Chronology of the ancient Near East
The chronology of the ancient Near East is a framework of dates for various events, rulers and dynasties. Historical inscriptions and texts customarily record events in terms of a succession of officials or rulers: "in the year X of king Y". Comparing many records pieces together a relative chronology relating dates in cities over a wide area. For the first millennium BC, the relative chronology can be matched to actual calendar years by identifying significant astronomical events. An inscription from the tenth year of Assyrian king Ashur-Dan III refers to an eclipse of the sun, and astronomical calculations among the range of plausible years date the eclipse to 15 June 763 BC. This can be corroborated by other mentions of astronomical events, and a secure absolute chronology established, tying the relative chronologies to our own calendar.
For the third and second millennia, this correlation is less certain. A key document is the cuneiform Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, preserving record of astronomical observations of Venus during the reign of the Babylonian king Ammisaduqa, known to be the fourth ruler after Hammurabi in the relative calendar. In the series, the conjunction of the rise of Venus with the new moon provides a point of reference, or rather three points, for the conjunction is a periodic occurrence. Identifying an Ammisaduqa conjunction with one of these calculated conjunctions will therefore fix, for example, the accession of Hammurabi as either 1848, 1792, or 1736 BC, known as the "high" ("long"), "middle", and "short (or low) chronology".
- Early Bronze Age: A series of rulers and dynasties whose existence is based mostly on the Sumerian King List besides some that are attested epigraphically (e.g. En-me-barage-si). No absolute dates within a certainty better than a century can be assigned to this period.
- Middle to Late Bronze Age: Beginning with the Akkadian Empire around 2300 BC, the chronological evidence becomes internally more consistent. A good picture can be drawn of who succeeded whom, and synchronisms between Mesopotamia, the Levant and the more robust chronology of Ancient Egypt can be established. The assignment of absolute dates is a matter of dispute; the conventional middle chronology fixes the sack of Babylon at 1595 BC while the short chronology gives 1531 BC.
- The Bronze Age collapse: A "Dark Age" begins with the fall of Babylonian Dynasty III (Kassite) around 1200 BC, the invasions of the Sea Peoples and the collapse of the Hittite Empire.
- Early Iron Age: Around 900 BC, written records once again become more numerous with the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, establishing secure absolute dates. Classical sources such as the Canon of Ptolemy, the works of Berossus, and the Hebrew Bible provide chronological support and synchronisms. An eclipse in 763 BC anchors the Assyrian list of imperial officials.
Variant Bronze Age chronologiesEdit
The major schools of thought on the length of the Dark Age are separated by 56 or 64 years. This is because the key source for their dates is the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa and the visibility of Venus has a 56/64[clarification needed] year cycle. More recent work by Vahe Gurzadyan has suggested that the fundamental 8-year cycle of Venus is a better metric (updated). However, some scholars discount the validity of the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa entirely. There have been attempts to anchor the chronology using records of eclipses and other methods, but they are not yet widely supported. The alternative major chronologies are defined by the date of the 8th year of the reign of Ammisaduqa, king of Babylon. This choice then defines the reign of Hammurabi.
The "middle chronology" (reign of Hammurabi 1792–1750 BC) is commonly encountered in literature, including many current textbooks on the archaeology and history of the ancient Near East. The alternative "short" (or "low") chronology is less commonly followed, and the "long" (or "high") and "ultra-short" (or "ultra-low") chronologies are clear minority views. A recent analysis combining dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating supported the middle chronology as most likely. A further refinement by the same group shifted that to the "low-middle chronology" 8 years lower. As mentioned below, at present there are no continuous chronologies for the Near East, and a floating chronology has been developed using trees in Anatolia for the Bronze and Iron Ages. Until a continuous sequence is developed, the usefulness of dendrochronology for improving the chronology of the Ancient Near East is limited. For much of the period in question, middle chronology dates can be calculated by adding 64 years to the corresponding short chronology date (e.g. 1728 BC in short chronology corresponds to 1792 in middle chronology).
The following table gives an overview of the competing proposals, listing some key dates and their deviation relative to the short chronology:
|Chronology||Ammisaduqa Year 8||Reign of Hammurabi||Fall of Babylon I||±|
|Ultra-Low||1542 BC||1696–1654 BC||1499 BC||+32 a|
|Short or Low||1574 BC||1728–1686 BC||1531 BC||+0 a|
|Middle||1638 BC||1792–1750 BC||1595 BC||−64 a|
|Long or High||1694 BC||1848–1806 BC||1651 BC||−120 a|
The chronologies of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Anatolia depend significantly on the chronology of Ancient Egypt. To the extent that there are problems in the Egyptian chronology, these issues will be inherited in chronologies based on synchronisms with Ancient Egypt.
Sources of chronological dataEdit
Thousands of cuneiform tablets have been found in an area running from Anatolia to Egypt. While many are the ancient equivalent of grocery receipts, these tablets, along with inscriptions on buildings and public monuments, provide the major source of chronological information for the ancient Middle East.
