Egyptian Reference Points and the Low Chronology for the Middle Bronze Age

Daphna Ben Tor
Israel Museum

The decades old controversy over the absolute chronology of the Middle Bronze Age phases in Palestine was recently triggered again by the chronology proposed by Bietak, based on his excavations at Tell el-Dab`a.  Bietak's suggested absolute dates for the Middle Bronze phases in Palestine are significantly lower than those accepted by most Palestinian archaeologists prior to the Tell el-Dab`a excavations. The disagreements concern primarily the early phases of the MBII the MBIIA, the transitional MBIIA-B and the early MBIIB, reflecting a different reconstruction of the relations between Egypt and Palestine during the first half of the second millennium BC. Before discussing the evidence available for the chronology of the Middle Bronze Age in Palestine it should be noted that the 40 years controversy of the high and low chronology for the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, is of minor significance for our discussion. Our main concern here is the corresponding of the Middle Bronze phases with particular Egyptian dynasties, which provides the most secure basis for our understanding of the political situation and historical developments in both regions during this period. However, since a framework of absolute dates is required in order to discuss the chronological debates, the dates proposed by Kitchen for the 12th Dynasty (ca. 1963-1786), which are now accepted by most scholars, are used in this discussion only as a matter of convenience.

A crucial point that should be stressed is that the region of Syria-Palestine has no independent means to establish absolute dates. As Bietak and Weinstein repeatedly pointed out, the absolute chronology of this region can only be determined through synchronisms with the astronomically based Egyptian chronology. Such synchronisms comprise Egyptian imports found in secure in situ archaeological contexts in Palestine or Canaanite imports found in similar contexts in Egypt. The fragmentary and inconclusive nature of evidence constituting such synchronisms prior to the Tell el-Dab`a excavations was pointed out in numerous studies, and consequently no more than a general framework for the absolute chronology of the Middle Bronze Age phases could be established. The recent consensus accepted by most Palestinian archeologists placed the MBIIA as largely contemporary with the 12th Dynasty (ca. 2000-1800), the MBIIB as contemporary with the 13th Dynasty (ca. 1800-1650) and the MBIIC as contemporary with the 15th Dynasty (ca. 1650-1550/40).

The archaeological evidence uncovered at Tell el-Dab`a constitutes the only body of source material that includes large quantities of Middle Bronze Canaanite material culture found together with Egyptian material culture in stratified deposits. The Tell el-Dab`a evidence is therefore of unparalleled significance with regard to this issue. However, instead of settling the debate, this evidence triggered more controversy as a result of frequent misunderstanding and misinterpretation of this crucial evidence, particularly with regards to scarabs. Scarabs found in Palestine were often considered the most reliable synchronism as they were believed to have been imported from Egypt. However, establishing a chronological typology of scarabs of the first half of the second millennium was proved to be one of the most problematic and controversial issues since the beginning of scarab studies. Ward and Tufnell recognized the fact that our very limited knowledge of the absolute dates of most scarabs of this period does not allow the use of scarabs for dating archaeological deposits. These scholars were therefore the first to establish a scarab typology that is based on excavated series, in order to establish their dates on archaeological contexts. Considering the problematic nature of archaeological contexts of Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period scarabs in Egypt, Tufnell and Ward based their chronological typology mainly on scarabs found in Middle Bronze archaeological deposits in Canaanite sites. However, the absolute dates attributed by these scholars to the archaeological deposits of the scarabs were based on the above noted speculative consensus established on inconclusive and controversial evidence. Tufnell Ward and Dever used in fact circular arguments to defend their proposed chronology by dating scarabs on the basis of the speculative absolute dates of their archaeological contexts, and then using the scarabs as proof for their suggested date of these contexts. Moreover, these scholars failed to recognize the fact that the great majority of the scarabs found in Middle Bronze Palestine were not imported from Egypt, but were produced locally, and are therefore of minor significance as synchronisms with Egypt. Bietak's discussions of the scarabs is even more problematic considering his use of many old misconceptions with regard to their absolute date, and his mistaken identification of supposedly royal-name scarabs. Consequently, the arguments based on scarabs in this debate are usually of minor significance.

