Scientific dating methods for the Greek Early Iron Age

July 3rd, 2017

The following information comes from the authors PhD thesis on Attic Geometric and Orientalising pottery. This is an isolated article that discusses methods of scientific dating in the study of the Greek Early Iron Age. The chart for the high and low Aegean chronologies by Coldsteram (2003c, 254) has been republished under the kind permission of Professor Israel Finkelstein, publisher of Tel Aviv, to whom I own my gratitude.

Scientific dating methods for the Greek Early Iron Age
Because of the convenience in using chronologies established with traditional methods, archaeologists have put little effort in producing absolute chronologies with scientific techniques such as radiocarbon dating (14C). An example that describes this problem comes from the analysis of deposits at Protogeometric Asine (Wells 1983, 28). Even though the calibrated 14C date of c.1050 BC (±90) for Asine’s Phase 1 was in accordance with older absolute chronologies based on synchronisms (e.g. Desborough 1952; 1964), Berit Wells (1983, 124) argued that it did not say anything about the beginning or end of this phase. By contrast, Wells (1983, 124) saw context synchronisms with Cyprus to be more rewarding in establishing an absolute chronology for the beginning of Protogeometric Asine at about c.1075 BC.

Figure 1: High and Low chronologies for the Aegean Late Bronze and Early Iron Age after Coldstream (2003c, 254).

The problems of context synchronisms between Attica, Cyprus and the Levant were revisited by Coldstream (2003c), who produced a chart explaining the differences between high (‘biblical’) and low (conventional) dating of the Aegean Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (Figure 1). Ever since, several studies with the use of Radiocarbon dating (14C) and dendrochronology have contributed in this debate, despite the difficulties in the applications of both techniques.

A major problem in the use of radiocarbon (14C) for dating is the fluctuation (‘wiggling’) of the Stuiver & Pearson (1986; 1993) curve for the period between 800 BC and 400 BC (e.g. Hajdas 2008, 9, fig.5, 16-18), or in other cases, between 750 BC and 400 BC (e.g. Capuzzo et al. 2014, 853). This problem, also referred to as the Hallstatt Plateau, makes it impossible to date anything that falls in between those dates; however it is possible to date artefacts that precede or exceed the above chronological limits.

The first attempts to produce dendrochronologies for the entire Aegean from Bronze Age to present were carried out by Kuniholm & Striker (1987) (revised in Kuniholm 1996). Newton et al. (2003; 2005) and Wardle et al. (2007) combined dendrochronological and radiocarbon dates from Assiros and suggested that the Protogeometric period needed to rise a century earlier than its conventional date at c.1050 BC. The ‘biblical’ date for the Protogeometric was again suggested in a radiocarbon study by Van der Plicht et al. (2009).

Coldstream & Mazar (2003) combined context synchronisms with radiocarbon dating in pottery from Tel Rehov in Jordan, followed by Gilboa & Sharon (2003) and their study from Tel Dor. Both approaches showed limitations either in relation to contexts that were not secure, or in relation to wares that were limited to specific Aegean regions. The conventional (low) dates for the Aegean Submycenaean and Protogeometric were recently verified in a study by Toffolo et al. (2013), which disproved Ruppenstein’s (2007) suggestion that the Submycenaean expanded almost across the entire 11th century BC. The study also rejected Traschel’s (2004; 2008) suggestion for a high-dating of the Protogeometric, placed in the 12th century BC.

Weninger and Jung (2006) used tree-ring 14C-data obtained from Kastanas and concluded that there was near-perfect agreement between the traditional historical-archaeological dates for all Aegean phases between Late Helladic IIIB and Submycenaean, and their calibrated dates. Chronological fine-tuning of finds from Kastanas, Assiros, Tiryns, Tell Kazel and Ugarit, and their association with dendrochronologies from Switzerland and Italy, indicated that the end of the Submycenaean and the beginning of the Protogeometric was to be placed at c.1045 BC ±20 (Weninger & Jung 2009, 393-4, fig.1). However, Wardle et al. (2014) produced radiocarbon dates for timber, plant remains and animal bones from Assiros, and suggested that the earliest phases of the Protogeometric should be placed earlier than c.1120 BC.

The debate between the supporters of high or low radiocarbon chronologies still continues. In the most recent publication, Fantalkin et al. (2015) reject the high-dating by Wardle et al. (2014) by disproving the reliability of the Assiros contexts and the compatibility of the Threan high-chronology that has been followed in their study. Instead, they employ a comparative radiocarbon dating method targeting seven Levatine contexts (Megiddo, Beth Shean, Tell Tweini, Tel Miqne, Tel Hadar, Tel Dor, and Tel Rehov) in relation to Lefkandi and Kalapodi. Their study proves the existing conventional dates suggested by Coldstream (1968, 330), at least until the end of Attic MGI.