Radiocarbon Dating, Ancient Egypt, & Some Commentary On Relevant Scholarship

I recently did a livestream about radiocarbon dating & Egypt that focused on a section from the books of Fomenko’s New Chronology.[1] I wasn’t satisfied with the amount of information covered there, so I’ve written this article to help fill out my view of the relationship between C-14 dating and Egyptian artefacts.

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Hodge & Newton (1979)

Fomenko mainly relied on a publication from 1979 by Hodge & Newton. In it, they speak about the discrepancies between C-14 dates and the dates posited by historians/Egyptologists. For example, on page 139, they state, “…from the beginning the results obtained for Egypt in the dynastic period from the radiocarbon method were not of much value in the reconstruction of Egyptian history”. On the following page (p.140), they state, “A very detailed list of Nubian and Egyptian samples has been presented, and the general thesis is that the radiocarbon dates are useless to the historian”. One question that I don’t have the answer to yet is: How useless? How far off the mark are the dates from what the historians say they should be?

Hodge & Newton did not see the carbon dating situation as hopeless. They point out that it was less than 30 years old at the time their article was published and that improving it was an ongoing task.[2, p.137] In an attempt to get a more up-to-date view of C-14’s place in Egyptology, I reached out to the Egyptologist Dr. David Falk on a livestream of his.[3]

Dr. Falk (2021)

His response to my question (“What’s your take on radiocarbon dating?”) begins at about the 27:30 mark. In it, he says:

“Let’s be honest. Radiocarbon dating has problems. I think when it’s used to establish absolute dates it’s extremely problematic. It does have errors. It does manifest anomalies and you do see this in the practice of archeology and particularly in the archeology of the Ancient Near East.”
Dr. Falk (2021)[3]

Like Hodge & Newton before him, Falk points out that there are issues but that the situation is not hopeless. Falk goes on to say that C-14 dating can be used to establish relative chronologies, meaning we can use it to determine if one object is older than a different object. I’m curious how far off the mark Falk thinks the “absolute” dates can get. How large are the errors he mentioned?

Dr. Höflmayer (2016)

In searching for more info, I came across Dr. Höflmayer’s paper from 2016.[4] His CV is on Academia.[5] He has a PhD in Egyptology and appears to have been heavily involved in Egyptological scholarship over the past decade or so, continuing into our present day.

Höflmayer’s article concisely summarizes a number of topics: the importance and function of Egyptian chronology and Egyptology, the radiocarbon method’s development and impact, and its reception by Egyptologists and archeologists over the past 6 decades. I’m not familiar with all the citations there but I do plan on digging deeper into them in the future.

He cites Libby (1963) mentioning that dates prior to around 3000 BCE could be 500 years off the mark, but at c.2000 BCE the errors are nonexistent.[4, p.6] He includes the “completely out of date” quote on page 7. I have an article about that here.

On page 9 I think he argues for a major revision of Egyptian and Near Eastern chronologies. There are three works cited: two published, one forthcoming. I haven’t reviewed them yet, but I did want to mention here that he didn’t articulate the scale of revision being argued for. One hundred years? 500?

He mentions a 2010 paper from the journal Science that (at least as of 2016) was the “most comprehensive approach to radiocarbon dating the Egyptian historical chronology” yet conducted. It was enhanced in 2013 with more information.[4, p.10] He summarizes this and in his conclusion says:

“The Oxford project showed conclusively that radiocarbon dating combined with a Bayesian statistical approach provides results that are generally in agreement with calendar dates from historical estimations based on the interpretation of texts.”

He does end by saying there has been some pushback but the discrepancy is only a few decades.[4, p.12]

The second to last section of his paper is dedicated to radiocarbon dating at Tell el-Dab’a. He talks about a discrepancy of about 120 years.[4, p.12]

“Every chronological conclusion has to be understood as preliminary, because new finds and new radiocarbon determinations might challenge earlier results.”[4, p.15]

Bronk Ramsey, et al. (2010)

This is the article that Höflmayer called “most comprehensive approach to radiocarbon dating the Egyptian historical chronology”.[4, p.10] When I went to check Höflmayer’s references, I was surprised to see that the 2010 article was only 4 pages long. This fact aside, the 4 pages are potent and I took some notes on them.[6]

It opens by calling attention to the relative nature of the ancient Egyptian chronologies. It states that they are “principally based on the interpretation of a small number of ancient astronomical observations in the Middle and New Kingdoms”.[6, p.1554] I don’t currently know what observations are included in that small number. The closest citation to that bit was Kitchen (1991).[8] Possibly it was a reference to [8, 204]? Whatever the case may be, I do want clarity on that.

