The Thera (or Santorini) volcanic eruption in the southern Aegean is the largest known of the past 12,000 years (Johnston et al. 2014) and sent ash (tephra) and tsunami over a large area of the east Mediterranean (the latter reached the Levant: Goodman-Tchernov et al. 2009). The eruption buried, Pompeii-like, a large Bronze Age town at Akrotiri on Thera (Santorini) – disrupting long-established trade and communications networks in the region (Knappett et al. 2011). This great mid 2nd millennium BC volcanic eruption appears self-evidently an event of historical importance. When precisely did it occur?
A correct answer has proved a long, difficult, and controversial topic over the past several decades, pitting an established archaeological synthesis based around linkages of material culture and stylistic traits across the Aegean and east Mediterranean to proto-historical Egypt, against science-based dating techniques. The story up to 1999 was surveyed in Manning (1999), but this volume has now been out of print for a number of years. A new book (Manning 2014) – http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/test-of-time.html – provides a reprint both of the original text, as well as a 200-page update and revisit of the topic of the date, critically presenting and analyzing evidence available through 2013.
Why now? Despite the decades of often trenchant debate, and the strong rejections of the scientific evidence and an insistence by some scholars that the standard archaeological scenario cannot be radically revised, a considerable range of new information and reassessment have become available very recently which seem at last to point to a resolution of the Thera date question. Hence the new book (and hence of course this blog).
It has been clear since the mid-1970s that radiocarbon indicated an earlier date than the previously orthodox archaeological estimate of ca. 1500 BC, and more recent radiocarbon dating on materials from both Thera and the region, allied with sophisticated forms of modeling, have firmly pointed to a date in the later-late 17th century BC (Manning et al. 2006; Manning and Kromer 2012). Possible concerns that volcanic carbon dioxide could have affected the samples from Thera itself were shown to be irrelevant, since similar ages were determined from contemporary archaeological contexts elsewhere in the Aegean. Nonetheless, it was argued by critics for many years that radiocarbon did not work for some reason, and, in particular, it was believed that radiocarbon gave different results versus Egyptian history and so could be questioned – but a key large-scale study by Bronk Ramsey et al. (2010) demonstrated that radiocarbon analyses could indeed give accurate and precise dates for Egypt and Egyptian history in the second millennium BC. Thus, if radiocarbon worked in mid second millennium BC Egypt, then it should work also in the Aegean. Manning (2014) offers detailed discussion and analysis of the radiocarbon evidence from the Aegean (and also Egypt), and finds that the radiocarbon evidence clearly indicates a date for the Thera eruption in the late 17th century BC (and not a date after ca. 1530 BC as required by the conventional archaeological chronology). Claims and arguments to the contrary are reviewed, and it is explained why these are unlikely, implausible, or incorrect.
Olive branch? An olive branch was found buried in the Minoan eruption pumice on Thera (Friedrich et al. 2006). The outer preserved part should give a date for, or close terminus post quem for, the eruption. A sequence (from inner to outer parts of the sample) of radiocarbon dates on the sample gave a date shortly before 1600BC in agreement with (but more closely defined than) radiocarbon studies based on short-lived plant materials buried by the eruption at Akrotiri, or finds elsewhere associated with the eruption. All seemed clear. But, because the group publishing the olive branch claimed they could approximately recognize annual growth increments (tree-rings) – whereas most agree this is problematic to impossible in olives beyond the juvenile stage – much debate ensued. The tree ring issue unfortunately has come to hide the obvious: whether or not any growth rings are evident the simple inner to outer (oldest to most recent) time series of radiocarbon ages from the branch (and no supposed tree-ring information) still leads to almost the same conclusion: a late 17th century BC date, as stated by Friedrich et al. (2014) responding to claims by Cherubini et al. (2014) that a lack of clear tree rings somehow undermined everything. The other tactic is to argue that maybe the olive branch was long-dead by the time of the eruption. While possible in isolation, unfortunately for the rejectionist case, a second olive branch has been found, and there was clear evidence in both cases that there were leaves associated, which rather undermines claims that the branches were not living when buried by the eruption (I thank Jan Heinemeier for highlighting this to me while I was visiting Aarhus recently, and saw his fabulous new AMS radiocarbon laboratory).
Other scientific work (as, or even after, Manning 2014 went to press) has recently added further evidence either in favour of a late 17th century BC date for the Thera volcanic eruption, or against the low archaeological chronologies as especially promulgated by Manfred Bietak for the Levant, and from there for the east Mediterranean:
(i) There is now a reasonably strong circumstantial case for identifying the major volcanic eruption detected in the Sofular speleothem in NW Turkey as Thera, and this eruption is dated by the independent timescale established for the Speleothem to the late 17th century BC (Badertscher et al. 2014); and
(ii) A detailed radiocarbon analysis and chronological framework for Tell Megiddo, Israel, while yet to reach the Middle Bronze Age, already indicates that the ultra-low chronological model for the Middle Bronze Age to Late Bronze Age transition in the southern Levant, which places this transition as not occurring until during the earlier 15th century BC (e.g. Bietak 2013: Fig.8.1), is unlikely (Toffolo et al. 2014: 241), as does further analysis of the dates from the Middle Bronze Age destruction at Jericho which supports a date range no later than during the 16th century BC (Dee and Bronk Ramsey 2014: Fig.5).