It should however be noted that the mass production of scarabs in Egypt is not attested before the late 12th Dynasty between the reigns of Senusret III and Amenemhat III, ca. 1850. The majority of the late Middle Kingdom scarabs were found in archaeological contexts in Egypt and Nubia ranging between the late 12th to the end of the 13th Dynasty, sometimes continuing into the early Second Intermediate Period. The earliest Canaanite scarabs found in MBIIA-B and early MBIIB archaeological contexts in Palestine imitate late Middle Kingdom Egyptian prototypes of the late 12th and 13th Dynasties.

It is also important to note the common occurrence of individual scarabs in archaeological contexts that are significantly later, particularly in the case of Egyptian imports in Canaanite Middle Bronze contexts, such as the late Middle Kingdom private-name scarabs found in MBIIB-C archaeological contexts in Palestine.

Considering the fact that scarabs can not be used to determine the absolute dates of the Middle Bronze phases in Palestine, we must turn to the evidence uncovered at Tell el-Dab`a.  Nine levels of occupation, which include a mixture of Middle Bronze Canaanite and Egyptian material culture, were found at Tell el-Dab`a. Bietak correctly established the absolute dates of these levels primarily on the Egyptian pottery found at the site. Recent studies of Egyptian pottery of the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period have established a sequence for particular types of vessels, based on groups found in secure contexts dated by inscribed monuments. This sequence allows the affiliation of distinct types of vessels to particular dynasties, which is now accepted by all specialists of Egyptian pottery.

The evaluation of the Egyptian and Canaanite pottery at Tell el-Dab`a narrowed down the range of absolute dates proposed for the Middle Bronze Age phases. The controversy remained however, between the high chronology proposed by Ward and Dever, which reflects the consensus accepted by most Palestinian archaeologists, and the low chronology of Bietak. Weinstein suggested a slight modification of Bietak's dates, mainly for the transitional phase of the MBIIA-B and the early-mid MBIIB. Both Bietak and Dever use other evidence besides the pottery to prove their chronology. However, most of their arguments concerning this evidence are circular, or relate to misinterpretation of scarabs.

Before examining the ceramic and occasional other evidence from Tell el-Dab`a, two points should be noted. 1. It is now unanimously accepted (also by Bietak) that the early phases of the MBIIA are not attested at Tell el-Dab`a. 2. There is no argument with regard to affiliation of the Canaanite pottery at Tell el-Dab`a, which is attributed by both Bietak and Dever to the same Middle Bronze Age phases.

Present tables of the three chronologies.

As can be clearly seen, the gap between the dates proposed by Bietak and Dever are particularly large with regard to the MBIIA, the transitional MBIIA-B, and the early MBIIB, gradually diminishing for the late MBIIB and MBIIC.

Stratum H, the first level of Canaanite settlement at Tell el-Dab`a, includes Canaanite pottery forms that are unanimously accepted as MBIIA. A Levantine painted ware jug found in this stratum is compared by Bietak, Weinstein and Dever to examples in phase 2 at Aphek (palace I phase), and Dever states that this distinctive style characterizes Syria and northern Palestine in the middle and later MBIIA. He dates this stratum ca. 1950-1875 based on the old consensus, using circular arguments for the duckbill axe, which since attributed mainly to the MBIIA (or MBIIA-B) should date between 2000-1800 - the consensus date for the MBIIA. Dever however ignores the Egyptian pottery forms found in stratum H. The hemispherical drinking cups found in this stratum are defined by all specialists of Egyptian pottery as slightly later than those found in complex 6 at Dahshur. The pottery from complex 6 at Dahshur was dated by Dorothea Arnold between 1825/1800 the completion of the pyramid of Amenemhat III or slightly later, throughout the time when the pyramid cult was in action until the time of king Hor of the 13th Dynasty ca.1760. Bietak considers the earliest possible date for complex 6 the later part of the reign of Amenemhat III, and dates the pottery of stratum H after the reign of this king, to the reigns of Amenemhat IV and Nofrusobek, perhaps with a slight overlap with the beginning of the 13th Dynasty (ca. 1800-1770). Bietak further states that the beer bottles from this stratum examined by Szafranski are also later than those found in complex 6 at Dahshur. Weinstein agrees with Bietak's dating of this stratum to the very late 12th Dynasty, possibly overlapping with the beginning of the 13th.