Using 211 samples in their study, they show a chronology for ancient Egypt that spans from about 2650 to about 1100 BCE, which is a window of roughly 1500 years.[6, p.1556] The conductors of the study communicate that they “were reliant on the judgement of excavators and curators and on the integrity of the collections themselves”. However, 14 of the samples, approximately 6.6% of the entire collection, came back dating to the 1st and 2nd millenniums CE. They mention this in a single sentence where they declare the samples to be “intrusive” and that they won’t be considered further.[6, p.1555] I was under the impression that it was bad science to ignore the results we don’t like and only use the ones we do, but maybe this isn’t what’s happening here.

The 1st and 2nd millenniums CE span from about 1-2000 CE. This means that those samples were about 1000-4600 years off the mark, given the window from c.1000 BCE to 1 CE is c.1000 years (smallest error), and the window between c.2600 BCE to 2000 CE is c.4600 years (largest error). More information is needed to refine these errors estimations.

I’m curious what exactly is meant by “intrusive”. My guess is that they mean the samples were wrongly dated by the excavators and curators. The way I see it, there are only two options for the discrepancy. Either 1) carbon dating can produce errors of over a thousand years, or 2) qualified expert opinion can produce errors of over a thousand years. How are we to determine who’s at fault when the information about the samples is limited to a single sentence with no further discussion beyond the conclusion of the authors? This loops back to the 1970 quote about ignoring the misses and counting the hits.

It is about to be 2022. Is there a more comprehensive study on this that has happened? Was Höflmayer correct in saying this was the most comprehensive study? If not, what is?

Closing Thoughts/Conclusions

1) The majority of Egyptologists are skeptical about using carbon dating for establishing Egyptian chronologies, but there is a growing minority that argues for its reliability.

2) Between Egyptology and carbon dating, there are discrepancies that can range from less than 10 years to up to 4600 years. More information is needed before I’ll be comfortable generating any strong convictions about any of this.

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References:

[1] – Ctruth. “Carbon Dating & Ancient Egypt | Examining Fomenko’s New Chronology Part 9” (10 Dec. 2021). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lc8KmfFzC7A. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

[2] – Hodge, K.C. and Newton, G.W.A. “Radiocarbon Dating. Manchester Museum Mummy Project. Multidisciplinary Research on Ancient Egyptian Mummified Remains”. – Edited by A. Rosalie David. Published by Manchester Museum. Distributed by Manchester University Press, Manchester, England, 1979 http://assets.mhs.manchester.ac.uk/Mummy1770/Articles/Multidisciplinary-Research-on-Ancient-Egyptian-Mummified-Remains.pdf. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

[3] – Ancient Egypt and the Bible. “Live Stream #29: A Copper Penny For Your Thoughts” (10 Dec. 2021). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-ro6ZwbeMg. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

[4] – Höflmayer, Felix. “Radiocarbon Dating and Egyptian Chronology—From the “Curve of Knowns” to Bayesian Modeling” (Jul. 2016). DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935413.013.64. https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935413.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935413-e-64. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

[5] – Höflmayer, Felix. “Curriculum Vitae”. https://oeaw.academia.edu/FelixH%C3%B6flmayer/CurriculumVitae. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

[6] – Bronk Ramsey, Christopher, et al. 2010. “Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic Egypt.” Science 328: 1554–1557. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1189395. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.

[7] – Shortland, Andrew J., and Christopher Bronk Ramsey, eds. Radiocarbon and the Chronologies of Ancient Egypt. (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013). https://books.google.com/books?id=S6-mAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.

[8] – Kitchen, Kenneth A. (1991): The chronology of ancient Egypt, World Archaeology, 23:2, 201-208. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.1991.9980172. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.

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One Comment on “Radiocarbon Dating, Ancient Egypt, & Some Commentary On Relevant Scholarship

  1. The über-problem is that one lot disciplines (organic chemistry, nuclear physics) know all about carbon-decay but have very little use for measuring the time it takes, while another set of disciplines (history, archaeology) know nothing about carbon-decay rates but have a great need for it. The lesser problem is that I know even less than any of them about it but I am old enough to know two things:

    1) when carbon-dating was first brought in it nearly put archaeology in a tail spin because they were out by thousands of years about some quite important things
    2) when history observed this, it decreed that carbon 14 did not decay uniformly but in fits and starts (schedule for adjusting C14 decay rates to accord with ‘known’ historical dates attached).

    I never did learn whether they are still using this adjustment table or what nucleated organic chemists think about it.

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