- State of materials
While there are some relatively pristine display-quality objects, the vast majority of recovered tables and inscriptions are damaged. They have been broken with only portions found, intentionally defaced, and damaged by weather or soil. Many tablets were not even baked and have to be carefully handled until they can be hardened by heating.
The site of an item's recovery is an important piece of information for archaeologists, which can be compromised by two factors. First, in ancient times old materials were often reused as building material or fill, sometimes at a great distance from the original location. Secondly, looting has disturbed archaeological sites at least back to Roman times, making the provenance of looted objects difficult or impossible to determine.
- Multiple versions
Key documents like the Sumerian King List were repeatedly copied over generations, resulting in multiple variant versions of a chronological source. It can be very hard to determine the authentic version.
The translation of cuneiform documents is quite difficult, especially for damaged source material. Additionally, our knowledge of the underlying languages, like Akkadian and Sumerian, have evolved over time, so a translation done now may be quite different than one done in AD 1900: there can be honest disagreement over what a document says. Worse, the majority of archaeological finds have not yet been published, much less translated. Those held in private collections may never be.
- Political slant
Many of our important source documents, such as the Assyrian King List, are the products of government and religious establishments, with a natural bias in favor of the king or god in charge. A king may even take credit for a battle or construction project of an earlier ruler. The Assyrians in particular have a literary tradition of putting the best possible face on history, a fact the interpreter must constantly keep in mind.
Historical lists of rulers were traditional in the ancient Near East.
Covers rulers of Mesopotamia from a time "before the flood" to the fall of the Isin Dynasty. For many early city-states, it is the only source of chronological data. However many early rulers are listed with fantastically long reigns. Some scholars speculate that this stems from an error in transcribing the original base 60 arithmetic of the Sumerians to the later decimal-based system of the Akkadians.
This list deals only with the rulers of Babylon. It has been found in two versions, denoted A and B. The later dynasties in the list document the Kassite and Sealand periods. There is also a Babylonian King List of the Hellenistic Period in later part of the 1st millennium.
Found in multiple differing copies, this tablet lists all the kings of Assyria and their regnal lengths back into the mists of time, with the portions with reasonable data beginning around the 14th century BC. When combined with the various Assyrian chronicles, the Assyrian King List anchors the chronology of the 1st millennium.
Many chronicles have been recovered in the ancient Near East, most fragmentary; but when combined with other sources, they provide a rich source of chronological data.
- Synchronistic Chronicle
Found in the library of Assurbanipal in Nineveh, it records the diplomacy of the Assyrian empire with the Babylonian empire. While useful, the consensus is that this chronicle should not be considered reliable.
While quite incomplete, this tablet provides the same type of information as the Assyrian Synchronistic Chronicle, but from the Babylonian point of view.
- Royal Chronicle of Lagash
The Sumerian King List omits any mention of Lagash, even though it was clearly a major power during the period covered by the list. The Royal Chronicle of Lagash appears to be an attempt to remedy that omission, listing the kings of Lagash in the form of a chronicle. Some scholars believe the chronicle to be either a parody of the Sumerian King List or a complete fabrication.
Rulers in the ancient Near East liked to take credit for public works. Temples, buildings and statues are likely to identify their royal patron. Kings also publicly recorded major deeds such as battles won, titles acquired, and gods appeased. These are very useful in tracking the reign of a ruler.
Unlike current calendars, most ancient calendars were based on the accession of the current ruler, as in "the 5th year in the reign of Hammurabi". Each royal year was also given a title reflecting a deed of the ruler, like "the year Ur was defeated". The compilation of these years are called date lists. 
Eponym (limmu) listsEdit
In Assyria, a royal official or limmu was selected in every year of a king's reign. Many copies of these lists have been found, with certain ambiguities. There are sometimes too many or few limmū for the length of a king's reign, and sometimes the different versions of the eponym list disagree on a limmu, for example in the Mari Eponym Chronicle. There is now an Assyrian Revised Eponym List which attempts to resolve some of these issues.
Trade, diplomatic, and disbursement recordsEdit
As often in archaeology, everyday records give the best picture of a civilization. Cuneiform tablets were constantly moving around the ancient Near East, offering alliances (sometimes including daughters for marriage), threatening war, recording shipments of mundane supplies, or settling accounts receivable. Most were tossed away after use as one today would discard unwanted receipts, but fortunately for us, clay tablets are durable enough to survive even when used as material for wall filler in new construction.
A key find was a number of cuneiform tablets from Amarna in Egypt, the city of the pharaoh Akhenaten. Mostly in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the time, several of them named foreign rulers including the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Assuming that the correct kings have been identified, this locks the chronology of the ancient Near East to that of Egypt, at least from the middle of the 2nd millennium.
We have some data sources from the classical period:
Berossus, a Babylonian astronomer during the Hellenistic period, wrote a history of Babylon which was lost, but portions were preserved by other classical writers.
- Canon of Ptolemy or Canon of Kings
This book provides a list of kings starting at around 750 BC in Babylon and forward through the Persian and Roman periods, in an astronomical context. It is used to help define the chronology of the 1st millennium.
