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The Story of Archaeological Time

Becky Hahn

In the novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf rejects the conventional view of time in favor of a more fluid system that combines different temporalities (real time and earth time), and even the block universe concept. Time in her story is not limited to one perspective or conception. Similarly, the creation of story in the discipline of archaeology combines relative and absolute dating techniques, using evidence from the historical and material records. Archaeology is essentially a retrospective construct of change over time. Recently, there has been movement beyond the traditional uses of typology and classification to relate archaeological time. Contemporary archaeology no longer has the main goal of establishing a chronology. With freedom from an emphasis on strict linearity, archaeologists can study the conceptions of time of those societies that they are investigating. For example, the ancient Egyptians had a cyclical view of time; therefore interpreting their society only linearly is missing an understanding of their lives. By studying how the Egyptians themselves conceived of the passage of time, one can construct a more thorough story of the Egyptian civilization.

The history of archaeology is a story of evolving theories, research methods, and ways of looking at the past. Research methods in particular can be very ephemeral; technologies often become out of date in a matter of years. The framework of archaeological study is based on questions/ideas/theory, methods, and discoveries. The history of archaeology as examined here will focus on the evolving methods of analyzing and conceptions of time, and how time influences broader questions concerning how ancient societies functioned. (Renfrew and Bahn, 19)

Although speculation and investigation of past cultures has been undertaken for many centuries, the history of the current discipline of archaeology began in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Westerners who began to excavate sites primarily in Europe and the Near East were motivated by dreams of discovering riches and unearthing lost cities. The Bible inspired early archaeologists to search for ancient civilizations in Egypt and the Near East, while Homer's Iliad inspired Heinrich Schliemann to search for the mythical city of Troy. The biblical time frame was most prominent during the 18th and early 19th centuries, therefore early archaeologists worked within a framework that placed the creation of the world in 4004 BC. (Renfrew and Bahn, 19) One of the first major developments useful for the field of archaeology was the establishment of the antiquity of humankind. Jacques Boucher de Perthes argued this point in 1841 based on human artifacts found in relationship with bones of long-extinct animals. (Renfrew and Bahn, 24) The publishing and proliferation of Darwin's theory of evolution, first in 1859 with his Origin of Species, proved crucial since it provided a mechanism and support for the recent "antiquity of man" theory. Darwin's work led to one of the most ambitious archaeological projects: the search for human origins in the material record. (Renfrew and Bahn, 25) The developments of Perthes and Darwin hugely expanded the time frame in which to study the past.

In archaeology, it is possible to study a culture without knowing precisely how long ago its people lived. However, most modern humans desire to classify the past in terms of time. Relative dating distinguishes the material record by older and younger. Early attempts at classification defined broad categories. The Three Age System separated the past into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. This system was created in 1836 by C.J. Thomsen in order to study and classify prehistoric artifacts. (Renfrew and Bahn 25) Despite its lack of applicability in Africa and the Americas, the system provided a framework for study, and it is still used today in some contexts. In the 1870s, Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan tried to categorize societies by arguing that human societies move from savagery (primitive hunting) to barbarism (simple farming) and finally to civilization. (Renfrew and Bahn, 27) This system has long been dropped since not all societies evolve in this path, and the argument falsely suggests improvement.

Archaeologists also developed more specific means of relative dating. Early methods emphasized sequences, including analysis of stratigraphic deposits and typological sequences. Stratigraphy operates under the general principle that underlying strata (soil layers) are older than overlying strata. (Renfrew and Bahn, 118) However, one must analyze strata carefully, because disturbance from human or natural phenomena can change the order of the deposited material. Typology is also used to assist in chronological ordering. The typological method borrows from the Darwinian theory of evolution by presuming that artifacts display an evolutionary change in style that can be tracked over time. (Renfrew and Bahn, 120) Typological chronologies consist of the arrangement of artifacts in chronological and/or developmental order following the principle "like goes with like." (Renfrew and Bahn, 25, 121) Typology obviously relies on the presence of many similar artifacts, frequently pottery. Evolving pottery style was used to classify periods in pre-dynastic Egypt.

