Egyptian chronology

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The creation of a reliable chronology of Ancient Egypt is a task fraught with problems. While the overwhelming majority of Egyptologists agree on the outline and many of the details of a common chronology, disagreements either individually or in groups have resulted in a variety of dates offered for rulers and events. This variation begins with only a few years in the Late Period, gradually growing to three decades at the beginning of the New Kingdom, and eventually to as much as a three centuries by the start of the Old Kingdom.

The "Conventional Egyptian chronology" is the scholarly consensus, placing the beginning of the Middle Kingdom in the 21st century BC. During the 20th century AD, scholarly consensus regarding the beginning of the Old Kingdom has shifted to earlier dates and is now placed in the 27th century BC.

Counting regnal years[edit]

The first problem the student of Egyptian chronology faces is that the ancient Egyptians used no single system of dating, or consistent system of regnal years. They had no concept of an era similar to Anno Domini, Anno Hajirae, or even the concept of named years like limmu used in Mesopotamia. As a result, the chronologer is forced to compile a list of pharaohs, determine the length of their reigns, and adjust for any interregnums or coregencies. This leads to other problems:

  • All ancient Egyptian king lists are either comprehensive but have significant gaps in their text (for example, the Turin King List), or are textually complete but fail to provide a complete list of rulers, even for a short period of Egyptian history.
  • There is conflicting information on the same regnal period from different versions of the same text; the Egyptian historian Manetho's history of Egypt is only known by extensive references to it made by subsequent writers, such as Eusebius and Sextus Julius Africanus. Unfortunately the dates for the same pharaoh often vary substantially depending on the intermediate source.
  • For almost all kings of Egypt, we lack an accurate count for the length of their reigns. Inscriptions which date a particular monument to "year 2 of Pharaoh 33" can only provide a minimum length of reign, which may or may not include any coregencies with a predecessor or successor.
  • Religious bias due to the Bible. This was most pervasive before the 1850s, when Manetho's figures were realized to conflict with the age of the Earth as recorded in the Biblical chronology, and especially with the date of the Biblical Flood.
  • Some Egyptian dynasties may have overlapped, with different pharaohs ruling in different regions at the same time, rather than serially. Not knowing whether monarchies were simultaneous or sequential may lead to widely differing chronological interpretations.


A useful way to work around these gaps in knowledge is to find chronological synchronisms. Over the past decades a number of these have been found, of varying degrees of usefulness and reliability.

  • Synchronisms with inscriptions relating to the burial of Apis bulls begin as early as the reign of Amenhotep III and continue into Ptolemaic times, but there is a significant gap in the record between Ramesses XI and the 23rd year of Osorkon II. The poor documentation of these finds in the Serapeum also compounds the difficulties in using these records.
  • Astronomical synchronisms. The best known of these is the Sothic cycle, and careful study of this led Richard A. Parker to argue that the dates of the Twelfth dynasty could be fixed with absolute precision.[1] More recent research has eroded this confidence, questioning many of the assumptions used with the Sothic Cycle, and as a result experts have moved away from relying on this Cycle.[2] For example, Donald B. Redford, in attempting to fix the date of the end of the Eighteenth dynasty, almost completely ignores the Sothic evidence, relying on synchronicities between Egypt and Assyria (by way of the Hittites), and help from astronomical observations.[3][4]
  • Radiocarbon dating (also called Carbon-14 or C-14 dating). In archaeological excavations, the remains of once-living things contain decreasing percentages of Carbon-14 relative to how long ago they died (thus ceasing to take in fresh Carbon-14). These radioactive Carbon-14 atoms decay, becoming Nitrogen-14. The less C-14 there is, the older it is. To determine dates, this method recalibrates the results due to demonstrated uneven absorption of carbon in organic matter.[5]

Conventional chronology[edit]

Despite the amount of guesswork and inaccuracies in the conventional chronology, its general outline and dates have not fluctuated very much in the last 100 years. This can be seen by comparing the dates when Egypt's 30 dynasties began and ended from two different Egyptologists: the first writing in 1906, the second in 2000. (All dates are in BC.)[6]

dynasty J. H. Breasted's dates Ian Shaw's dates
Early Dynastic Period of Egypt 1st 3400–2980 c. 3000–2686
Old Kingdom 3rd 2980–2900 2686–2613
4th 2900–2750 2613–2494
5th 2750–2625 2494–2345
6th 2623–2475 2345–2181
First Intermediate Period 7th 2475–2445 2181–2160
9th 2445–2160 2160–2025
Middle Kingdom of Egypt 11th 2160–2000 2125–1985
12th 2000–1788 1985–1773
Second Intermediate Period 13th? 1780–1580 1773–1550
New Kingdom of Egypt 18th 1580–1350 1550–1295
19th 1350–1205 1295–1186
20th 1200–1090 1186–1069
Third Intermediate Period 21st 1090–945 1069–945
22nd 945–745 945–715
23rd 745–718 818–715
24th 718–712 727–715
25th 712–663 747–656
Late Period of ancient Egypt 26th 663–525 664–525

The disparities between the two sets of dates result from additional discoveries and refined understanding of the still very incomplete source evidence. For example, Breasted adds a ruler in the Twentieth dynasty that further research showed did not exist. Following Manetho, Breasted also believed all the dynasties were sequential, whereas it is now known that several existed at the same time. These revisions have resulted in a shortening of the conventional chronology by up to 400 years at the beginning of Dynasty I.

Alternative chronologies[edit]

A number of suggestions for alternatives to the consensus on the conventional chronology have been presented during the 20th century:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Set forth in "Excursus C: The Twelfth dynasty" in his The Calendars of ancient Egypt (Chicago: University Press, 1950).
  2. ^ One example is Patrick O'Mara, "Censorinus, the Sothic Cycle, and calendar year one in ancient Egypt: the Epistological problem", Journal of Near Eastern studies, 62 (2003), pp. 17-26.
  3. ^ Redford, "The Dates of the End of the 18th Dynasty", History and Chronology of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt: Seven studies (Toronto: University Press, 1967), pp. 183-215.
  4. ^ Kate Spence, "Ancient Egyptian chronology and the astronomical orientation of pyramids", Nature, 408 (2000), pp. 320-324. She offers, based on orientation of the Great Pyramid of Giza with circumpolar stars, for a date of that structure precise within 5 years.
  5. ^ One discussion of recalibrating radiocarbon dates is Colin Renfrew, Before Civilization (Cambridge: University Press, 1979), pp. 69-83. ISBN 0-521-29643-9
  6. ^ Breasted's dates are taken from his Ancient Records (first published in 1906), volume 1, sections 58–75; Shaw's are from his Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (published in 2000), pp. 479–483.

Michael Dee, David Wengrow, Andrew Shortland, Alice Stevenson, Fiona Brock, Linus Girdland Flink, Christopher Bronk Ramsey (2013). "An absolute chronology for early Egypt using radiocarbon dating and Bayesian statistical modelling". Proceedings of the Royal Society A 469 (2159): 20130395. doi:10.1098/rspa.2013.0395. 

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