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The difficulties of dating Ancient Egypt

Extract from the King List in the Temple of Ramesses II, Abydos, now in the British Museum

The basic unit of Egypt’s ancient history is the dynasty. The most recent histories may count as many as 33 of these. These dynasties are then grouped into Kingdoms and Intermediary Periods, preceded and followed by other unnumbered dynasties and periods. This divides ancient Egyptian history into roughly ten divisions:

- The early Dynastic period: Dynasty 00 to dynasty 2
- The Old Kingdom: Dynasty 3 to Dynasty 7
- First Intermediate Period: Dynasty 8 to Dynasty 11 (part 1)
- Middle Kingdom: Dynasty 11 (part 2) to early Dynasty 13
- Second Intermediate Period: Dynasty 13 to Dynasty 17
- New Kingdom: Dynasty 18 to 20
- Third Intermediate Period: Dynasty 21 to the 24th Dynasty
- Late Period: Dynasty 25 to 31
- Macedonians
- Ptolemies
- Roman Period

Egyptian archaeology during the Dynastic Period has always been tied to the King list. This is important, because all artefacts in Egypt are tied directly or indirectly to material that is dated by royal association. This material is used to date Egyptian material in contexts outside Egypt too. The basic tool for establishing a chronology for ancient Egypt is the king list because the Egyptians themselves dated by regnal years. Some other ancient societies used an ‘era’ system, dating their calendars from specific events (the Greeks dated theirs from the first Olympic Games around 776 BC by our terms, while the Romans started from the foundation of the City of Rome. Some other societies, like the Mesopotamians used eponym lists, naming the year after the chief magistrates. Egypt used none of these systems, hence the importance of the king lists to historians and archaeologists.

The first process for Egyptology was to establish a complete king list. Before the decipherment of hieroglyphics, it was not possible to do this directly from the monuments, and scholarship relied on the evidence of Greek and Latin writers. The first history of Egypt was written by the Egyptian priest Manetho in the reign of Ptolemy II around 280 BC. Called Aigyptiaka (‘On things Egyptian’) it was written for the new Ptolemaic ruling dynasty, just as a near contemporary Babylonian, Berossos, wrote a history of Babylon for the new Seleukid dynasty. Each historian was setting out to prove that his country was the oldest, a matter of prestige to the new Macedonian rulers.

Manetho divided Egyptian history into 31 dynasties, each being a ruling family from a particular city. It’s most likely that Manetho based his own work on Egyptian written sources and traditions, and his dynastic framework probably has some sort of Egyptian tradition behind it. However, no complete version of Aigyptiaka survives, only abridgements, and the king lists are preserved in the writings of later authors. All ancient books were copied by hand, and with books such as this, error would inevitably creep in during the process of transmission. The most important writers to preserve Manetho’s work, are Flavios Josephos and the Christian chronographers Africanus and Eusabius.
With copying, abbreviation and corruption of texts, by AD 80 the preserved versions of Manetho were so far removed from the original that they were virtually useless. It is, perhaps, hard to see why Egyptologists put so much value on Manetho, but in reality, the first Egyptologists had little choice. The texts of Manetho were available for early European scholarship along with a great deal of other Greek and Roman literature, from the Renaissance onwards. Lacking direct access to monuments, and unable to read the hieroglyphic texts, scholars found in Manetho an outline chronology of ancient Egypt, which was then supplemented by information gleaned form Herodotus, Diodoros and many other scholars. Indeed, Jean-Francois Champollion, who is generally considered to be the founding father of modern Egyptology, increased Manetho’s authority when, in 1828, he announced that he could read the names of some of the Egyptian kings recorded by Manetho on monuments. Those kings were Achoris (Hakor), Nepherites (Nefaurud), Psammetichos (Psamtik), Osorcho (Osorkon), Sesonchis (Sheshonq), Rameses and Tuthmosis (Thutmose).

As well as using inconsistent Greek forms of Egyptian names, and occasionally repeating kings, the preserved king lists of Manetho also omit many rulers and the reign lengths rarely agree in the different versions. As his work survives, it is hopelessly garbled in places. But, despite all the problems associated with dynastic divisions, Manetho’s work is so ingrained in Egyptology that it is now impossible to get rid of it; and, despite the problems, the dynastic system is still useful as a basic unit of Egyptian history. Although there are overlapping dynasties, it is safe to assume that the higher the number, the later the dynasty; and remembering which important rulers – or monuments – belong to which dynasty, does help to for a broad cultural-historical framework.