- Hebrew Bible
Not having the stability of buried clay tablets, the records of the Hebrews have a great deal of ancient editorial work to sift through when used as a source for chronology. However, the Hebrew kingdoms lay at the crossroads of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt and the Hittites, making them spectators and often victims of actions in the area. Mainly of use in the 1st millennium and with the Assyrian New Kingdom.
A record of the movements of Venus during the reign of a king of the First Babylonian Dynasty. Using it, various scholars have proposed dates for the fall of Babylon based on the 56/64-year cycle of Venus. The mentioned recent work suggesting that the fundamental 8-year cycle of Venus is a better metric, led to the proposal of an "ultra-low" chronology.
A number of lunar and solar eclipses have been suggested for use in dating the ancient Near East. Many suffer from the vagueness of the original tablets in showing that an actual eclipse occurred. At that point, it becomes a question of using computer models to show when a given eclipse would have been visible at a site, complicated by difficulties in modeling the slowing rotation of the earth (ΔT). One important event is the Nineveh eclipse, found in an Assyrian limmu list q.e. "Bur-Sagale of Guzana, revolt in the city of Ashur. In the month Simanu an eclipse of the sun took place." This eclipse is considered to be solidly dated to 15 June 763 BC. Another important event is the Ur III Lunar/Solar Eclipse pair in the reign of Shulgi. Most calculations for dating using eclipses have assumed the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa to be a legitimate source.
Dendrochronology attempts to use the variable growth pattern of trees, expressed in their rings, to build up a chronological timeline. At present, there are no continuous chronologies for the Near East. A floating chronology has been developed using trees in Anatolia for the Bronze and Iron Ages. Until a continuous sequence is developed, the usefulness for improving the chronology of the Ancient Near East is limited. The difficulty in tying the chronology to the modern day lies primarily in the Roman period, for which few good wood samples have been found, and many of those turn out to be imported from outside the Near East.
As in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, radiocarbon dates run one or two centuries earlier than the dates proposed by archaeologists. It is not at all clear which group is right, if either. Newer accelerator-based carbon dating techniques may help clear up the issue. Another promising technique is the dating of lime plaster from structures. Recently, radiocarbon dates from the final destruction of Ebla have been shown to definitely favour the middle chronology (with the fall of Babylon and Aleppo at c. 1595 BC), and seem to discount the ultra-low chronology (same event at c. 1499 BC), although it is emphasized that this is not presented as a decisive argument.
At least as far back as the reign of Thutmose I, Egypt took a strong interest in the ancient Near East. At times they occupied portions of the region, a favor returned later by the Assyrians. Some key synchronisms:
- Battle of Kadesh, involving Ramses II of Egypt (in his 5th year of reign) and Muwatalli II of the Hittite empire. Recorded by both Egyptian and Hittite records.
- Peace treaty between Ramses II of Egypt (in his 21st year of reign) and Hattusili III of the Hittites. Recorded by both Egyptian and Hittite records.
- Amenhotep III (Amenophis III) marries the daughter of Shuttarna II of Mitanni. There is also a record of messages from the pharaoh to Kadashman-Enlil I of Babylon in the Amarna Letter (EA1–5). Other Amarna letters link Amenhotep III to Burnaburiash II of Babylon (EA6) and Tushratta of Mitanni (EA17–29) as well.
- Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) married the daughter of Tushratta of Mitanni (as did his father Amenhotep III), leaving a number of records. He also corresponded with Burna-Buriash II of Babylon (EA7–11, 15), and Ashuruballit I of Assyria (EA15–16)
There are problems with using Egyptian chronology. Besides some minor issues of regnal lengths and overlaps, there are three long periods of poorly documented chaos in the history of ancient Egypt, the First, Second, and Third Intermediate Periods, whose lengths are doubtful. This means the Egyptian Chronology actually comprises three floating chronologies.
There is much evidence that the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley traded with the Near East, including clay seals found at Ur III and in the Persian Gulf. Seals and beads were also found at the site of Esnunna. In addition, if the land of Meluhha does indeed refer to the Indus Valley, then there are extensive trade records ranging from the Akkadian Empire until the Babylonian Dynasty I.
Thera and Eastern MediterraneanEdit
Goods from Greece made their way into the ancient Near East, directly in Anatolia and via the island of Cyprus in the rest of the region and Egypt. A Hittite king, Tudhaliya IV, even captured Cyprus as part of an attempt to enforce a blockade of the Assyrians.
The eruption of the Thera volcano provides a possible time marker for the region. A large eruption, it would have sent a plume of ash directly over Anatolia and filled the sea in the area with floating pumice. This pumice appeared in Egypt, apparently via trade. Current excavations in the Levant may also add to the timeline. The exact date of the volcanic eruption has been the subject of strong debate, with dates ranging between 1628 and 1520 BC. Radiocarbon dating has placed it at between 1627 BC and 1600 BC with a 95% degree of probability. Archaeologist Kevin Walsh, accepting the radiocarbon dating, suggests a possible date of 1628 and believes this to be the most debated event in Mediterranean archaeology.
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