"Is the Middle Chronology Dead? (or are they all?)"


Abstract of Lecture to be given at the MBII Study Group Meeting

Jerusalem, March 30, 2000

Aren M. Maeir

Bar Ilan University



The chronology of the Ancient Near East during the 2nd Mill. BCE, and especially that of the first half of this period, has been the focus of much discussion for over a century. In the present paper I will relate primarily to the chronology of the MBII in the Southern Levant, but this is of course inter-related to other regions and periods. Several systems have been suggested, often quite contradicting each other. In recent years this controversy has only intensified, despite recent attempts to reach more decisive conclusions (e.g. Astrom 1987; the articles in Ägyten und Levante 3 (1992); the SCIEM 2000 project).

If one makes a cursory review of the various publications, one can see that there are two main chronologies of the MBII (for general reviews of the two positions, see e.g. Dever 1992; 1997; Bietak 1992; 1997). Needless to say, there are other suggestions as well, some of which will be mentioned below.

The first, traditionally termed the "Middle Chronology" would place the beginning of the MBII in the early-mid 20th cent. BCE, the MBIIa/IIb transition in the 18th cent. BCE, while the end would be in the mid-16th cent. BCE (e.g. Dever 1992; Ward & Dever 1994)

On the other hand, the "Lower Chronology" would suggest the following dates: Beginning of MBII somewhere in the 19th Cent. BCE, the MBIIa/IIb transition in the late 18th to mid 17th cent. BCE, while the end of the MBII would be placed in the late 16th cent. BCE (e.g. Bietak 1997; Weinstein 1996).

In several recent studies, a strong case has been argued for the lower chronological scheme (e.g. D. Ben-Tor 1999), primarily based on the comparison between finds in Israel and in the Nile Delta.

As part of my contribution to this meeting, I initially took it upon myself to examine whether the more recent arguments in favor of the Low Chronology do in fact negate the Middle Chronological scheme, and if so, what were the implications.

In fact, it does appears that recent studies have highlighted several substantially problematic points in the Middle Chronology (and this is being written by one who has been identified as a staunch "Middle Chronologist"!). Nevertheless, when I "dived in", once again, into the intricacies of the chronological issues, I believe that the situation is much more complex!

As I will review today, I believe there are serious problems with all currently suggested chronological systems. It would appear that each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and each respective framework seems to be more appropriate for various portions of the MBII. In fact, one even has the feeling that this may point to a quite frustrating situation in which neither of the suggested systems offer a comprehensive solution!

In the following discussion, I will try to review a selection of the various pros and cons of the various systems. In an attempt to consolidate the discussion, I will discuss this in relationship to the various portions of the MBII.


The Beginning of the MBII:

In the last decade once again the debate has been aroused on the date of the beginning of the MBII in the Southern Levant. While the standard dating accepted by most scholars dealing with the Southern Levant is in the earlier stages of the 20th cent. BCE (e.g. Dever 1997), Bietak has been arguing for a later commencement, somewhere in the 19th cent. (e.g. Bietak 1992).

Based on the current state of affairs, it appears that the earlier dating is still to be preferred. Several reasons can be given:

* The few 14C dates available from the MBII Southern Levant (Ifshar, Gesher, Hayyat) seem to lend to the earlier dating (and see earlier discussion by E. Marcus).

* It is more or less accepted by all that the beg. of the 12th Dyn should be placed in the early 20th cent. BCE (e.g. Kitchen 1996; Von Beckerath 1997). At Izbet Rushdi, near T. ed-Daba, there is a temple that is currently dated to the reign of Sesostris III, i.e. to the early/mid 19th cent. (Bietak 1997). In the fills under the floors of the temple sherds of the "Levantine painted ware" were found (Bagh 1998). This is significant since there appear to be 2 to 4 strata with Levantine MBIIa materials at Daba (I-L?), below the earliest levels previously reported (e.g. Stratum H - and thus previous discussions on the date of Stratum H as representative of the early MBIIa are irrelevant - this was already suggested by Weinstein 1996:59). Though little has been found or published, this seems to indicate that during the 20th cent. BCE the MBIIa has already commenced in the southern Levant and Syria.

* Van Loon (1992) has not long ago published a mid-19th cent. BCE 14C dating for the EB/MB transition from Tell Selenkahiye in northern Syria.

Based on this data, it would appear that as of now, the earlier dating for the MBIIa should be preferred.


The MBIIa/IIb Transition:

The date of the MBIIa/b transition is dated to the early-mid 18th cent. by the early chronologies, and to the late 18th/early 17th by the later chronologies. In the past, this writer has defended the higher dates for this transition (Maeir 1997). Nevertheless, based on an amalgamation of various points, some argued for some time, some recently stressed or newly published, I think that presently the lower dates seem to "carry more water"!

This can be argued from several points:

* It does appear that based on the T. ed-Daba materials the MBIIb commenced during the 13 Dyn (and not in the late 12th), thus lowering the dates on all accounts (e.g. Weinstein 1996; D. Ben-Tor 1994; 1997), though not necessarily as much as Beitak would suggest (e.g. Bietak 1992), since the 13th Dyn. seems to have commenced in the first third of the 18th cent. BCE (e.g. Kitchen 1996).

* Kuniholm (1993; Kunihom et al. 1996) has shown that the timbers from the destruction of the so-called "Sarikaya Palace" at Acemhuyuk, which contained bullae impressed with the seal of Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria, were felled in 1752 BCE. Since Shamshi-Adad I last years overlapped with Hammurabi's reign, it would place the latter's reign in the second half of the 18th cent. BCE.  This first of all would fit in very well with the "Low Mesopotamian Chronology" (Hammurabi 1728-1686 BCE). In addition, this can be tied in with the connections between Hazor and Mari (during the time of Shamshi Adad and Hammurabi). Since these connections could not have occurred earlier that the MBIIa/b transition (in light of the finds at Hazor; see A. Ben-Tor 1997; Maeir 1997) this would place this transition no earlier than the mid-18th century, and possibly later.