Stratum G4 includes Levantine pottery of the mid MBIIA according to Bietak, Dever and Weinstein. The bulk of the Egyptian pottery in this level is according to all specialists of Egyptian pottery clearly of 13th Dynasty type, attesting to the clear coinciding of the mid MBIIA with the early 13th Dynasty. A small statuette of an official found in this stratum was dated by two experts of Egyptian art (Bothmer and Fay) to the 13th Dynasty. Bietak therefore dates this stratum ca. 1770-1750. Dever however maintains his high chronology for this phase (1875-1800), ignoring the Egyptian pottery, and refusing to accept the 13th Dynasty date of the statuette as conclusive evidence.

Stratum G 1-3 includes late MBIIA Canaanite pottery, which has parallels in phases 3 and 4 at Aphek. (according to Bietak, Beck, Dever and Weinstein). The Egyptian pottery is identical according to all specialists of Egyptian pottery with that of complex 7 at Dahshur, which was dated by Arnold ca. 1760-1650. This complex constitutes refuse dumped in a settlement erected after the cult of the mortuary temple of Amenemhat III ceased to function. The cult is attested until the time of King Hor of the 13th Dynasty, ca. 1760. Therefore the earliest possible deposit of this dump is after 1760. Arnold considers a later date more likely since the valley temple must have ceased to function as a sacred site before it was used for settlement purpose and as a construction site for silos. Only after the silos were destroyed could settlement refuse have been dumped into them. Arnold therefore considers the initial deposition ca. 1700 more likely. Bietak dates stratum G1-3 within the earliest possible range of complex 7 ca. 1740-1710. Dever however dates this stratum ca. 1800-1775, stating that Bietak's dating is based on his seriation of Egyptian pottery which "rests on purely typological assumptions that are notoriously subjective, and at best can yield only a relative not a fixed chronology". He further states that Arnold's dating of complex 7 at Dahshur "are much too broad to offer chronological precision". Dever however ignores the fact that Bietak's seriation follows that of Arnold, the no. 1 specialist of Egyptian pottery, whose conclusions are accepted by all specialists of Egyptian pottery. His argument regarding the broad range of complex 7 is irrelevant to the discussion as it ignores the earliest possible date for this complex, which Bietak follows for his dating of stratum G1-3. It is important to note a private-name scarab from stratum AXIII at Aphek, which belongs to the post palace II phase of the late MBIIA, and is now dated typologically by all scarab specialists to the 13th Dynasty.

Stratum F - which includes Levantine pottery of the transitional phase of MBIIA-B includes Egyptian pottery of the 13th Dynasty similar to that of G1-3 with slight changes indicating a more advanced phase of the 13th Dynasty. Bietak dates this stratum ca. 1710-1680, and attributes it to the beginning of the 14th Dynasty based on two limestone blocks inscribed with the name of King Nehsy, which he assigns to a large temple (III) first erected in this level. The blocks were found in a secondary late context however, and their attribution to the temple can not be proved. Weinstein accepts a late 18th century date for this stratum based on the Egyptian pottery, but offers a slightly earlier range, ca. 1740/30-1720/10. He however stresses the point that the transitional phase of MBIIA-B can not predate the mid 18th century and is likely to have occurred near the end of this century. Dever however, dates this stratum ca. 1775-1750, based merely on the consensus chronology.

Stratum E3 - The Levantine pottery is accepted as early MBIIB by both Dever and Bietak, and the Egyptian pottery is13th Dynasty, close to the previous stratum but showing changes and developments attributed to the late 13th Dynasty. Bietak dates this stratum ca. 1680-1650, while Weinstein dates it to the late 18th - early 17th century. Dever however dates this stratum ca. 1750-1700, that is, in the first half of the 13th Dynasty, ignoring the attribution of the Egyptian pottery to the late 13th Dynasty. He correctly states, quoting Ward, that the scarab bearing the name Sobekhotep used by Bietak and Weinstein as a dating criterion for the late 13th Dynasty, is not an actual royal-name 13th Dynasty scarab. The scarab is in fact a local Tell el-Dab`a production (based on its features), and therefore merely indicates an imitation of a 13th Dynasty royal-name scarab. Ward and Dever however ignore the Egyptian pottery, which clearly indicates a late 13th Dynasty date.

