Unpicking the timeline of ancient Egyptian pharaohs

Surprising results using radiocarbon dating upset the established timeline of the early ancient Egyptians
15 March 2021

Interview with 

Tom Higham, University of Oxford


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The first of the mysteries we’re going to look at are the pharaohs - the Kings and Queens of Egypt. We have reasonably good chronological records for the later periods of ancient Egypt, but, as you go back further, the records get more murky. This is made worse by the fact that new pharaohs had a habit of making their mark by demolishing the paintings and monuments of their predecessors. Tom Higham is an archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford and author of the new book ‘The World Before Us: How Science is Revealing a New Story of Our Human Origins’. He’s been involved in a project to figure this out...

Tom - Yes, absolutely. What we see quite often is that new pharaohs came to power by virtue of plotting or coups, and they overthrew their predecessors. And once they'd done that, in an attempt to establish their own legitimacy, they would go back and rub out evidence for their predecessors in the form of temple inscriptions, papyri, and so on. And in fact we see this to this day: Hosni Mubarak's image - and that of his wife - was systematically removed by court order in Cairo following the Arab spring. So it's something that we see again and again.

Chris - And this presumably creates something of a puzzle, because although they wrote things down and we knew who lived when in relation to whom, if we haven't got physical things to tether to particular eras or people, it makes actually understanding that timeline that much more difficult!

Tom - Indeed. And this is part of the problem. I mean, we often think about ancient Egyptian chronologies as being absolutely precise and robust. But as you say, there are gaps in the record, and there are periods where pharaohs tried to rewrite history for themselves and eliminate the evidence for other people. And when you visit Egypt and you see the walls of temples and so on, you can see where, often, there has been destruction, and people have subsequently pecked out evidence for cartouches identifying different rulers and pharaohs. So as you go back in time, we have problems identifying precisely who ruled when, and for how long.

Chris - How are you trying to get underneath this then, and basically write history the right way, rather than the wrong way that people have sought to manipulate the record?

Tom - One thing that we can do is we can use radiocarbon dating. And radiocarbon is a method that was developed in the late 1940s, so it's a long established tool, and it basically revolves around the fact that all of the carbon that we and all living organisms uptake has a tiny proportion of radioactive carbon, or carbon-14. And this radioactive carbon is constantly replenished until death. When an organism dies, the amount of radiocarbon slowly begins to degrade away and disappear. And what we know is the rate at which that disappearance occurs: we know that every five and a half thousand years, half of the amount of radiocarbon disappears. And so by measuring the remaining radiocarbon in an archaeological bone or piece of wood, we can get a date for it.

Chris - But people must've done that; given this technique is coming up for its hundredth birthday, as you're saying, they must've already done that with all the artefacts we have from ancient Egypt.

Tom - Yeah, they did. But what we found was that there was a sort of mistrust of radiocarbon methods, because it hadn't properly been applied in the past. Instead, people had just dated anything really; they dated old pieces of charcoal and wood from temple complexes, which often predated the use of that wood in those complexes of temples, and graves, and so on. And this is a really key point in radiocarbon: we have to select good material that date as closely as we can to the date of the archaeological event we seek to understand.

Chris - I see. So if, for instance, I wanted to know how old my wheelbarrow was, but I inherited it from my granddad, I would get a false date because it's not a new wheelbarrow. Whereas if you go for something which can't be inherited, or can't be recycled, as it were, you potentially have got a much more fine grained - if you'll excuse the pun, because I was thinking of things like cereal grains and things...

Tom - Absolutely. So what we did was we went back to these burial contexts that contained independent historical evidence from the Egyptian chronology. So for example, we found evidence in the form of inscriptions on the side of the grave, in which that person died during the seventh year of the reign of King Joseph, for example. And then in that grave, we would find short-lived pieces of grain, and floral wreaths in the form of funerary materials, and so on. Those are the things we focused on dating in order to kind of crack the problem of when these things happen in the past.

Chris - That would give you a nice, neat timeline for that murky period back in history. When you assembled that timeline, did you then discover that in fact, things that we thought we understood well were in fact wrong, and we had it wrong all along?

Tom - We didn't find that in the recent period, because of the fact that we have a pretty good understanding of that historical record. So we didn't find major differences there; in fact, that was one of the things that gave us confidence that we were getting things right. But as we moved back through time, back through the Middle Kingdom and especially into the Old Kingdom, we found that our date estimates were much earlier than we thought previously. And they were about a century earlier than previous estimates had put forward. So that was quite an important conclusion to reach. Also, we found that the period before the domestic periods - the period of the Egyptian state and its formation - we found that this happened much more quickly than had happened in similar cases of state formation in places like the Middle East and Africa. And so that was also a very interesting thing, because it showed that the Egyptian state began very quickly, from pastoralists and people that were moving around the landscape, from a period where they then started to grow crops and to be more sedentary, and live in the same place. And shortly after that, state formation happened and we get pharaohs, we get institutions, we get writing, and so on and so forth.


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