The Latter part and the End of the MBII:

I believe that the dating of the final portion of the MBII appears to be at the present time the most problematic. As opposed to the two sections above, there are several contradictory, though each quite convincing, arguments to lower and raise these dates. I will try to review some of the more problematic examples.

* Thera: The higher dating (1628 BCE) of the Santorini eruption (recently Manning 1999) has been argued on the basis of a wide range of data, a date which is substantially earlier than the traditional c. 1500 BCE. Needless this dating has wide ranging implications for the early dating of various cultural phases, both in the Aegean and throughout the Ancient Near East. Accepting this date requires one to date mid to late MBIIb phases no later than 17th and early 16th cent. BCE. In the last decade or so, more and more Aegean and Near Eastern Scholars have accepted this dating (though not all, see, e.g. Hankey & Warren 1989). This was supposedly supported by recent finds in the Levant, such as at Kabri (Kempinski 1997).

Recently several scholars have raised new (or renewed) questions about this early dating. It has been pointed out that there appears to be a White Slip 1 (Late Cypriot I) sherd in the Thera destruction level. Accordingly, the early dating is much too low for the beginning of the Late Cypriot I, especially in light of the Egyptian synchronisms (see e.g., Bietak 1998). Possible answers to this is are: a) This WSI sherd from Thera has disappeared and and it cannot be re-checked; b) Manning and others (e.g. Manning 1988; Housley et al. 1999) would commence the Late Cypriote and the Late Helladic in the late 17th cent. BCE.

A second question about the early date has been recently raised from a different point of view. One of the central arguments for the 1628 date is the fact that in ice-cores from Greenland and in various tree rings there is evidence of a major volcanic event (or atmospheric anomoly) in that year. Proponents of this date have assumed that this is evidence of the Santorini eruption (e.g. Manning 1988 etc.). Recently, Zielinski & Germani (1998), based on scientific analysis of the volcanic glass residues in the ice cores claim that this 1628 BCE eruption was not from Santorini but from some other, as yet unknown eruption! This conclusion has been challenged, and in fact it has been suggested that their evidence still supports the early date (Manning 1998).

* Egyptian Chronology: The very low ("German") chronology for the NK which would place the beginning of the NK in the very end of the 16th cent (e.g. Krauss 1985) BCE would lower the comparable dates of the end of the MBII/beg. of the LB in the southern Levant. This dating is based among other arguments on the assumption that the observation of the Sothic rising was done at Elephantine (and not farther to the north). This last suggestion has been questioned by various scholars (e.g. Kitchen 1996). Needless to say, an early date of the Thera eruption would not fit in with this late dating.

* Mesopotamian Chronology: One of the most interesting (and controversial) recent developments in the study of the chronology of the Ancient Near East arguments is the well-based arguments of Gasche et al. (1998) to substantially lower the date of the fall of Babylon to Mursili I. Based on an analysis of a wide range of data, including pottery typology, stratigraphy, textual analysis and astronomic data, they suggest a date of 1499 BCE for this event. This is quite significantly lower than other accepted datings (1651 higher; 1595 middle; 1531 lower). If one accepts this suggestion one must lower all the dates of the late MBII and early LB throughout the entire Ancient Near East, clearly of wide ranging effects.

Reservations can be raised about this theory. First of all, the primary foundation of this theory is a rather tentative pottery typology of late Old Babylonian to Kassite Mesopotamia. This, as these authors stress themselves, is not sufficiently well-known. In fact they suggest a typological-chronological scheme which is based on a very small sample of stratigraphically excavated (and published) sites in Mesopotamia. On the other hand, in areas where the typological-stratigraphic data is more extensive (such as Syria and the Southern Levant) and it can be tied in (though one must admit at times in a roundabout manner) to the Egyptian chronology, such a lowering seems quite hard to accept.

One example can be given, that which relates to the end of the MBII in northern Syria. One can assume, almost without a doubt, that the end of Alalakh VII and the Tell Mardikh MBII sequence is due to one of the Syrian campaigns of Hattushili I. Based on historical data, it is clear that Hattushili I's campaigns date to slightly before Murshili's conquest of Babylon (between less than 10 and at most 50 years between - see, e.g., Kempinksi 1997). Based on the "Middle Chronology" this would place the destruction of Alalakh VII around 1600 or slightly earlier and according to the "Low Chronology" (e.g. Gates 1987; Heinz 1992) around 1575. In both cases, it is agreed that Alalakh VII represents (primarily through the analysis of the pottery), a pre-terminal phase of the MBII.

Thus, if  one attempts to date this level according to the "super-low" dating, Hattushili I would have destroyed Alalakh VII in the second half of the 16th century (or even near its end)! Based on Egyptian-Palestinian synchronisms at this point the MBII culture is at its end (and different from the Alalakh VII and Ebla). Thus this would be quite hard to accept!



As I have attempted to briefly point out, there are many problems relating to the chronology of the MBII that are far from being solved. In fact, one has the feeling that we are not moving to a unified solution of these chronological questions along the lines of one of the distinct traditional chronological explanations (e.g. High, Middle or Low). In fact, at different points within the MBII, the respective systems each have distinct advantages. I believe it is quite clear that a more comprehensive solution is required, though what this will be is hard to tell. Possibly, the joint international effort SCIEM 2000, initiated by M. Bietak, may produce sufficient evidence and analyses to move the chronological wagon out of the quagmire! We can but only hope!



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