BGU scientist sheds light on ancient Egypt

Prof. Hendrik Bruins analyzes Oxford radiocarbon dating study on ancient exhibits.

walk like an egyptian 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
walk like an egyptian 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A leading archeologist and geo-scientist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is helping to shed new light on the cornerstone of time in the Near East.
The prestigious journal Science commissioned Prof. Hendrik Bruins of BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research to analyze a University of Oxford study which used radiocarbon dating of plant material collected from ancient Egyptian exhibits in museums around the world. The study, the Israeli researcher said, is the first to use high-precision measurements of radioactive carbon isotopes to produce a detailed time-line for the reigns of Egyptian pharaohs from about 2650 BCE to 1100 BCE.
Although the data have no connection to the Pharoah chronicled in the Book of Exodus, Bruins told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that lessons can be learned regarding the study of various archeological sites around Israel.
Both the original study by Prof. Christopher Bronk Ramsey, an Oxford physicist, and the anthropological perspective by the Dutch-born Bruins have just been published in Science.
Bruins, who also works at the department of Bible, Archeology and Ancient Near East Studies on the university’s Sde Boker campus, concludes that radiocarbon dating and the modeling of ancient Egyptian dynasties make possible new associations between archeological layers and Egyptian history.
The study, the Israeli researcher said, is the first to use high-precision measurements of radioactive carbon isotopes to produce a detailed timeline for the reigns of Egyptian pharaohs.
“It is a very, very important finding,” said Bruins, who did not work with the Oxford team but analyzed their work and the radioactive dating results at Oxford and University of Vienna (whose team included University of Haifa Prof. Ezra Marcus).
“For the first time, radiocarbon dating more or less corroborates the essence of the Egyptian historical chronology, but some of the dates have to be altered based on the new evidence. Most importantly, we can finally compare apples with apples,” Bruins says.
The three-year Oxford study of hundreds of artifacts was aimed at settling several longstanding debates about Egypt’s ancient pharoanic dynasties. Archeologists throughout the world use radiocarbon dating, but surprisingly, no high-precision dating work had been done before on Egyptian artifacts before.
The British team took tiny bits of samples from organic material and used carbon-14 isotopes to date them. Plants absorb carbon-14 as they grow, and the radioisotope decays naturally over time after they die. Measuring carbon- 14 levels in artifacts made of organic material allows archeologists to determine their age.
Bruins is one of Israel’s pioneers in the use of radiocarbon dating at archeological sites going back to the Iron and Bronze Age (the latter includes the period of the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the formal beginning of the Jewish people).
Four years ago, he received the Dutch Royal Award in the name of the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix for achievements in policy-oriented studies on drought, hazard assessment and contingency planning in drylands, geo-archeological desert research and innovative chronological studies about the ancient Near East.
After studying at the Hebrew University in the 1970s, he worked for the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Negev and Sinai and disagreed over carbon dating with his mentor, the late Dr. Rudolph Cohen, who depended more on pottery and ceramics than organic material that underwent radioactive dating. Bruins said radiocarbon dating was needed for accurate assessments and synchronizing the dates of various materials in a variety of areas.
Cohen finally agreed, and Bruins collected seeds, plants and bones from northeastern Sinai (Kadesh Barnea).
As Egypt has for many years forbidden the removal of archeological material, researchers have had to study exhibits, especially funerary material, in museums from Europe to New York. A technique called accelerated mass spectrometry based on only milligrams of organic samples, even from baskets, are taken and their approximate dates assessed.
“Over the years, there has always been skepticism whether Egyptian historical chronology is correct or not.
This chronology was not based on one single ancient document that spelled everything out but many different and fragmented things,” said Bruins.
“Historians pieced it together over centuries and came up with different interpretations and dates differing by 50 years or more. I found that carbon dating generally corroborates the Egyptian chronology, but the results favor somewhat older interpretations.”
It was uncertain, he said, when the ancient 18th Dynasty began. Half a century ago, historians said it started in 1550 BCE. But the dates depended on where the ancient Egyptians observed the star Sirius – the basis of the Egyptian calendar – and wrote their observations on papyrus and hieroglyphics on stone at the beginning of summer.
Sirius rose before the sun, so if the observations were done in Cairo, it would turn out differently then if conducted in southern Egypt, which would put the dynasty’s beginning in 1539 BCE.
“New studies show that radiocarbon dating supports the earlier date of 1550 BCE or even 1560 BCE,” said Bruins.
“This is a very important result, as historical chronology and archeological data are two different things. With radiocarbon dating, we can associate archeology and history through radiocarbon dating. So now we have a independent source of research.”
The new Oxford findings, said Bruins, provide more accurate information relating to the eruption of the volcano on the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea, 120 kms north of Crete some 3,600 years ago, he added.
“This was the biggest eruption in the eastern Mediterranean in the last 15,000 years,” said the BGU scientist.
It left traces in the Black Sea, Turkey, Crete and underwater, but not in Israel’s neighborhood, because of wind direction.
Two years ago, Bruins published the first evidence of a major tsunami in Crete caused by this eruption.
“Santorini left a mark in many parts of region. Dating from archeological finds claimed it occurred in the 18th Dynasty, but now for first time they and the Egyptian calendar can be compared with radiocarbon dating.
“Thus it appears that the eruption preceded the 18th Dynasty and occurred during the Hyksos Period. Egyptian historical information about Tell el-Dab‘a, the ancient capital of the Hyksos and located in the northeastern region of the Nile Delta, do not fit in terms of radiocarbon dating,” he continued.