the Thutmosid Period. Workshops producing luxury goods such as calcite vessels and inlaid furniture fit a palace household and not ruins. So, the abandonment of the Thutmosid palace happened during the reign of Amenhotep II or later. All the radiocarbon dates of the Tell el-Dab'a series have an offset of at least 100 years and correspond with historical dating in the 2σ range only when applying the highest possible historical dates for the New Kingdom. Trying to push Phases C/3 and D/1 into the Hyksos Period ignores the fact that the site's chronology is also based on ceramic dating, especially the painstaking seriation analyses of Bader and Kopetzky (Tell el-Dab'a vols. XIII, XIX, and XX) and the work of Aston (vols. VIII, XII); neither Manning nor Höflmayer demonstrate expertise in Egyptian ceramic studies. The discussion of archaeological evidence is this book's weakest part and shows no critical approach to weighing the evidence; instead, the author makes the grave mistake of adducing whatever is convenient. Concerning his downgrading the Low Chronology, particularly the evidence of White Slip I Ware and the stone vessels from the Shaft Graves, see Bietak, BiOr XLVII, 220.

The Postscript includes a rerun of Bronk Ramsey's et al. Bayesian modelling of Egyptian chronology using the radiocarbon dating of pharaonic accessions based on known regnal lengths. The author uses for his rerun Aston's new high chronology with the accession date of Thutmose at 1504 instead of 1479 BC, arriving at maximum of 1585 BC (Aston: 1575) for the beginning of the New Kingdom. Even this tour de force only closes the gap between historical and radiocarbon chronology by 35–50 years. While such modelling is capable of excluding the very low chronology of Hornung et al. (Ancient Egyptian Chronology, Leiden 2006), this exercise shows that the results of the 14C chronology are strongly influenced by historical chronology because the 14C resolution is so wide that it acts like an accordion, encompassing even unfeasible maximum lengths of reigns for which we cannot account: e.g. maximum reigns of 34 years, which are only theoretically possible, are proposed for Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV. These time spans are at the utmost edge of what is historically possible. Such high chronology models create generations of Egyptian officials serving until an unfeasibly old age. Nevertheless, the author takes an innovative approach that may one day lead to a solution, provided that the radiocarbon research deals with the more difficult factors, such as the variability in the uptake of 14C in the course of a year (Dee et al. JAS 37, 2010, 687–93), which would have increased the age of organic matters.

1 comment:

  1. While generally in agreement with the review, I note that there seems to be some mistunderstanding of the Edfu publication (Moeller, Marouard & Ayers, A&L 21 (2007), pp.87-121). Bietak writes above, “Among the only four pottery items presented for the abandonment horizon is a modelled rim jar of Marl A3, dating to the 17th Dynasty ( ... Ilin-Tomich, JEH 7, 150) with a seal impression belonging to the Late Palestinian Group”. This seems to be a misunderstanding of what Ilin-Tomich wrote – he did not say that the jar had a sealing but he reffered separately to certain sealings from Elephantine. More importantly, Ilin-Tomich, and possibly Bietak, has misunderstood what pottery was found in the Northern Hall contemporary with the sealings of Sobekhotep IV and Khayan. As I understand it, the pottery was mainly Dyn 13 style but Ayers only illustrated (fig.16) four types of the new, early SIP (early Dyns 15/17) style vessels. Ayers says, “important developments [ie. the four newer types] are noticeable among this predominantly late Middle Kingdom style pottery” (Ayers fig.16 & p.116). Bietak argues that these later vessel types indicate a date after Sobekhotep IV and in the later time of Khayan, which does not necessarily contradict the concluding statement of Moeller, Marouard & Ayers, “When all of the archaeological evidence, including the pottery, well-stratified layers, sealings and other small finds is considered together it becomes clear that the late Middle Kingdom pottery tradition continues well into the second half of the 13th Dynasty(–early Second Intermediate Period) at Tell Edfu, but not without important additions and changes” (p.116). At Tell el-Daba, as at Edfu, sealings of at least one of the Sebekhotep-Neferhotep group of pharaohs were found together with those of Khayan (Sartori, A&L 19 (2009), pp.284-5).