New Chronology Shows Ancient Egypt Transformed Fast

By Gemma Tarlach | September 4, 2013 10:10 am
ancient egypt's pyramids in giza

The transition from a nomadic culture to a slave-powered state allowed ancient Egypt to later accomplish feats like building the pyramids. Image credit: Kokhanchikov/Shutterstock

Despite being one of the most intensely studied civilizations, ancient Egypt still has its secrets. Today, however, there’s one fewer mystery.

A team of multidisciplinary researchers has established the first absolute chronology for pre-Dynastic Egypt, upending previous theories about the pace of the state’s development. The prehistoric Egyptians — a nomadic, pastoral society — transformed into a formal state with an apparently divine ruler much more quickly than earlier studies suggested, according to findings published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

Clues in the Clay

Archeologists had previously established a relative chronology (one whose dates are relative to one another, rather than absolute) based on the evolution of pottery styles typically found at funerary sites. The radiocarbon dating method they used offered an important, if imprecise, timeline with limited context about broader cultural trends. It estimated the Naqada period, which marked the transition away from an unorganized society, to have begun around 4000 BCE and the date of the foundation of the Egyptian state as ranging from 3400 to 2900 BCE.

Researchers were eager to narrow that 500 year range, however, to solidify the relationship between the rise of the world’s first formal state, the advent of a system of writing and widespread adaptation of intensive agricultural practices, all of which seem to have developed in Egypt around the same time.

Analyzing Ancient Egypt

The new approach combined archeological data and radiocarbon dating with statistical modeling. Using 186 radiocarbon-dated samples from museum collections and the field, the team applied Bayesian analysis, which models probabilities based on logical beliefs. For example, when testing a sample that included charcoal remains, researchers assumed that the tree from which the charcoal was derived was older than the sample itself — logically, it would have to be, since a tree could not grow, be felled, burned and its charcoal used all at once. Additional modeling, based on other reliably-dated samples, was applied to refine the results.

Using this more precise, multidisciplinary method to create the absolute chronology, researchers established that the Naqada Period began 3800-3700 BCE, about 300 years later than previously theorized, while the Egyptian state’s foundation dates to 3100-3050 BCE, earlier than many estimates. The new timeline means the period of organization from a pastoral society to the world’s first formal state was only 600-700 years.

Although the rapidity of the state’s formation is itself of interest, the team’s establishment of an absolute chronology will also allow greater accuracy and depth of understanding in future research on the Pre-Dynastic period.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Lester Picker

    While the findings from these new dating techniques are intriguing, they are not without some controversy. Many Egyptologists would say that Narmer (Menes) was the King who united Upper and Lower Egypt, as detailed in my novel The First Pharaoh. According to these eminent Egyptologists, Aha was actually Narmer’s son.

    Lester Picker

    author of The First Pharaoh and The Dagger of Isis

  • Verginia Georgieva

    very interesting


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.

See More

Collapse bottom bar