ORAU > Research > Egyptian Chronology

Radiocarbon Dating and the Egyptian Historical Chronology


Step Pyramid Nile Delta view Dahshur Red Pyramid
Step Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara View over cultivated fields from the sand gezira at Quesna Red Pyramid of Sneferu, Dahshur

What is Radiocarbon Dating?

Radiocarbon dating is the technique used to determine the age of an object by measuring its radioactive carbon concentration. It is the most widely used scientific method for dating archaeological artefacts and contexts.

The Egyptian Historical Chronologies

The Egyptian Historical Chronologies (EHCs) are the timelines of Egyptian rulers, as constructed by historians throughout the centuries. They have been compiled from ancient king-lists on papyri and stone, and been enhanced by archaeological evidence. The chronologies are pinned to absolute calendrical years by rare astronomical observations. Whilst by no means complete, a historical framework can be constructed for the full length of ancient Egyptian civilization.

Acacia trees in the southern Sinai

Project Objective

Although construction of the EHCs has employed an extensive amount of historical research, comparatively few attempts have been made to cross-check them using direct scientific dating techniques. The aim of this project was to investigate the consistency of the historical chronologies with dates obtained via the radiocarbon method.

Wider Implications

Remains of Pyramid of Amenemhet I at Lisht

Improving the accuracy and reliability of the EHCs will help Egyptologists arrange essential historical and cultural information. Moreover, the EHCs are intertwined with and fundamental to many other chronologies of the ancient Near East. Therefore, consolidating their position on the absolute timescale will facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the ancient history of the wider Mediterranean region.

Sampling & Analysis

We procurred samples from major international collections which are historically datable to a given kings reign. The samples were subjected to Accelerator Mass Spectrometry radiocarbon dating. To ensure reliability, samples from more recent periods of Egyptian history, of precise known-age, were also dated. Statistical modelling of these high-precision results enabled us to draw mathematically-unbiased conclusions. Other compositional analyses (Environmental SEM, PIXE, Raman & FTIR spectroscopy) were also be carried out on selected samples.

Canals Bent Pyramid
Canals in the Nile Delta Bent Pyramid of Sneferu, Dahshur

Outputs & publications

The project generated three important conclusions which will help form the basis for future research in this region:

These main outcomes are summarised in a paper in Science.

Symposium and public lecture

A symposium on 'Radiocarbon Dating and Egyptian Chronology' was held at the Ashmolean Museum 17th-18th March 2010 with a public lecture in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in order to discuss the main outputs of the project. The symposium had a number of chronologically-themed sessions, including discussion of the new series of radiocarbon dates generated by the project, and scholars from the international community presented papers and acted as discussants.


Project Team

Academic Staff:

Collaborating Academic Staff:

Research Technicians: