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Why ANE chronology is at a crossroads


Substantial revision of our understanding of the history of the Ancient Near East (ANE) now looks likely because the region’s principal chronological yardstick has been re-interpreted and shortened in length.


The Assyrian King List (AKL) has now been re-assessed, and can now be understood to span a shorter period of time than was previously thought. Until now, its seemingly unbroken record of kings and their reign-lengths has made it a benchmark for dating the wider ANE. But now a new theory implicates the histories of several neighbouring nations including Egypt, Babylon, the Hittites and the Hurrians, and as a result there could be a wide-ranging re-appraisal of ANE history in the early 1st millennium BC. Scholars are only just beginning to study this revision. As yet there is no consensus about its validity, let alone the shape of its final outcome!


The shortening of the Assyrian King List has been worked out by an amateur scholar, Bernard Newgrosh, in his book, ‘Chronology at the Crossroads’ (Matador 2007). At 700 pages it is a challenging read, and the purpose of this note is to give a simple introduction to the nub of his thesis: a new interpretation of the Assyrian King List and how it ‘folds’.


This central element of the Newgrosh proposition is easily understood, yet was overlooked in a brief and dismissive ‘Note’ about Chronology at the Crossroads written by Professor J A Brinkman in Orientalia in 2010. Newgrosh surely deserves better attention, and a more reasoned response. He has discovered how the scribes, who originally drew up the early versions of the AKL, intended to indicate periods of multiple kingship. He is not the only scholar now acknowledging that the AKL alludes to such periods, at least in early times. His deduction that there was also multiple kingship in the late Middle Assyrian Period overcomes the principal remaining objection against major historical revision of the early 1st millennium BC.


How the new Discovery by Newgrosh shortens Assyrian History

Newgrosh removes about 130 years from the late Middle Assyrian Period. He argues that some individuals named in the AKL, who were previously considered to be ‘dark age kings’ (because virtually no military, diplomatic, economic or legal activity is attributable to their reigns) were instead ‘priest-kings’ who held a religious position while other kings fulfilled the more conventional military and political roles. This is not without precedent – the priest-kings of ancient Hittite Aleppo were in the same vein, equal in rank to their counterparts at Carchemish, but known only for their priestly and religious activities.  


What Newgrosh seems to be the first to discover are the tell-tale markers within the text of the Assyrian King List itself, which were originally intended to show where sections of parallel rulers began. He points to no less than four instances in the AKL where a convention appears to have been used by the ancient scribes to indicate that two lines of kings were reigning at the same time. In this way they were able to indicate concurrency within the format of a single linear list.


In essence, Newgrosh argues that the early incomplete listings of Assyrian Kings (which no longer survive) concluded with appendices in which parallel rulers were separately recorded. The scribes simply listed at the end of their tablet the names of the concurrent priest-kings beginning with a repetition of the name that appeared in the main List at the relevant point in time. When subsequently the list was extended to include later monarchs, these appendices were unwittingly incorporated into the main catalogue of kings, including the repeated name which was the intended ‘marker’. Afterwards both ancient and modern readers mistakenly assumed that the resultant King List represented a single line of kings. Modern scholars have thus totted up the lengths of too many reigns to compute dates for the earlier rulers.


Where the AKL ‘folds’ in the Middle Assyrian Period (conventionally 1400 – 900 BC)

One particular ruler is named in this section of the Assyrian King List for whom there is no corroborating evidence. The reign of Ashur-nirari (IV) is conventionally thought to have ended in 1013 BC, at the heart of what is known as a ‘dark age’. However, unlike other Dark Age rulers immediately before and after him, he is wholly unattested. This has been explained as an accident arising from the haphazard process of archaeological discovery, but the evidence that we have lends itself to another interpretation: that his name is a repetition of Ashur-nirari (III) who conventionally died c.1226 BC, and who appears fourteen places earlier in the List. Newgrosh argues that the same man was originally intended: the first occurrence of his name showed his position in the sequence, and the second instance marked the beginning of a parallel line of rulers after him who significantly all fulfilled priestly not secular functions. Later this ‘appendix’ list was inadvertently incorporated into the main Listing. A scribal error in copying is also implied, but of a very common kind. The reign-lengths of these ‘priests’ have thus been double counted into the overall period of time covered by the Assyrian King List.


In the final version of the AKL which has come down to us, two of these original ‘appendices’ have been merged to form the list of seven kings who now comprise the ‘Middle Assyrian Dark Age’. Their new identification as priest-kings holding office contemporary with their political counterparts removes 120 – 150 years from this section of the AKL, and in the process solves several historical problems, Newgrosh claims.


The wider picture

In itself, Newgrosh’s proposal may not seem sufficiently strong to warrant such a profound and far-reaching review. However it comes after years of other research which has already suggested that much is wrong with our current understanding of early 1st millennium ANE history. Archaeological evidence from all around the Eastern Mediterranean has pointed to the need for a substantial reduction in the length of the Dark Age (conventionally 1200 – 800 BC). The witness of the Assyrian King List was the principal remaining objection against compressing this period. Its re-interpretation should now open the way to a wider acceptance of the need for historical revision of that era. Not least in interest will be the implications for the Egyptian context of early Israelite history, because Egyptian dates will move whilst Israelite ones will not.


The new understanding of the structure of the AKL is not Newgrosh’s only achievement. His book supplies what is believed to be the first comprehensive listing of the attested international synchronisms that need to be observed in any reconstruction of the period. He also presents a dated list of international events from his ‘New Chronology’ perspective, which yields a thought-provoking new historical picture, and opens up his research to detailed criticism.


A chart contrasting the new and old construction of the Assyrian King List is available to illustrate this thesis (in Excel Format).


Michael J H-Brown  Solihull, England.  January 2011

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