Dating plants, dating kings, dating nearly everything
July 5, 2010 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Research by an international team led by staff at the ORAU has mapped out an accurate chronology of the kings of ancient Egypt using radiocarbon analysis of short-lived plant remains from the region. The research has now been published in the journal Science (18 June, 2010).

The ORAU has many related and interesting resources on their pages. And a good write up of the science involved, including some context, and implications of their work, for Journalists.

Dating Facts from the ORAU lab.

(ORAU [Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit] and Egypt Backgrounder.)
The research sheds light on one of the most important periods of Egyptian history documenting the various rulers of Egypt’s Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Despite Egypt’s historical significance, in the past the dating of events has been a contentious undertaking with Egyptologists relying on various different chronologies.

The radiocarbon dating provides some resolution on the dates and nails down a chronology that is broadly in line with previous estimates. However, the new dating evidence does rule out some chronologies that have been put forward – particularly in the Old Kingdom, which is shown to be older than some scholars thought. For example, in the Old Kingdom, Djoser, one of the best known pharaohs of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, is thought to have commissioned the first of the pyramids, was found to have ruled from between 2691 and 2625 BCE, about 50-100 years earlier than some experts thought. The study also suggests that the start of the New Kingdom might be pushed back slightly to between 1570 and 1544 BC.

The research has implications for the whole region because the Egyptian chronology anchors the timing of historical events in neighbouring areas tied to the reign of particular Egyptian kings. The results will allow for more historical comparisons to be made in countries like Libya and Sudan, which have conducted radiocarbon dating techniques on places of archaeological interest in the past.

Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Cranfield in the UK, along with a team from France, Austria and Israel, radiocarbon dated more than 200 various plants from museum collections from all over the world, including the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers. They used OxCal, the computer programme devised by Professor Christopher Ramsey (the leader of the Oxford team) that provides a radiocarbon calibration and analysis of archaeological and environmental chronological data. Oxford student Michael Dee combined the dates for the seeds, baskets, textiles, plant stems and fruit, which were all directly associated with the reigns of particular ancient Egyptian kings, with historical information about the order and length of each ruler to create the full chronology.

The team also undertook research on environmental samples from the Oxford University Herbaria and found minor differences in radiocarbon levels in the region – important information for future dating studies.

The publication was widely reported in the press:
Daily Mail
heritage key
Christopher Bronk Ramsey: Is responsible for the (Oxford) Radiocarbon Accelerator, with research interests in all aspects of radiocarbon dating and Accelerator Mass Spectrometry. As the author of the radiocarbon calibration program OxCal, also has a particular interest in the use of Bayesian statistics to help in the interpretation of archaeological and chronological information. Bronk Ramsey has, and continues to play a key role in developing and advancing the field of Radiometric Dating, especially participating in cross-disciplinary discovery, studies and research. Bronk Ramsey has also helped create a 'living history', documenting various points of note in the origins and evolution of his field, though his papers and articles in journals. No doubt his work will be vastly important to future Historians of Science navigate this complex and intricate field of the cross-roads of dating, chronologies, Archaeology, Geology, and Earth Sciences.

Response of Humans to Abrupt Environmental Transitions-
The Oxford School of Archaeology is involved in a consortium to examine the effects of abrupt climate change on prehistoric humans.

Consortium grants are intended to support focused, co-ordinated, collaborative research into specific issues that cannot be addressed through other NERC funding modes.

To promote flexibility and collaboration, consortium grants will blur the boundaries between existing NERC funding categories and will reduce the number of small research programmes submitted to and managed by NERC.

As consortium grants are intended to promote inter-institutional collaboration, they are also expected to enhance opportunities for inter-disciplinary collaboration.

The four institutions involved in this consortium are Royal Holloway, University of London (Geography and Earth Sciences); Natural History Museum; Oxford University (School of Archaeology); and Southampton University (NOCS and Archaeology). The lead institution is Royal Holloway University of London.

WP-1: Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe (60 to 25 ka BP) (led by Professor Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum)
WP-2: The Impact of abrupt environmental transitions on early modern human populations in North Africa (Led by Professor Nick Barton, Oxford)
WP-3: Re-populating Europe after the Last Glacial Stage (led by Professor Clive Gamble, Royal Holloway)
WP-4: Geochemical fingerprinting of tephras (led by Professor Martin Menzies, Royal Holloway)
WP-5: Abrupt environmental transitions and tephras in marine sediment cores (led by Professor Eelco Rohling, Southampton)
WP-6: Abrupt environmental transitions and tephras in continental records (led by Dr Simon Blockley, Royal Holloway)
WP-7: Data synthesis and age modelling (led by Professor Chris Bronk Ramsey, Oxford)
posted by infinite intimation (7 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
What a post! Thank you-- looking forward to delving into this.
posted by jokeefe at 12:12 PM on July 5, 2010

Hooray, science!
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:13 PM on July 5, 2010

tl;dr -- the reason you don't see more comments on this post is because it's so awesome, people are actually reading the links.
posted by a small part of the world at 1:51 PM on July 5, 2010

posted by strixus at 2:17 PM on July 5, 2010

How is it that Zahi Hawass isn't taking credit for this?
posted by grounded at 2:24 PM on July 5, 2010

grounded: "How is it that Zahi Hawass isn't taking credit for this?"

LOL, yeah he certainly seems to be Mr. Egypt Everywhere:)
posted by MrLint at 3:16 PM on July 5, 2010

Yes, I have a theory-- mentioned several times in threads related to awesome and complex FPPs-- that the more interesting the post, the fewer comments.
posted by jokeefe at 4:04 PM on July 5, 2010

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