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Egypt wasn't built in a day, but it did rise quickly

New timeline of ancient civilization's earliest days finds little time between earliest villages and dominant centralized state

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One of the world’s most successful ancient civilizations didn’t take long to form. A new study assigns precise dates to ancient Egypt’s earliest years and finds that the transition from widely dispersed, small communities to a centralized state with powerful rulers took centuries less than previously thought.

“This is the first comprehensive study of this period that’s ever been accomplished,” says Sturt Manning, an archaeologist at Cornell University who was not involved in the research. “It’s dramatically changing views over how states form.”

Ancient Egypt has captivated scientists for centuries because of its advanced technology, sophisticated writing system and intricate bureaucracy. Researchers know of monarchs’ identities and the society they ruled thanks to the recovery of many artifacts. But the dates of these rulers’ reigns and other major events are fuzzy prior to the construction of the first pyramids around 2700 B.C. To chart the civilization’s rise, scientists have relied on a relative sequence developed in 1899 that is based on the artistic styles of ceramics uncovered from tombs.

The new study, published in the Sept. 4 Proceedings of the Royal Society A, assigns precise dates to that chronology based on statistical analysis of data collected from about 150 artifacts. First, chronologist Michael Dee of the University of Oxford in England and colleagues called up museums and acquired dozens of reeds, textiles, hairs and bones found in burial sites predating the pyramids. They broke off small pieces, dating each using radiocarbon methods. The researchers also gathered previously published radiocarbon dating data on nearly 100 other artifacts.

Unfortunately, radiocarbon dating alone can’t do the job — it has a margin of error of as much as 300 years. But Dee and his team had a second data set to help them narrow the time range for the artifacts in the form of the 1899 chronology: The researchers knew the chronological order of the samples, and they could safely assume that artifacts uncovered from the same tomb were roughly the same age.

Dee’s team relied on statistics to assemble these clues into reliable dates. They plugged the data into a computer algorithm, which came up with millions of possibilities for dates that matched all the criteria. For each set of artifacts that were roughly the same age, most of those possibilities coalesced around a specific range of dates, allowing the researchers to come up with estimates they were confident of.

For the most part, the results were consistent with previous approximations. But two dates stood out: 3700 B.C. and 3100 B.C. for, respectively, the first permanent agricultural villages and the assumption of power by the first monarch, Aha. The researchers conclude that Egypt took only 600 years to evolve from a migrating population of cattle owners to a centralized state.

Many Egyptologists had thought that span was hundreds of years longer. Dee says the study challenges scientists to determine how Egyptians could have settled into villages, adopted agriculture, developed writing and sacrificed local interests for the good of the state in such a short period.

The computer also pushed back the date for the development of writing in Egypt to around 3200 B.C. This date is similar to the estimate of 3500-3400 B.C. for the earliest evidence of writing in nearby Mesopotamia, which is based on radiocarbon dating of a single sample. Archaeologists want to determine when and where writing first developed in the Middle East, and whether one civilization adopted writing from another.

John Baines, an Egyptologist at Oxford who was not involved in the study, says that the dates aren’t perfect — for example, the researchers estimate that one king ruled for 20 or so years, while historical evidence strongly suggests he ruled for at least double that. But he says the study gives archaeologists more confidence in the timeline of early Egypt’s development.

Combined with their 2010 Science paper that used the same methods to examine the dates of ancient Egypt’s golden age, Dee and colleagues’ new study creates a 2,600-year timeline of the civilization that includes the reigns of famous pharaohs like Ramesses the Great.

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