Scientists Rewrite Timeline of Ancient Egypt’s First Dynasty

British archaeologists led by Dr Michael Dee from the University of Oxford have been able for the first time to set a robust timeline for the first eight kings of ancient Egypt.

This image shows the Palermo Stone, an Egyptian stele found in Memphis that records the names of Egyptian rulers from the First to the Fifth Dynasty.

This image shows the Palermo Stone, an Egyptian stele found in Memphis that records the names of Egyptian rulers from the First to the Fifth Dynasty.

Ancient Egypt was the first territorial state to be brought under one political ruler, and the new dating evidence suggests that this period of unification happened far more quickly than previously thought.

The first kings and queens of Egypt in order of succession were Aha, Djer, Djet, Queen Merneith, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qa’a. They would have ruled over a territory spanning a similar area to Egypt today with formal borders at Aswan in the south, the Mediterranean Sea in the north and across to the modern-day Gaza Strip in the east.

Dates for accession years of the First Dynasty and cultural transition dates for the Naqada and Badarian periods. Modeled durations for each period are also given. The duration of the Naqada period is taken to be the time from the end of the Badarian to the accession of Aha (Michael Dee et al).

Dates for accession years of the First Dynasty and cultural transition dates for the Naqada and Badarian periods. Modeled durations for each period are also given. The duration of the Naqada period is taken to be the time from the end of the Badarian to the accession of Aha (Michael Dee et al).

Until now scientists had relied on archaeological evidence alone, using the evolving styles of ceramics excavated at human burial sites to try to piece together the timings of key chronological events in the Predynastic period and the First Dynasty.

Using the fresh radiocarbon dates combined with existing archaeological evidence, Dr Dee and his colleagues’ mathematical model pinpointed the likeliest date for each king’s accession. The date for each king is thought to be accurate to within 32 years – with 68 per cent probability. The modeled timeline reveals lengths of reign that are approximately what you would expect in terms of lifespan, say the study authors. The results appear in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

Faience vessel fragment inscribed with the name of the pharaoh Aha, the first king of ancient Egypt's first dynasty. Image credit: Captmondo / CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Faience vessel fragment inscribed with the name of the pharaoh Aha, the first king of ancient Egypt’s first dynasty. Image credit: Captmondo / CC-BY-SA-2.5.

The Egyptian state is often defined as starting when King Aha acceded to the throne. According to the new model, this is likely to have happened between 3111 BC and 3045 BC.

It also shows that the Predynastic period – when inhabitants along the River Nile started to form permanent settlements and concentrate on crop farming – was shorter than previously thought.

Left: accession dates - first regnal year - obtained by the team for the first eight rulers of Egypt. Right: intervals between the accession dates as indicated. The marginal posterior density functions are shown with the corresponding 68 per cent and 95 per cent highest posterior density ranges beneath (Michael Dee et al).

Left: accession dates – first regnal year – obtained by the team for the first eight rulers of Egypt. Right: intervals between the accession dates as indicated. The marginal posterior density functions are shown with the corresponding 68 per cent and 95 per cent highest posterior density ranges beneath (Michael Dee et al).

It had been widely assumed that the Predynastic period started around 4000 BC. However, this model suggests it was probably closer to 3800 – 3700 BC, and the Neolithic period that preceded it lasted longer and finished later.

“The origins of Egypt began a millennium before the pyramids were built, which is why our understanding of how and why this powerful state developed is based solely on archaeological evidence. This new study provides new radiocarbon dating evidence that resets the chronology of the first dynastic rulers of Ancient Egypt and suggests that Egypt formed far more rapidly than was previously thought,” Dr Dee said.

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Bibliographic information: Michael Dee et al. 2013. An absolute chronology for early Egypt using radiocarbon dating and Bayesian statistical modeling. Proc. R. Soc. A, vol. 469, no. 2159; doi: 10.1098/rspa.2013.0395