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Dating and Chronology in the Middle East

28 September 2010

A conference on archaeoastronomy at Tartu in Estonia in 2002 had a paper by Goran Henriksson on the ‘absolute chronology’ of the ancient near east which is framed around a solar eclipse in 763BC as seen from Nineveh. Earlier epochs rely on astronomical dating as provided by the Venus Tablets of Ammisaduqa, 10th king of the First Dynasty of Babylon – to a lesser degree nowadays but certainly a factor in the Low Chronology, for example. In this paper Henriksson dates the above dynasty by a previously unidentifed total solar eclipse mentioned in a text. The calculations were performed by a computer programme developed by the author of the paper. He claims a total solar eclipse in 1558BC was used as an omen shortly preceding an attack by the Hittite king Mursilis I. The problem with this is that the attack by Mursilis is open to a certain amount of conjecture and appears to have been inserted into the Babylonian source at a much later date – hundreds of years afterwards. Henriksson however is confident enough in the synchronism and associates it with a destruction layer at Babylon – which may only apply to fires in a few houses. It is quite feasible it had nothing to do with a Hittite raid – but Henriksson’s arguments are astronomical. His realigned chronology pushes back the Low Chronology by some 24 years and dates Hammurabi 1752-10BC and Shamsi Adad 1777-48BC, which agrees with a dendrochronological derived date from timber of a temple built in 1752BC and accredited to the Assyrian king. He suggests the first year of Ammisaduqa was in 1606BC. However, this implies the low growth tree ring event of 1628-5BC took place in the reign of his forebear – although the sky could still have been dust laden and observation of the orbit of Venus may have been impaired as a result of that, which may account for anomalies in the visibilities of Venus as recorded on the tablets.

In the revision of Barry Curnock and others a date for the Hittites at such an early period is problematical, and indeed all Henriksson has really done is look around for eclipses that might fit into the conventional framework of chronology – and he has found them. For example, he has another eclipse during Ur III and several other astronomical synchronisms that appear to match up.

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