Chronologies, old and new

With miniature wargaming still very much on my mind, I bought a copy of Chariot Wars (2002), aWarhammer Ancient Battles supplement written by Nigel Stillman. What struck me most about this book, however, is its enthusiastic use of the “New Chronology”, based largely on the book Centuries of Darkness: A Challenge to the Conventional Chronology of Old World Archaeology (1991) written by Peter James, I.J. Thorpe, and others.

The so-called “conventional” chronology – actually a collection of different chronologies – is the result of many years of scholarship, puzzling together various strands of evidence. Very broadly speaking, the chronology of the ancient world is accurate from about 500 BC onwards, especially in those regions with lots of written evidence, such as much of the Near East and Mediterranean. In some cases, such as Assyria, an accurate chronology is available from a slightly earlier period onwards, thanks to an eclipse that happened in 763 BC. Nevertheless, even in this more secure period, there are still some problems when it comes to dates, as in the case of the early history of the Roman Republic (see Jona Lendering’s contribution to Ancient Warfare issue VII.3).

The chronology of ancient Egypt is based largely on the list of kings provided by Manetho and supplemented with data gleaned from other, often earlier sources. These dates often seem more exact than they are: the Battle of Kadesh, for example, is generally dated to 1274 BC, but there is ample room for disagreement. For the ancient Near East, the situation is much more complex, with the result that different chronologies have been proposed: low, middle, high, and some variations in between. For example, in the low chronology, the sack of Babylon is dated to 1531 BC, while according to the middle chronology, this event occurred in 1595. The reason that there are different chronologies in play for the Near East is that not one is entirely satisfactory; they each have problems of their own. To alleviate these problems, the chronologies of Egypt and the Near East are often linked together through synchronisms in an attempt at increased accuracy (often problematic). The chronology of the ancient Aegean – a region that has provided few uncontested absolute dates on its own – is in turn also linked to synchronisms with Egypt.

Archaeologists and ancient historians should be among the first to acknowledge that there are problems with the conventional chronologies and they should probably emphasize the essentially ephemeral nature of absolute dates before ca. 763–500 BC. Even so, archaeologists who focus on ancient Greece are keenly aware that some conventional dates are probably too early: Protocorinthian pottery, for example, should probably be downdated in some cases by more than a generation, so that Early Protocorinthian doesn’t date to ca. 725–700, but rather 700–675 BC. This is one of the reasons why in scholarly publications, relative dates are preferred to absolute ones.

The New Chronology

Nigel Stillman, in Chariot Wars, embraces the new chronology proposed by David Rohl in his A Test of Time (1995) and by Peter James et al., as explained on pages 4–5. Adopting this new chronological scheme means that much of the Bronze Age is dated some 350–250 years later than in the more conventional chronologies. Here is a comparison of some dates that I have culled from his chart on page 5:

Event Conventional New date
Akkadian Empire ca. 2300–2100 BC ca. 2100–1920 BC
Mycenaean Greece ca. 1400–1100 BC ca. 1300–850 BC
Reign of Akhenaten ca. 1370–1353 BC ca. 1020–1003 BC
Battle of Kadesh ca. 1280 BC ca. 941 BC
Fall of Troy ca. 1150 BC ca. 850 BC

The “conventional” dates listed above are not without their own share problems, as hopefully should be clear by now, and the dates listed by Stillman for the New Chronology may also not entirely reflect the ideas of Rohl c.q. Peter James et al. As a general indication of the problem, however, the table will do for now.

Centuries of darkness?

Since I am more familiar with this work, I will focus on Centuries of Darkness, which offers a new chronological scheme that proposes sweeping changes aimed at, essentially, eliminating 250 years of the so-called “Dark Ages” that followed the Bronze Age collapse of around 1200 BC. It is easy to dismiss Centuries of Darknessout of hand, and many scholars have done so. Some, however, have engaged with the criticisms expressed by Peter James and his collaborators, and their new scheme should not be cast aside at first glance.

On the other hand, the enthusiasm with which Nigel Stillman adopted the new chronology should also be avoided. In this, the author underestimated the swiftness with which new ideas find their way into contemporary scholarship:

I have chosen to use the new chronology (…) because I think their evidence is convincing. I believe that the new chronology will replace the currently accepted chronology and so I do not want to put an out of date system into this book.

While Peter James and his colleagues continue to work on their chronology, it is fair to say that twenty years after the publication of their important book, the traditional chronologies have yet to be replaced by the chronology that they have proposed. But their ideas haven’t been ignored either, as the foreword to Centuries of Darkness by Colin Renfrew and discussions by scholars like Anthony Snodgrass make clear, and many of their ideas have since filtered through in later works (see theirFAQ for a list). But like all chronological schemes, it has to find wide acceptance in order to become current, and issues of chronology provide an almost endless source of debate.

The main criticism of Peter James et al. is aimed at Egyptian chronology, which is usually considered to be fairly accurate and, as stated earlier, used to establish synchronisms with other regions. But James et al. point out that the Egyptian chronology isn’t as solid as is often assumed. They especially point out that some dynasties during the Third Intermediate Period (which corresponds more or less with the Greek “Dark Age”) were not consecutive, but instead overlapped. This has caused the duration of the “Dark Ages” to be overestimated.

In my own book, Henchmen of Ares, I make use of conventional chronologies, but try to keep the absolute dates to a minimum (but they cannot be avoided, especially not in book aimed at general readers and specialists alike!). In the book’s “List of Dates”, on page 144, I explicitly point out that “As a rule, absolute dates before the end of the sixth century BC get progressively less exact the further back in time we go; from a little before the Persian Wars, dates are generally reliable.” As long as absolute dates are always combined with relative schemes – such as, very simply, the order of the chapters in Henchmen – a new chronological scheme or the revision of an old one will never become a serious problem. Nigel Stillman need not have worried.

As long as the chronological scheme proposed in Centuries of Darkness is not widely accepted by mainstream writers and academics alike, publications aimed, at least in part, at general audiences rather than specialists – such as Ancient Warfare magazine, but also, I would argue, Chariot Wars – have to adhere to more conventional chronologies. Nevertheless, if you have any interest in the problems concerning absolute dates for the ancient world, go read Centuries of Darkness. You may have a difficult time finding new copies of the book, but second-hand ones are readily available from online booksellers, such as Amazon.

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