The first type of archaeological dating to not use sequences, cross-cultural comparisons, or written records was radiocarbon dating. Willard Libby discovered this process in 1949, (Renfrew and Bahn, 35) based on the fact that radioactive decay occurs at a regular rate in organic remains. Therefore, one can measure how much radiocarbon is left in a sample and relate this amount to the rate of decay to determine the age of the sample. (Renfrew and Bahn, 138) Radiocarbon dating can be used anywhere in the world where remains of organic origin are present, and can determine dates for remains up to 50,000 years old. (Renfrew and Bahn, 144)

Dendochronology, or tree-ring dating, is another "absolute" technique, but it is much more limited in scope than radiocarbon dating. Sequences going hundreds, even thousands of years back from the present can be formulated by matching growth ring sequences of living trees of different ages and old preserved timber. Rings from different trees can be matched because the ring size and character is determined by environmental conditions, so a given year will cause the growth of similar rings in many trees. Dendochronology can be so accurate that it is often used to check and correct radiocarbon dates. (Renfrew and Bahn, 135) It is also possible to correlate sequences from distant locations through large-scale events such as volcanic eruptions, large meteorites, tsunamis, and earthquakes. (Renfrew and Bahn, 161) These events can leave evidence in the archaeological record over wide areas, and are thus useful for statigraphic sequence correlation. The most reliable method of dating is usually a process of interconnecting stratigraphic sequences with information from absolute dating techniques. (Renfrew and Bahn, 118)

Radiometric and other "absolute dating" techniques revolutionized archaeology's understanding of time. The interpretation of time, as well as the type of measurement used, needs to be adapted to the period being studied. When one begins to formulate chronologies, the question of when to date from comes up. The convention of CE (Common Era) and BCE (before the Common Era) are now used for most dates within the past ten thousand years. Therefore, BCE is used to express the dates of the ancient Egyptian civilization, ranging from roughly 5000 BCE to 332 BCE. This system is simple to understand for most Westerners, because BCE corresponds to Before Christ (BC) and CE corresponds to Anno Domini (AD). For many prehistoric dates, the convention of Before Present (BP) is used. Since the present is ever changing, 1950 has been fixed as the "present date" because it is roughly when the radiocarbon dating technique was invented. The number of years off (currently 55) does not make a difference within the huge time scale. BP is used for Paleolithic periods (for example, the Paleolithic Period in Egypt was 700,000 BP to 7000 BP). (Renfrew and Bahn, 118)

There are problems with radiocarbon and other scientific dating techniques, including poor precision (dates can sometimes be off by many centuries or even millennia), or lack of accuracy caused by taking a sample that is contaminated or from the wrong context. (Renfrew and Bahn, 117) Despite the scientific nature of these dating techniques, results cannot be viewed as the "truth." The archaeologist must interpret which methods are the most useful and trustworthy for the situation.

Before radiometric dating, establishing a date was one of the main end products of archaeological research about a particular site, and it often took large amounts of time and effort to determine. With new scientific technology, dating is rapid and archaeologists are free to ask more challenging questions about the site being studied. The so-called "New Archaeology" movement seeks to explain rather than describe, using the scientific method and logical arguments, rather than relying on the subjective authority of the scholar. (Renfrew and Bahn, 38) Archaeologists are moving beyond the old focus on typology and classification. Michel Foucault, in Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines argues that classifications are inherently subjective, even arbitrary because they are created by humans and hence are just constructions based on culture and language. One must recognize that there is not just one true order to be found. Foucault defines modernity as "an archaeology," referring to an investigation or questioning. (Foucault, 13) Contemporary processual archaeology indeed focuses much more on asking questions and studying possible solutions using the model of the scientific method, rather than the old "piecing together a puzzle" conception. Foucault also points out that humans have a tendency to search for continuity when there's often none ("tout cette quasi-continuité au niveau des idées et des thèmes n'est sans doute qu'un effet du surface"). (Foucault, 14) His analysis, although not directly related to the field of archaeology, reminds us that much of archaeology is a subjective construction.