Stratum E2 - the Egyptian pottery is assigned by both Bietak and Weinstein to the late 13th -early 15th Dynasty. Bietak attributes this stratum to the early 15th based on a rdí-rë scarab and dates the stratum ca. 1650-1620. Weinstein correctly notes that this type of scarab also occurs in late 13th Dynasty contexts in Egypt and is therefore not an indication for a 15th Dynasty date. Weinstein prefers to date this stratum mainly to the last phase of the 13th Dynasty ca. 1675-1650, stating that, typical Hyksos scarabs are not found there. However, the so-called typical Hyksos scarabs are Canaanite productions and their absence at Tell el-Dab`a E2 does not necessarily indicate a pre 15th Dynasty date. The Levantine pottery is attributed by all scholars to the mid MBIIB, Dever considers the closest parallels in Jericho group III, and dates the stratum ca. 1700-1675, simply continuing his line of earlier dates. The argument between Bietak and Weinstein, whether this stratum is actually the earliest of the 15th Dynasty or the last of the 13th (or 14th if the reconstruction of a pre-Hyksos Canaanite Dynasty at Tell el-Dab`a is accepted) is difficult to resolve on the available data. However, it is interesting to note that a tomb at Shiqmona where a scarab of Yakubhar was found included pottery which finds its best parallels in Jericho group III, thus supporting Bietak's attribution of stratum E3 to the early 15th Dynasty.

Stratum E1 - D2 are dated by both Bietak and Dever to the Hyksos period, and the differences in absolute dates are of minor significance. Both agree on the final date of stratum D2 - the expulsion of the Hyksos dynasty from Avaris. The absolute date of the end of the Middle Bronze Age in Palestine is still controversial. Whether this phase ended as a result of Ahmose's campaigns after the expulsion of the Hyksos from Avaris or, as suggested by Bietak, continued into the early 18th Dynasty, is a question that still requires a detailed study and will therefore not be discussed in this lecture. 

The ceramic assemblages from the nine levels of Canaanite settlement at Tell el-Dab`a clearly attest to the coinciding of the Palestinian mid-late MBIIA with the 13th Dynasty, and the transitional phase of MBIIA-B with the advanced 13th Dynasty not earlier than the late 18th century BC. The evidence from Tell el-Dab`a does not provide synchronisms for the beginning of the MBIIA, as Canaanite material culture of this phase is absent at the site. The few fragments found at Ezbet Rushdi are of Syrian origin and are of minor significance for this discussion (below). Both Bietak and Weinstein correctly point out the fact that the earliest available synchronism for the MBIIA is the depiction of a duckbill axe on the well known tomb painting of Khnumhotep at Beni Hassan, which is dated to the 6th year of Senusret II (ca. 1862). This however merely indicates that the beginning of the MBIIA can not have begun later than this date. An Egyptian jar found in MBIIA context at Tel Ifshar, and dated by Dorothea Arnold to the 19th century, was also used by Bietak as evidence that the beginning of the MBIIA can not date earlier than 1900. However, the archaeological context of this jar is not entirely clear and it can therefore not be used as evidence. There is so far no conclusive evidence to determine the absolute date of the beginning of MBIIA in Palestine considering the lack of commercial contacts between Egypt and Palestine during this period. The few MBIIA Levantine vessels found in mid-late 12th Dynasty contexts at Ezbet Rushdi, Lisht, Kahun and Dahshur are according to Tine Bagh clearly of Syrian origin. Moreover, none of these vessels originated in early 12th Dynasty contexts. These Levantine imports therefore merely corroborate the already well attested commercial contacts between 12th Dynasty Egypt and Syria and they are irrelevant to the beginning of the MBIIA in Palestine. The probable early 12th Dynasty context of a Levantine vessel fragment from el-Lisht is far from secure, and the fragment itself is too small for a clear identification of the type of vessel.

Weinstein's minor modifications of the dates proposed by Bietak for the late MBIIA and early MBIIB are of minimal significance for our understanding of the political developments in Egypt and Palestine during this period, and the historical implications of these developments. I would like to show briefly that a historical reconstruction of the relations between Egypt and Palestine during this period according to the low chronology attested by the Egyptian ceramic assemblages at Tell el-Dab`a is the most logical considering other archaeological evidence from Egypt and the Levant. One of the most problematic issues in the reconstruction of the history of the late Middle Kingdom in Egypt is determining the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period, that is, the actual takeover of the eastern Delta by a dynasty of Canaanite origin. Most scholars are now in agreement that this takeover should be attributed to a pre-Hyksos dynasty of Canaanite origin, which is identified with Manetho's 14th Dynasty. Bietak argues that this political change is reflected in stratum F at Tell el-Dab`a, which is contemporary with the Palestinian MBIIA-B. Bietak's conclusion is based on the two blocks bearing the name of King Nehsy discussed above, whose monuments are attested only in the eastern Delta, and who is now considered by most scholars as an ephemeral ruler of this region in the early 14th Dynasty. Although assigning the Nehsy blocks to stratum F can not be proved, beginning the Second Intermediate Period in the late 18th century or early 17th century is now accepted by most Egyptologists and is corroborated by archaeological evidence both in Egypt and the Levant.

