Chronology of the ancient Near East
The chronology of the ancient Near East provides a framework of dates for various events, rulers and dynasties. Individual inscriptions and texts customarily record events in terms of a succession of officials or rulers, taking forms like "in the year X of king Y". Thus by piecing together many records a relative chronology is arrived at, relating dates in cities over a wide area. For the first millennium BC, the relative chronology can be tied 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 possible dates identify the eclipse as having occurred 15 June 763 BCE. The date can be corroborated with other mentions of astronomical events and a secure absolute chronology established, that ties the relative chronologies into our calendar.
For the third and second millennia, the correlation is not so fixed. A key document is the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, preserving record of astronomical observations of Venus, as preserved in numerous cuneiform tablets 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 fixed point, or rather three fixed points, for the conjunction is a periodic occurrence. Astronomical calculation can therefore fix, for example, the first dates of the reign of Hammurabi in this manner either as 1848, 1792, or 1736 BC, depending on whether the "high" (or "long"), "middle" or "low (or short) chronology" is followed.
- 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. Essentially, for this period, 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 fixes it at 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, historical data, written records become more numerous once more, with the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, enabling the certain assignment of 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
Due to the sparsity of sources throughout the "Dark Age", the history of the Near Eastern Bronze Age down to the end of the Third Babylonian Dynasty is a "floating chronology". In other words, it fits together internally as a "relative chronology" but not as an "absolute chronology".
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. (see update in ) There have been other 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, and many recent textbooks on the archaeology and history of the ancient Near East continue using it. 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. There are also some scholars who discount the validity of the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa entirely. Early twenty-first century dendrochronology has essentially disproved the short chronology. 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 the 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 modern 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 objects, such as you might see in the Louvre or the British Museum, the vast majority of recovered tables and inscriptions are in much worse condition. They have been broken with only portions found, intentionally defaced, and damaged by weather or the effects of being buried underground. Many tablets were not even baked in antiquity and have to be carefully handled until they are heated properly.
The site of an item's recovery is an important piece of information for archaeologists. Unfortunately, two factors impinge on this. First, in ancient times old materials were often reused either as building material or fill, sometimes at a great distance from the original location. Secondly, looting has been a fact of life for archaeological sites, dating at least back to Roman times. The provenance of a looted object is difficult or impossible to determine.
- Multiple versions
Over time, key documents like the Sumerian King List were repeatedly copied across the generations. As a result, there are sometimes multiple versions of a chronological source that differ from each other. It can be very hard to determine which version is correct.
The translation of cuneiform documents is quite difficult, especially given the damaged nature of much 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. The result of all this is that there can be honest disagreement what the document really says. Worse yet, many archaeological finds have not yet been published, much less translated. Those held in private collections may never be.
Many of our important source documents, such as the Assyrian King List, are the products of government and religious establishments. They often have a built-in slant 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 always putting the best possible face on history. The tablets or inscriptions in question still have value, though one does have to keep the slant in mind.
Keeping historical lists of rulers was traditional in the ancient Near East.
Covers rulers of Mesopotamia from a time "before the flood" up to the fall of the Isin Dynasty. For many early city-states it is the only source of chronological data. A major problem is that many early rulers are listed with fantastically long reigns. There has been some speculation that this stems from an error transcribing from the base 60 arithmetic of the Sumerians to the decimal-based system of the later Akkadians.
This list deals only with the rulers of Babylon. It has been found in two versions, Babylonian King List A and Babylonian King List B. The later dynasties in the list reflect the Kassite and Sealand periods of Babylon. There is also a Babylonian King List of the Hellenistic Period which covers the 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 at 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 are partial or 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 interaction of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, from the Assyrian point of view. 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.
In general, political figures in the ancient Near East liked to take credit for public works. Temples, buildings and statues built by a ruler are likely to have some sort of inscription mentioning his name. The kings also were sure to record major deeds like battles won, titles acquired, or gods appeased in some form of public inscription. These are very useful in tracking the reign of a ruler.
Unlike current calendars, most ancient calendars were based on how long the current ruler had been in power. A year might be "the 5th year in the reign of Hammurabi". As part of this, each royal year was given a title, like "the year Ur was defeated". Most often this reflected a deed of the ruler. The compilation of these years are called date lists. 
Eponym (limmu) listsEdit
In Assyria, a royal official or limmu was selected every year of a king's reign. Many copies of these lists have been found. Naturally, details are not always clear-cut. 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.
Trade, diplomatic, and disbursement recordsEdit
As is often the case in archaeology, it is everyday records that 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, acting as shipping documents for mundane supplies or settling accounts receivable. Most were tossed away after use the way that we would discard unwanted receipts. Fortunately for us, tablets are durable and many are well-preserved even when used as material for wall filler in new construction.
The classic example. A number of cuneiform tablets were found at Amarna in Egypt, the city of the pharaoh Akhenaten. They were written mostly in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the time. Several named rulers in the region including the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Assuming that the correct kings have been identified, it locks the chronology of the ancient Near East to that of Egypt, at least from the middle of the 2nd millennium.
Some data sources are available to us from the classical period:
Berossus was a Babylonian astronomer living during the Hellenistic period. He wrote a history of Babylon which has not survived to modern times. Luckily, portions of this work 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 benefit of being written into clay and buried, the records of the Hebrews have an additional layer of time to work through in being used as a source for chronology. On the other hand, the Hebrews did live pretty much in a territory directly in the crosshairs of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt and the Hittites, giving them a front row seat to 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, Delta T. 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 that the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa is 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. Mechanisms have been proposed for explaining why radiocarbon dates in the region might be skewed. Equally logical arguments have been made suggesting that the archaeological dates are too late. Time will tell. The spread of accelerator based carbon dating techniques may help clear up the issue. Another promising front 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 BCE), and do not seem to fall with the ultra-low chronology (same event at c. 1499 BCE), although it is emphasized that this is not to be seen 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 in later days 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 on the matter. He also corresponded with Burna-Buriash II of Babylon (EA7–11, 15), and Ashuruballit I of Assyria (EA15–16)
There is much evidence that the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley traded with the region. This is demonstrated by clay seals found at Ur III and in the Persian Gulf. 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 BCE. Radiocarbon dating has placed it at between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE 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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