During the past 30 or so years, a movement called evolutionary archaeology has developed. Its followers, who are influenced by Darwin's theory of biological evolution, emphasize cultural evolution found in the archaeological record. Some archaeologists find the concept of "memes" or "Cultural Viruses" useful for analyzing the development of trends in the archaeological record. The concept of lineage, defined as "a temporal line of change owing its existence to heritability" is taken from Darwin's theory and applied to cultural traditions--the inheritance of cultural traits. (Renfrew and Bahn, 474) The concept of punctuated equilibria, taken from the current scholarship on biological evolution, can also be applied to cultural evolution present in the archaeological record. Punctuated equilibria is when a long time passes with very little change, followed by a short period of rapid evolutionary progress. This concept is useful for explaining very quick changes in cultural patterns, which can be puzzling when found in the archaeological record. (Renfrew and Bahn, 494)

The division between prehistory and history is a very important one in archaeology, because the presence of writing (which defines the emergence of "history") has a dramatic effect on archaeological interpretation. Historical chronologies can be very useful for archaeologists; however they must be approached and analyzed with care. Some ancient chronologies used complex calendars while others measured time by dynasty, king year, or amount of time since the foundation of the city or other institution. Determining the accuracy of ancient accounts of the passage of time is always a problem, especially if the only records remaining are from after the end of the civilization in question.

Egyptian chronologies compiled by modern scholars make use of the approaches that have been introduced: relative dating through stratigraphic excavation and sequence dating of artifacts, and absolute dating through calendrical and astronomical records from ancient texts as well as and radiometric methods. (Shaw, 2) Radiometric dating has been especially useful for dating Egyptian prehistory. It is not so useful for dating more recent periods, because the margin of error that results from radiometric techniques is larger than the error from historical records. (Shaw, 3)

The chronology we have of ancient Egypt is divided into three kingdoms: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom (with intermediate periods), which are further divided into 31 dynasties, each with a variable number of kings. Manetho, a third century BCE Egyptian priest, wrote the first Western style history of Egypt, his Aegytiaca. He separated the history of Egypt into dynasties made up of rulers linked through kinship or location of the main residence. Manetho probably used the Palermo Stone (royal annals that go back to mythical rulers), "day-books," king lists and other annals inscribed on temple walls, and papyri from temple and palace archives to formulate his chronology. (Shaw, 4) His work listed only the king's names and their reign length, not specific dates. Another problematic aspect is that his history only survives in the form of excerpts compiled by later authors. The current chronology of ancient Egypt is a synthesis of Manetho's history, king lists, dated records of astronomical observations, and reliefs and stelae with inscriptions referring to historical events. (Shaw, 5) The Turin Royal Cannon is a particularly useful king list from the 13th century BCE. (Shaw, 7) The dates in our current chronology were determined by beginning with a previously known date--the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE--and working backwards. Therefore, New Kingdom dates are accurate to within a few years, while Old Kingdom dates may be off by up to 200 years.

Astronomy can be used to help refine dates. The ancient Egyptians kept record of when astronomical events took place, and modern astronomy can determine the exact dates of these events, so merged together they serve as benchmarks for refining the entire chronology. (Renfrew and Bahn, 129) In particular, the Egyptians recorded the heliacal rising of the dog-star Sirius, which they correlated with the beginning of their solar year. This information serves as a linchpin for the reconstruction of the Egyptian calendar and larger chronology. (Shaw, 8-9)

Despite its seeming cohesiveness, the chronology of ancient Egypt reveals very little about how the ancient Egyptians experienced and conceptualized time. The system of political division does not take into account social or cultural change. Cultural change was only sometimes linked with political change. Gradual socio-economic change was frequently more significant for the people living through the period than short-term political change. (Shaw, 2) There were many continuities between different periods which mean that our political chronology may have meant little to the ancient Egyptians. (Shaw, 13) There also continue to be uncertainties about the political chronology due to the unreliability of Manetho, the presence or absence of co-regencies, and other problems determining correct regnal lengths. (Shaw, 11) For example, many Old Kingdom dates refer to the number of biennial cattle censuses, rather than the number of years the current king had reigned, leading to confusion over reign length. (Shaw, 5) With its numerous problems and uncertainties, the political chronology of ancient Egypt cannot be viewed as an expression of how the Egyptians experienced the passage of time. We must expand our understanding by examining the Egyptian conception of time.

