Science may hold the clue to ancient riddle
28 April 2006
The combination of an international project to enhance carbon dating from archaeological samples, and the remains of an olive tree, may hold part of the clue to resolving an age-old archaeological controversy stemming from the times of ancient Greece.
This new research could answer the argument amongst experts about the age of Bronze Age cultures in the Aegean region - when a major volcanic eruption occurred. For archaeologists, this eruption is a key marker for assessing the civilisations of ancient Greece, Egypt and Cyprus, but has been the subject of debate for decades.
Photograph: Collapsed main staircase in Building Delta-North at Akrotiri, Santorini. Attributed to seismic activity shortly before the eruption.
A team headed by Professor Sturt Manning of Cornell University, who is also visiting professor at Reading University, along with colleagues Christopher Bronk Ramsey and Thomas Higham from Oxford University, have used funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to date the period.
Their findings, published in the journal Science today, suggest that the dates of the Aegean cultures may be earlier than previously thought.
Archaeologists have previously used similarities amongst artefacts to date the civilisations, but uncertainty about radiocarbon dating was enough to leave experts debating the dates.
Professor Manning's team have created one of largest sets of focused radiocarbon data ever. With analysis spanning a 300 year period, it has been possible to suggest new chronology for the Aegean late Bronze Age 1700-1400 BC.
By analysing 127 samples taken from sites in Santorini, Crete, Rhodes and Turkey, they have pointed to the Aegean culture being older than previously suggested - with links to previous Egyptian civilisations - over whose chronology there is less uncertainty.
In an attempt to address some of the questions over radio carbon dating calibration, such as contamination, location, and atmospheric factors, the team used a sophisticated statistical analysis and far wider sample base. The project also used more than one laboratory to further limit the risks of error in setting the carbon dates.
As an example, the team can define the age of charcoal from a very small segment of an oak chair that was buried for more than 3,600 years, to within a date range of 27 years with 95 per cent confidence.
By coincidence a separate investigation by a Danish and German team, headed by Walter Fredrich from the University of Aarhus, also studied the Aegean period. They radio carbon dated the remains of an olive tree excavated from volcanic soil on the island of Santorini. The results strongly corroborate the British team's work.
Photograph: Reconstruction of LMI country house at Myrtos-Pyrgos, Crete (excavated under the direction of Gerald Cadogan), by Jeff Clarke.
The two sets of findings mean a shift of the dates for the Aegean civilisation and its cultures - such as the buried town of Akrotiri on Santorini, the 'Pompeii' of the Aegean - by about 100 years earlier.
Professor Manning said, "Our findings also imply that some previously hypothesized dates and associations for the Santorini eruption around 1650 or 1645 BC are now not so likely, and new efforts need to be directed at the ice-core and tree-ring records if a specific date is to be achieved. Together the two studies offer a very solid basis to a re-dating of this period. This has major ramifications for the archaeology, art-history and other records for the region."
"If the findings are accepted, then the earlier chronology would frame a different context, and a longer era, for the very genesis of Western civilisation. The seventeenth century BC may become a very important period," he added.
Dept of Classics, Cornell University
Ithaca, New York, USA
Tel: 0207 603 9183 (UK contact)
Mob: 07860 935 936
Christopher Bronk Ramsey
Tel: 01865 285215
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
1. This study was funded by a NERC grant and by NERC's funding of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, and through the support of SCIEM2000 - a special research programme of the Austrian Academy. The International partners in the project are the Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator and the Heidelberg Radiocarbon Laboratory.
2. The work of Manning and colleagues was conducted at Oxford University as part of a NERC funded project. Both the British and the Danish-German papers make use of methods of statistical analysis developed at Oxford by Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Director of the NERC supported Oxford Radio Carbon Accelerator Unit. This work underline the important part that Oxford and NERC are playing in the resolution of chronological issues in archaeology and environmental science.
3. Sturt Manning, formerly at the University of Reading, and still a visiting professor in the School of Human and Environmental Sciences, is now a Professor in the Department of Classics, Cornell University. USA. He is also incoming Director of the Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Laboratory for Aegean and near Eastern Dendrochronology at Cornell.
4. NERC is one of the UK's research councils. It uses a budget of about £350m a year to fund and carry out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. It is addressing some of the key questions facing mankind, such as global warming, renewable energy and sustainable economic development.
Press release: 25/06
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