In the early nineteenth century, scholars attempting to decipher hieroglyphic realized that the cartouche contained royal names and therefore began to assemble collections of all those that were visible on monuments. One of the first collections published was in the Description de l’Egypte, the result of the French scholarly expedition of 1798. it was also recognized that cartouches were usually paired; one carrying the personal name of the pharaoh and the other the name that he assumed when he ascended the throne. As European activity in Egypt increased, a number of important ancient king lists were found that aided in the reconstruction of the historical framework.

The Turin Canon of Kings is preserved on papyrus (not in the Museo Egizio, Turin) and dates from the time of Ramesses II. It was reputedly virtually intact when acquired by the French consul in 1823, but by the time Champollion got hold of it, it was a mass of fragments. A German scholar by the name of Gustav Seyffarth, began to examine these fragments in 1826. By looking closely at the fibres of the papyrus he was able to reconstruct sections of it. Despite the efforts of the other scholars, the papyrus ha sstill not been completely restored to everybody’s agreement. It carries a king list divided into groups, with totals of regnal years.

A fragmentary king list cared on a wall in the temple of Ramesses II at Abydos was unearthed by the scholarly traveller William Bankes in 1818, but left there. In 1837 it was removed and later acquired by the British Musem. This list carried cartouches of 52 kings, wit the throne names of rulers beginning with Meni and ending with Ramesses II. In 1825 another, similar list, the Karnak Table of Kings, was recognized, carved on the walls of a small chamber in the temple o Thotmose II at Karnak. The walls carry images of 61 Kings wit their cartouches, of which 48 were legible. In 1843 this was moved to the Louvre in Paris.

The most important of these king lists was found carved on a corridor wall in the temple of Sety I at Abydos during the clearance of the temple of Auguste Mariette. Richard Lepsius published a copy in 1863. The whole scene shows the pharaoh Sety I and the crown prince Ramesses (to be Ramesses II), making offerings to the names of ancestral kings. This list is perfectly preserved but there are certain political omissions such as the entire Second Intermediate Period, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and his immediate successors.

The Table of Saqqara was found in 1861 in the tomb of an official of Ramesses II named Tjuneroy. It originally had 57 cartouches, some of which were already damaged by the time of their discovery. It is significant that these lists are already Ramesside and that such lists do not survive from other periods. In addition to the King lists, some temples and tombs at Thebes depict processions of royal statues in a similar chronological arrangement.

At the festival of the god of Min, there was a procession of royal statues. This is depicted in the temples of Rameeses II (the Ramesseum) and Ramesses III (Madinet Habu). The earliest ruler shown is Meni, the founder fo the Egyptian state; he is followed by Neb-hepet-ra (Mentjuhopet II) who reunited Egypt and founded the Middle Kingdom. These two pharaohs stand as shorthand for the whole of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Neb-pehty-ra (Ahmose) reunited Egpyt, and is generally considered as the founder of the New Kingdom. He is followed by the statues of nearly all the pharaohs of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties to the reigning sovereign, Ramesses II or III; as is usual, Hatshepsut and the immediate successors of Amenhotep III are omitted.

In addition to these new Kingdom sources, fragments of an Old Kingdom list survive. This is generally known, after the largest surviving piece, as the Palermo Stone. The original document appears to have carried a complex historical text that recorded Old Kingdom rulers with information on their reigns, such as height of inundation, the foundation of temples and military activities. One of the major early organizers of the evidence from the monuments alongside the Greek, Roman and biblical traditions was Ippolito Rosellini (1800-1843), leader, with Champollion, of the joint Franco-Tuscan Egyptian expedition of 1828-29. Following Champollion’s untimely death, Rosellini published the vast amount of material gathered by the expedition in three parts: historical, religions and social. His synthesis of the historical evidence gathered all of the known ancient sources that could be read in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, attached them to Manetho’s chronology, and, wherever possible, added the newly read hieroglyphic cartouches and the monuments where they were to be found. Although Rosellini did not get everything correct, for the first time, Egyptian monuments had been ordered chronologically.

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