The records that the ancient Egyptians left were not designed as historical narrative. For example, king lists were used for the purpose of ancestor worship, not as a catalog to keep track of their "history." (Shaw, 7) Reliefs in royal mortuary temples depicted the successes of the king, whether real or imaginary. (Shaw, 15) The events recorded were those that were important to the Egyptians: cult ceremonies, building projects, warfare, and the Nile inundation. Hydraulic and climactic changes were very important to the ancient Egyptians, because the level of the Nile inundation determined the agricultural yield and the economic situation throughout the year. (Shaw, 5) Objects such as funerary stelae and votive palettes bore inscriptions that commemorated (not narrated) royal acts. (Shaw, 3) During the Old Kingdom, years were named after an important event that occurred during the time. Reliefs depicted events with standardized, mythical images. For example, an image of the king smiting a cowering enemy was used to symbolize warfare, and Egypt was always shown winning, even if the armies lost or did not fight at all. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, the lines between actual historical event and mythological or ritual event were blurred. (Shaw, 4) Accurate history was not of any use to the ancient Egyptians. Kingship is an important example of how ancient Egyptians combined the actual and the mythical. One of the king's titles was nesu-bit, which means a combination of the unchanging, divine king (the idea of kingship) and the current ephemeral, mortal holder of the title (the individual king in power at a certain point in time). (Shaw, 7) The accession of a new king was viewed as a new beginning. The dates started over using the system of regnal years--the date was the number of years since the accession of the current king. Each individual king reworked the same universal myths and rituals of kingship within the events of his own time. (Shaw, 6)

The ancient Egyptians viewed time as cyclical and associated it with the journey of the sun god. They believed that each night, after the sun set, the sun god would pass through the 12 hours of the netherworld, before emerging on the eastern horizon completely rejuvenated. During this period, time ran backwards so that the sun god, who had aged over the course of the day, would get younger during the night and reemerge as a child. (Robins, 122) In representations of the sun god's passage through the 12 hours of the night, he is shown passing through the body of a snake, or sometimes the body of the sky-goddess Nut. An endless snake or a rope being pulled from the mouth of a deity represented time and infinity. Stars were also used to symbolize the passage of units of time. (Shaw, 437) The king associated himself with the self-regenerating sun god by participating in sed-festivals given by the deities. The sed-festival was composed of rituals for the renewal of the king, and took place after he had ruled for 30 years. The king expected to merge with the sun god after his death and join this deity in his journey of cyclical renewal. (Robins, 122) The ancient Egyptians did recognize a point of creation, where the primordial mound emerged from the swamp of chaos, as well as an end point in time with return to the original chaos. (Robins, 206) They did not necessarily believe in fate like the ancient Greeks did, but everything in their lives was placed within their mythical context, so life naturally followed known patterns.

The discipline of archaeology is both a science and humanity. The story told by archaeologists makes use of scientific data, yet there is a huge amount of subjective analysis required to formulate the story of a civilization. Much work has gone into putting together a comprehensive chronology of ancient Egypt, using historical records, stratigraphic information, and radiometric data. However, this chronology is insufficient, because it reflects only political change and neglects social and cultural phenomena. The ancient Egyptians did not view history as a progression of kings who each accomplished something new; they saw time as cyclical and kings as semi-divinities who fulfilled mythical duties. Time must be understood beyond the linear, Western conception. Only when one combines the historical and scientific information presented in a chronology with an understanding of the Egyptian conception of time can one begin to comprehend the Egyptian civilization. As scientific archaeological techniques develop, archaeologists should remember that they are also working within a humanity and are able to use subjective material to construct their story of the passage of time.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Les mots et les choses : Une archéologie des sciences humaines. Gallimard, 1966.
Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. New York: A Harvest Book, 1928.

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