Tell el-Dab‘a (ancient Avaris)? This great site – a super-city of the world in the earlier to mid second millennium BC – was long held to prove that Thera could not have erupted around 1600 BC – a position restated time and again by the long-time excavator of the site, Manfred Bietak (most recently in Antiquity arguing against the olive branch date’s relevance). Tell el-Dab‘a supposedly had a secure archaeologically based chronology linked to Egypt which showed that the relevant cultural horizon in the Aegean was late 16th century BC at the earliest, if not later. This certainty has proved to be rather insecure. A detailed radiocarbon dating programme at the site found a chronology on average around 100 years older than the one claimed by Bietak (Kutschera et al. 2012). Since radiocarbon dating – and by the same laboratories – found a good correlation with Egyptian history from other material from other sites, then it starts to suggest that there is something seriously wrong with the supposed archaeological chronology at Tell el-Dab‘a when this site alone yields such discordant dates. It is in fact notable on critical examination that there is very little sound basis to the Bietak archaeological chronology. For example, nothing actually ties the supposed Tuthmosid palace platforms to any of the evidence of named New Kingdom kings (scarabs) (carefully read Bietak et al. 2007: 27) – and hence these platforms were originally dated (in the early 1990s) by Bietak and his team as pre-New Kingdom before being later re-dated as 18th Dynasty – a first assessment which now seems likely to have been correct all along according to the radiocarbon evidence, and as suggested in Manning 1999: 93-94).
New archaeological finds meanwhile also dramatically undermine convention. At Tell Edfu in Egypt, finds of sealings place the well-known Hyksos king Khayan around a century earlier than usually assumed (Moeller and Marouard 2011). Bietak placed Khayan about 1600-1580 BC, and linked him with a palace at Tell el-Dab‘a, but now Khayan and this palace would match the much older radiocarbon chronology for the site, and seem to confirm the need radically to revise all existing arguments based around the evidence at Tell el-Dab‘a – such as when Cypriot ceramic types appear (which were again held previously, based on links from the Aegean to Cyprus and the reverse, to disprove the radiocarbon-based date for the Thera eruption, and so on). The lid with the inscribed name of Khayan found by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos was also held for many decades to stop a raising of Aegean chronology, as otherwise indicated by the radiocarbon evidence – this too may go by the wayside now, and, indeed, it may instead be held as evidence indicating that an earlier date is necessary.
Of course, it will take time for such new realities to seep, drift, or sweep over the academic field of Aegean and east Mediterranean archaeology. A Canute-like tendency seems something of an archaeological trait in the east Mediterranean field. The text of A Test of Time Revisited in Manning (2014) reviews and analyses much of the evidence regarding the dating of the Thera volcanic eruption, including numerous figures to illustrate especially the radiocarbon dates and analyses. It also provides discussion and critique of scholarship which has sought to undermine or reject the radiocarbon-based evidence and date range.
Is the Thera date question important? Yes: the new evidence provides an important context and time-frame to reassess the history of the mid-second millennium BC east Mediterranean. In his The Making of the Middle Sea, Broodbank (2013: 383-386) states that the Hyksos capital, Avaris (Tell el-Dab‘a), went “supernova after 1650 BC”, and Broodbank rightly notes the enormous scale and potential importance of the Hyksos world, and wonders what would have happened if the Theban polity of Upper Egypt had not militarily defeated and erased this brilliant civilization. But, with the new timeline indicated by archaeology and science for Thera, Tell el-Dab‘a, and Khayan, we have a new quantum. Rather than being squeezed into the years before the rise of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, Avaris and its world can now rise in the late 18th century BC, with its great king Khayan – attested from finds bearing his name from Crete to Iraq to the Levant – around or shortly after 1700 BC, and then there are nearly another 150 years until the conquest of Avaris by Ahmose from Thebes. The Hyksos world, of trade and culture, is thus very clearly the critical milieu in which the transformational processes of Middle Cypriot III/Late Cypriot I Cyprus (first polities), latest Middle Helladic through Late Helladic I southern Greece (the Shaft Graves and emergence of Mycenaean polities), and Middle Minoan III through Late Minoan IA Crete (the floruit of the Neopalatial period) should be placed and viewed – and not the New Kingdom of Egypt. It is time for the Hyksos finally to get a better press. Re-dated, their world, driven out of the huge port city at Avaris in the Nile Delta, may become seen as a central force in the development of the wider east Mediterranean and Aegean, and the creation of a trading world and elite culture koine (observed notably in one aspect via its ‘Aegean’-style wall-paintings as best known at Akrotiri on Thera but also found from mainland Greece, Crete, western Anatolia, Rhodes, the Levant, and at what might be re-dated as late Hyksos palatial buildings at Tell el-Dab‘a). Several issues in early Aegean/Greek culture and history, from language to mythology, can find a better context with this new time-frame and milieu. The key is the correct chronology: read the book! To find out more, go to: http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/test-of-time.html.
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