The doubts we have raised about the Sothic Cycle will be a surprise to many who have a superficial acquaintance with Egyptian chronology, but that is perhaps the least of the problems that confront the student of Egyptian history.
Most of what we know about Egyptian chronology comes from the writing of a Greek historian and astronomer called Manetho. He was the man who arranged the Egyptian kings into thirty-one dynasties. Unfortunately his writings have been completely lost: we only know of them because two other writers quoted him - Josephus and Africanus.
The versions of Egyptian names that they give bear very little resemblance to the names with which we are familiar. For example, the king we know as Tutankhamun is called Acencheres II by Manetho. For more examples look at the Diggings website. Even worse, where Josephus and Africanus overlap, the names they give are frequently different and so are the lengths of reign attributed to each king! And, needless to say, the lengths of reign are different from what we know from Egyptian monuments.
Despite all these problems, Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of Egyptology, took Manetho very seriously and simply added all the kings of all the dynasties together end to end. As a result Petrie believed that Menes, the first king of the first Dynasty, reigned about 5320 BC.
Since then we have been able to confirm (or contradict) Manetho and refine his lengths of reign. We have also been forced into realising that some of the kings and some of the dynasties ruled at the same time as each other. This has resulted in a drastic shortening of Egyptian history and scholars these days give Menes a date of 3100 BC - two thousand years less than Petrie taught.
Can we trust even this date? There are good reasons for thinking that we cannot - and that is a very serious matter, and not just for Egypt.
What it means is that if we cannot trust Egyptian history, neither can we trust the history of any other country around the Mediterranean, for their chronologies are linked to that of Egypt. Bronze Age Greece, for example, has left no written records, so we are only able to date it relatively by means of changes in pottery styles and the different levels in excavations.
The situation is that an archaeologist working in Greece might find a scarab bearing a pharaoh's name at a certain level. He then links that level with that pharaoh. Alternatively an archaeologist in Egypt might find some Greek pottery associated with a certain level in his excavation. He concludes that his Egyptian level is contemporary with the period of the Greek pottery. These are facts and no one wants to dispute them; however archaeologists and historians take the next step and, because the chronology of Egypt was thought to be secure, they used these finds to assign an absolute date to Greek history - and the same thing applies to Italy, Palestine, Turkey and other countries around Egypt.
In this way the specialists in the different civilisations - the Greek specialists, the Hittite specialists, the Syrian specialists, the Palestinian specialists, and so on, built up with painstaking care the chronologies for their own areas, always linked to and dependent upon Egypt‘s chronology. Not one of them looked outside his own area - but if he had, he might have noticed something puzzling.
In 1991 a scholar called Peter James stumbled across this puzzle. Historians dealing with Greece wrote about a Dark Age, when it appeared that all the cities were deserted, all the people fled the country, only to return a couple of centuries later and carry on more or less exactly as they had done before.
In the first place it was curious that during their centuries of exile the people had not picked up any new culture from the countries in which they had, presumably, taken refuge. Why were there no new styles of pottery? Why were there no new methods of architecture?
That led James to investigate where these people might have gone and so, expecting to find evidence of a sudden influx of population, he looked at Greece‘s neighbours. To his surprise he found that, according to the Hittite specialists, at more or less same time that Greece was going through its Dark Age, Turkey also was going through a Dark Age in which all the cities were deserted and the people left the country - only to return a couple of centures later and carry on exactly as they had before, with the same culture, the same pottery, the same architecture.
Well, he thought, perhaps these Bronze Age refugees were more adventurous than he had expected. He began to look further afield, in Italy or Syria or Palestine - and he found that, according to the specialists for these different areas, at this same time all these countries also experienced a Dark Age in which all the cities were deserted and all the people left, only to return a couple of centuries later and carry on as before.
There was only one country that did not record a Dark Age, and that was Egypt - but neither did Egyptian history record a sudden mass immigration of all the Greeks, all the Hittites, all the Syrians, all the Italians and all the Palestinians! So where did all these people go?
His solution was a radical one: he suggested that in fact there was no Dark Age and nobody went anywhere. If two Egyptian dynasties that should have been side by side had, instead, been put end to end, that would introduce a false gap in the history of every one else in the region. The table below gives an idea of what we are talking about.
|Period 1||Period 1||Period 1||Period 1|
|Period 2||Period 2a||Period 2a||Period 2a|
|False Gap||Dark Age||Dark Age||Dark Age|
|Period 3||Period 2b||Period 2b||Period 2b|
|Period 4||Period 3||Period 3||Period 3|
The "False Gap" of the table might be because two or more dynasties that should be side by side - one in northern Egypt and the other in the south - have been put end to end, for example. Notice that in Greece, Palestine and Turkey the culture after the Dark Age is more or less identical to the culture before it.
All the old, well-established scholars brushed Peter James' arguments aside. The chronology for their specialities was fixed with cross links to Egypt and the countries round about and it would be a real upheaval to try and start from scratch and work it all out anew. The only people James could get to listen to him seriously were young men and women like himself who had no reputations no lose, no academic positions to imperil, no vested interest to support.
In 1984 he published a book of essays called Centuries of Darkness and, as expected, it was rejected and ignored by the establishment, but Professor Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University wrote the preface to the book and this is what he said:
The revolutionary suggestion is made here that the existing chronologies for that crucial phase in human history are in error by several centuries and that, in consequence, history will have to be rewritten. ... I feel that their critical analysis is right and that a chronological revolution is on its way.
I want to point out to you that Colin Renfrew is no academic light-weight whom you can dismiss as a crackpot and a crank. Not only is he highly respected in Cambridge, but his services to archaeology are so highly regarded that a few years ago he was elevated to the peerage and his full title is now Professor Lord Colin Renfrew.
A short while ago David Down, the editor of Diggings, interviewed Professor Lord Colin Renfrew in the House of Lords in London and asked him whether he still stood by his words in the preface to James' book. He replied,
In general the chronological revision has taken place. The broader picture of the overthrow of the diffusionist chronology and the acceptance of chronology based on radio-carbon dating has been accepted and that is lectured on not only by me but every lecturer in the university will say those things. ... Many would say that James was too sweeping, but there are one or two like myself who think it a very good idea to throw things open for discussion, as he has done.
In other words, on grounds that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible, Cambridge University now teaches that the chronology of Egypt is in need of revision and there are those that agree with Peter James that a minimum of two centuries needs to be removed from Egypt‘s history.