Chronology of Ancient Egypt - Problems

It is extremely difficult to create a chronology of ancient Egypt. The modern world is used to a single chronology in which the years are numbered consecutively, starting at an important event (for example the traditionally reckoned moment of the birth of Jesus in the Christian calendar, the Hijra (the migration of Muhammad to Medina) in the Islamic calendar, or the date of creation in the Hebrew calendar).

In Egyptian history every king counted his own regnal years, and each of them starting anew. The chronology as reconstructed by Egyptology, is no more than the sum of all the known highest regnal years. Of course there are many problems with this method. The most obvious ones are:

  • It is assumed that the highest regnal year is also the last year of the king in question, but it is always possible that a king reigned for several more years although no documents have been found (yet) from these years.
  • A major source for building a chronology is the "Aegyptiaca" by the Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived under Ptolemaios I and II. Based on king lists, annals and historical texts, the Aegyptiaca lists the kings of Egypt, starting with Menes and ending with Ptolemaios II. However, the original work of Manetho is lost and the contents is only known through excerpts made by Flavius Josephus (1st century BC) and through references made to it by other writers like Julius Africanus (3rd century CE), Eusebius (4th century CE) and Syncellus (about 800 CE). The information these give for the same pharaoh is often conflicting.
  • A major problem is caused by possible coregencies of two kings (which is still debated within Egyptology), during which each king would have his own numbering. Mutatis mutandis the same applies to overlapping dynasties and possible interregnums.
  • Adding up all the known years still leaves the small chance that a king is missing from the list. This may be a theoretical problem only, but the fact remains that our knowledge of the kings is mainly based on documents that are incomplete. Sometimes parts of the text are missing, sometimes the text is complete but fails to mention certain periods or kings. For instance, the list of kings in the temple of Abydos deliberately omits several kings who were connected to the Amarna revolt.
  • Some kings started their second regnal year exactly one full year after the day of their coronation. For others "year 1" was the period from their coronation day until the next New Year’s day, on which "year 2" would start. Theoretically such a "year 1" could last much shorter than a year, perhaps even only a few days. Similarly, when a king died shortly after the start of what would become his last regnal year, the duration of this year would be much shorter.

In order to solve some of the problems mentioned above attempts have been made to combine Egyptian data with those from other sources:

  • Technical dating of material that is certainly associated with a certain king (such as radiocarbon or C-14 dating for organic material, thermoluminescence or TL-dating of ceramics / crystalline materials). For example, if an object is certainly from the reign of Amenhotep III, we would know when he was on the throne if technical dating tells us when the object was made. However, the outcome of these tests (usually giving a sometimes rather wide range of years) can be less than precise.
  • Astronomical observations, as recorded by the ancient Egyptians, can be compared to calculations about when an astronomical event took place. If the ancient record is dated to a certain regnal year of a king it is in theory possible to fix that regnal year within the absolute chronology.
    Well known is the method of dating by means of the so-called Sothic Cycle (only once in every 1460 years the heliacal rising of the star Sothis / Sopdet coincides with New Year’s day). However, in recent research the Sothic Cycle is considered too unreliable for absolute dating; for instance, usually the exact latitude of the observation is unknown or uncertain, which can have a strong influence on the outcome (it can in fact lead to a difference of several decades). The same applies to other astronomical observations. Although they can help, it is not always absolutely sure what observation the records describe, nor where in Egypt the observations were made, in the Delta or near the Nubian border. Such and many other imponderable matters make it difficult to use astronomical observations for the creation of a chronology.
  • Comparison with other chronologies within Egypt: regnal years can be compared with the dates of Apis bulls; there was only one Apis bull at a time and of many of these the age at death was recorded, as well as in which regnal year of which king they were born, were enthroned and died. However, data for the Apis bulls are not available for the entire period of Egyptian history, and not all the available data are clear, also due to the less than adequate documentation of the finds.
  • Comparison with chronologies of other cultures can also be used (Assyria, Babylonia, Hittite, Palestine, Greece etc.), especially when there have been clear contacts. One famous case is the correspondence (as preserved in the Amarna letters) between the Egyptian king Akhenaten and Ashur-uballit I, king of Assyria, as well as Burna-Buriash II, king of Babylon. The assumed regnal dates for these can be compared.

It will be clear that much of the chronology of Egypt is uncertain. Groups of Egyptologists and even individual scientists disagree about many details, which has resulted in a variety of dates. Of course, about the most recent years the discrepancies are less than for dates that are further away.


Back to Articles