Chronology at the Crossroads
Consider the following fact, leading to a rarely admitted possibility: the chronology of the ancient world is a modern synthesis. Although the peoples of ancient times left us their records what we have is fragmentary, mere sketches of the overall picture. To borrow an analogy from Centuries of Darkness, historians and archaeologists of modern times have had to put together the pieces of a jigsaw from which many are missing and others are unclear as to context. The resulting chronology (that is, the Orthodox Chronology) may have been assembled incorrectly and consequently could be misaligned.
Now consider its history. The chronology of the ancient Near East has always been based on twin pillars. One, the chronology of ancient Egypt, was originally constructed around a framework of astronomical dates. However, Sothic dating was abandoned two decades ago. Then, in the 1990s, Egyptologists discarded all the remaining astronomical dates, including the Middle Kingdom lunar observations (the el-Lahun texts). No major revisions of Egyptian chronology have resulted but this has only been because of an increasing reliance on the other pillar, Assyrian chronology, and a crucial synchronism involving a king by the name of Ashur-uballit.
The last major attempt to revise the chronology of Western Asia in the Late Bronze Age was deemed to have been a failure. Centuries of Darkness (London, 1991) featured numerous archaeological and art-historical anomalies. Its authors questioned the reality of ‘dark ages’ and the identity of Ashur-uballit. After being reviewed and debated in academic circles the critics came up with two devastating responses. Firstly, its revision – a shorter chronology – was in a wholly opposite direction to that indicated by radiocarbon dates. Secondly, it was impossible to break the Assyrian King List, the main basis for Assyrian chronology. These responses, and particularly the latter, terminated the debate but did not deter a more radical revision of Egyptian chronology being proposed by David Rohl in A Test of Time (London, 1995). This work reached an enormous readership but was not debated in academic circles.
On this background, consider the confident challenge issued by a great Egyptologist in the spring of 2004. Speaking at Reading University, Professor Kenneth Kitchen told the audience that what Rohl proposes is impossible not because of the Egyptian evidence but because of the Assyrian. There was only one way to contest this challenge and that was to write a wide-ranging book, a successor to Centuries of Darkness and one that would address its perceived shortcomings. Chronology at the Crossroads: the Late Bronze Age in Western Asia is the outcome, a considered response based on many years of research.
The writer has had considerable advantages over the authors of Centuries of Darkness. In the interim, because of serious chronological discrepancy Egyptologists have ceased to regard radiocarbon as a valuable dating tool. Also, in recent years mainstream scholarship has recognised that the Assyrian King List (AKL) contains concurrent dynasties operating in and around the capital, Ashur, at least in the Early Assyrian period. In this respect, it is no different from any other king list in the Mesopotamian tradition and yet the AKL is treated differently, as a literal linear account, because a chronological pillar is supported by its evidence!
The writer has dared to ask ‘what if’ questions. So, what if the concurrent dynasties continued into the Middle Assyrian period? One would not need to ‘break’ the AKL to achieve a revised chronology: it would fold. And then, what if the scribe showed us where the concurrent dynasties began and/or ended? One would need to study the listing in the Early Assyrian period to discover the method used by the scribe and if a similar pattern could be detected in the Middle Assyrian listing then the AKL would not just fold, but do so naturally. And so on.
Chronology at the Crossroads contains four main theses. It is a book in four parts but the theses are interdependent, designed to be read in conjunction with each other.
Part One is an update of the most recent comprehensive study of geopolitical relations in the Late Bronze Age, Amir Harrak’s Assyria and Hanigalbat (Hildesheim, 1987). Harrak described numerous geopolitical anomalies in the currently accepted paradigm, the Orthodox Chronology. Nearly two decades later, many more have been discovered, making this study a long overdue exercise. The product of incompatible dating systems (the chronologies of Egypt and Assyria), the geopolitical anomalies are to be found all over the Near East in this period. Where the Hittites and Assyrians are neighbours a chronological divide manifests itself in geopolitical anomaly: so with the Hurrians, the Aramaeans, the people of Emar, the kingdom of Amurru and even Carchemish. Similarly, anomalies of art history abound, as has been documented in Centuries of Darkness. Anomalies pertaining to the evolution of languages constitute a third parallel trend. It is a pattern that can hardly be ignored: something is seriously wrong with the chronology of the Late Bronze Age!
Part Two looks at the key to chronology, the AKL. As a foundation to this study, Assyrian chronometers are evaluated before looking into the problem areas of Assyrian chronometry. This leads into a detailed discussion of the editing and construction of the AKL, reviewing the many modern studies. Two components of the AKL are well attested: the basic, structural, building block and the editorial comment or redaction. In scrutinising the period of concurrent dynastic rule in Assyria in her earliest period a third is discovered: the directional component, showing how the AKL is to be read. The scribe has used the repetition of names without explanation (and often seemingly out of context) as a marker, a catch-line. In this way he displays the existence of a concurrent line of rulers. The possibility that this system might have continued in one form or another into the Middle Assyrian period is then examined – and considerable evidence is marshalled to show that this did actually happen.