According to the low chronology, this development coincides with the MBIIA-B or early MBIIB in Palestine. Egyptian imports in Palestine are rarely attested prior to the final phase of the MBIIA, and it is only in the MBIIA-B and particularly in the early MBIIB that large numbers of scarabs are found in cemeteries such as Rishon Leziyon, Tel Aviv harbor, Jericho and Megiddo. These scarabs have been shown to consist mainly of local productions that imitate late Middle Kingdom Egyptian scarabs of the late 12th and 13th Dynasty, with a small number of late Middle Kingdom Egyptian imports. These scarabs reflect Egyptian cultural influence and commercial contacts between the two regions, which began in the MBIIA-B and intensified in the early MBIIB.

Close commercial contacts between Egypt and the Levant during the 12th Dynasty and the first half of the 13th Dynasty are clearly attested in sites on the Syrian coast, primarily at Byblos. The evidence from Byblos clearly indicates that the long traditional commercial contacts between Middle Kingdom Egypt and this important port ended in the advanced 13th Dynasty in the late 18th century, coinciding with the beginning of the importation of scarabs into Palestine according to the low chronology.

Archaeological evidence from el-Lisht, the capital of the Middle Kingdom, corroborates the change in trade patterns between Egypt and the Levant in the late 18th century BC. Imported Levantine pottery found in 12th Dynasty contexts is extremely rare at the site, the few attested examples have their closest parallels at Byblos. The importation of Canaanite jars from Palestine to el-Lisht is first attested in contexts including Egyptian pottery that is identical to that found in complex 7 at Dahshur and stratum F at Tell el-Dab`a, of the advanced 13th Dynasty - late 18th century.

Recent studies of the archaeological evidence in Nubia argue for a distinct change in the trade patterns between Egypt and Nubia, which also occurred in the late 18th century BC. Egyptian pottery found in the second cataract forts and in Kerma attests to close commercial contacts between Nubia and both Upper and Lower Egypt during the 12th Dynasty and the first half of the 13th Dynasty, until the late 18th century BC. However, from the late 18th century throughout the Second Intermediate Period, the Egyptian pottery in Nubia is exclusively of Upper Egyptian origin, attesting to a hiatus in contacts between Lower Egypt and Nubia during this period. It has been argued that this change in the trade patterns between Egypt and Nubia in the late 18th century reflects the disintegration of the central rule of the Middle Kingdom at el-Lisht and the final abandonment of this northern capital in favor of Thebes. It is generally agreed that this political development was the result of the takeover of the eastern Delta by rulers of Canaanite origin, and their subsequent takeover of the el-Lisht - Memphis region.

The distinct changes in trade patterns between Egypt and the Levant on one hand, and Egypt and Nubia on the other, strongly suggest a political change in Egypt in the late 18th century BC, and most probably reflect the transition from the Middle Kingdom to the Second Intermediate Period. The early Palestinian scarab series found in MBIIA-B and early MBIIB deposits thus seem to reflect the takeover of the eastern Delta by Canaanite rulers, who once taking over this region initiated new trade patterns - with Palestine, their place of origin. The end of the trade with Byblos can not be unconnected with the disintegrating power of the late 13th Dynasty, and the subsequent retreat of its rulers to Thebes in Upper Egypt, where they were no longer able to continue the traditional Middle Kingdom commercial contacts with the Syrian coast.

This reconstruction of the historical developments in Egypt, and its implications on Egypt's relations with Palestine, fits only the low chronology proposed by Bietak and Weinstein. Dever's suggested chronology, which places the early MBIIB in the early 13th Dynasty makes it difficult to explain the initial commercial contacts with Palestine, which as argued by Weinstein and myself do not make sense at this particular time. Dating the initial commercial contacts between Egypt and Palestine in the late 18th century, at precisely the same time when commercial contacts with Byblos end, and when the evidence from Egypt and Nubia indicates a change from the Middle Kingdom to the early Second Intermediate Period, is a more likely scenario. 

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