The AKL, and indeed kingship and all its trappings can be shown to have evolved over time. Eras of redaction can be identified; eras of transformation likewise and the forces that shaped them; and most especially the peculiarities of the final transformation and its cultural milieu. In the process, there appears the first adequate explanation for the Middle Assyrian ‘dark age’. This was a period of about a century and a half for which absolutely no civilian documentation exists; wars are not fought nor treaties made; neither international letters nor synchronisms exist; building work and royal inscriptions are confined to temples. It is a strangely silent period yet it finds a contemporary parallel in the line of priestly kings of Hittite Aleppo. At the close of Part Two, the model is tested and a collection of seemingly anomalous evidence is produced that only the present thesis will explain in a satisfactory manner.
Part Three looks at New Chronology solutions. It is insufficient to condemn the current paradigm on account of its many anomalies and to point to an AKL that will fold as an indication that chronological revision is possible: the challenge is to construct a viable alternative chronology for Western Asia in the Late Bronze Age. Any successful model must observe all the attested synchronisms of the ancient world (listed in Appendix 1), be free of all the anomalies of the old scheme and yet present a coherent history. A highly detailed revision is offered – with the proviso that other revised chronologies may be possible.
Part Three begins by identifying the ruler of Assyria in the Amarna period, uncovering a conflation of identities that is partly ancient and partly modern in origin. Previous workers had suspected such a conflation: this study provides the detail. It reveals two very different characters bore the name ‘Ashur-uballit’ during the Middle Assyrian period and compiles geopolitical, archaeological and linguistic evidence in support of the case. As anticipated by the authors of Centuries of Darkness, this allows the histories of Assyria and Hatti to realign in a different way from that in the Orthodox Chronology. But much more is possible! An absolute chronology may be attempted, based on material of a historical nature but also supported by the evidence of astronomical dates.
The New Chronology solutions are displayed to their best advantage in a series of essays outlining the complex interaction between Hatti and Assyria during the Late Bronze Age. Each and every one of the attested synchronisms of the ancient Near East is observed but now there appear some new, precise, often very detailed and historically interesting adduced synchronisms. All the anomalies of the Orthodox Chronology disappear, replaced by a more coherent history. The Hurrian world, the victim of distortion between Hittite and Assyrian ‘histories’ in the Orthodox Chronology (actually crushed between them), can also be pieced together in a consistent and entirely meaningful way in the new scheme.
Part Four is dedicated to Babylonian history, discussed separately because it has few of the geopolitical problems that afflict much of the rest of Western Asia in the Late Bronze Age. The current paradigm is based on John Brinkman’s peerless works, A Political History of Post-Kassite Babylonia (Rome, 1968) and Materials and Studies for Kassite History (Chicago, 1976). However, there are now many problem areas in Middle Babylonian history, making this re-examination a timely exercise: these problems are examined in detail and some solutions explored. New Chronology solutions involve a new perception of the late Kassite period: it was a time of transition with rival factions seeking to exercise power. Its set-up was more complex than has previously been recognised.
Even more complex was the Post-Kassite period, hitherto considered to be a succession of weak and short-lived dynasties with an unexplained ‘dark age’ at the end of the Middle Babylonian period. Making different chronological assumptions from those of Brinkman (applying a framework based upon a revised Assyrian chronology), the Post-Kassite period is considerably shortened. Its dynasties now feature as mostly concurrent, sometimes as rivals of one another but mostly as solutions to the prevailing Aramaean problem. Meagre though evidence is for this period, art history is a strong indicator for the proposed revision.
Although restricted to Western Asian issues and for the most part to the Late Bronze Age, this work is wide-ranging in its scope. Of necessity, there are major studies of Assyrian chronometers, scientific dating methods, modern revisions of Hittite chronology, the archaeology of Hanigalbat and the comparative witnesses of Chronicles 21 and 22. Many other important issues are discussed including: the basis for relative and absolute chronology; forms of kingship; non-canonical rulers; parallels found elsewhere in the ancient Near East; the reliability of different kinds of documentation; and the testimony of the discordant witness.
Material that relates to but would detract from the main argument(s) is saved for an extensive Appendix section. The Reference section includes the Assyrian King List, a Bibliography and three comprehensive Indices. There are 53 tables and several maps but no colour illustrations.
Chronology at the Crossroads refutes the Orthodox Chronology, a modern synthesis which, having been built on faulty axioms, conceals a considerable collection of anomalies. The root cause is identified as the Assyrian King List. Usually treated as a literal linear chronicle whereas others in the genre are recognised as schematic, its tell-tale devices show where it was intended to fold. A replacement New Chronology model is offered, one that is both coherent and illuminating as a history. In the process, this study offers new set of exact dates for the rulers of Hatti, Assyria and Babylon in the Late Bronze Age.
Often neglected, chronology is fundamental to our understanding of ancient history. With this work it should once again take centre stage.