Online Review: Book

Tree-Rings, Kings, and Old World Archaeology and Environment: Papers Presented in Honor of Peter Ian Kuniholm

Sturt W. Manning and Mary Jaye Bruce, eds.


Reviewed by Felix Höflmayer

Pp. xxi + 332, b&w figs. 51, color figs. 84, tables 44, plans 11, maps 24. Oxbow, Oxford 2009. $100. ISBN 978-1-84217-386-2 (cloth).

This book assembles more than 25 papers presented in honor of Peter Ian Kuniholm, former head of the Cornell Dendro Lab, now the Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Laboratory for Aegean and Near Eastern Dendrochronology.

Peter Kuniholm devoted his life to dendrochronological research and established an Anatolian tree-ring sequence, which today covers more than 1,500 years, being of utmost importance for chronological discussions of the entire Near East. The papers in this volume concentrate mostly on dendrochronology and its implications on our understanding of history and human behavior, ranging from Anatolia to the Aegean but also including central Europe and the Balkans. Other papers discuss current issues in the chronological debate, especially the absolute date of the Santorini eruption.

Three papers discuss various issues concerning the site of Gordion, which was of special importance for Kuniholm's work, as well as for Anatolian dendrochronology in general. Muhly describes the reluctance of archaeologists in accepting the contribution of dendrochronology by giving an overview of the work done in Gordion and also discussing consequences of dendro dating, especially a possible higher chronology for Phrygia and its implication for dating Protogeometric Greece. A detailed account of the chronology of Phrygian Gordian is given by Voigt, who also illustrates the pitfalls when trying to squeeze archaeological data into preexisting historical schemes. Müller-Karpe, by comparing tree rings with historical changes, shows that the rise of the Hittite empire coincides with enhanced environmental conditions in the first half of the second millennium B.C.E., whereas narrower tree rings during the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E. suggest more challenging environmental conditions, which might have contributed to the decline and final collapse of the Hittite empire in Anatolia. Touchan and Hughes discuss prospects of reconstructing past climates via dendrochronological research, especially in the Mediterranean, whereas Griggs and others report on Cornell's work on a regional oak tree-ring chronology for northern Turkey, which currently covers 1081–2004 C.E. Also referring to more recent times, Brandes reports on a Pinus nigra chronology to explain widespread fir diebacks on the Hellenic peninsula during the second half of the 20th century C.E.

Further contributions on Anatolian archaeology include a report by Luke and Roosevelt on the Central Lydia Archaeological Survey around the Gygaean Lake and a discussion by Summers about the possibilities and limitations of new approaches to archaeology, such as remote sensing and GIS analysis on the example of the central Anatolian Iron Age site of Kerkenes.

Other papers discuss various aspects and applications of dendrochronology. Dean gives a valuable overview on the origins and developments of tree-ring dating from its beginnings in the North American southwest and comments on current trends and future possibilities of dendrochronological research. Baillie compares markers for global climate events in ice-cores and tree-ring sequences and questions the precision of ice-core dating in general (see also M.G.L. Baillie, "Volcanoes, Ice-Cores and Tree-Rings: One Story or Two?" Antiquity 84 [2010] 202–15). Wazny reports on recent attempts to link the Mediterranean oak tree-ring pattern to European dendrochronology and shows how the Alps seem to separate climatic conditions, while the Carpathian Mountains seem to link northern and southern (i.e., European and Mediterranean) climatic systems, a phenomenon also reported in the contribution of Durman and others describing tree-ring sequences from a Late Roman bridge at Celeia (today Celje, Slovenia). Contributions on central European archaeology and dendrochronology include a report by Pezzo on a new 117-year tree-ring sequence from a wooden building housing vats and barrels found at Rosslauf near the city of Brixen in South Tyrol (Italy) and a paper by Billamboz, describing what can be considered "the first application of dendrochronology in Central Europe" (33) at Wasserburg Buchau, a Late Bronze Age fortified settlement in southwestern Germany.

The main topic of this book, however, is the discussion about absolute dates for Aegean Bronze Age chronology and especially the Santorini eruption. Doumas summarizes the history of high and low chronology in the Aegean Bronze Age and points to the methodological problem comparing radiocarbon dates from the Aegean with the text-based historical chronology of Egypt, a problem that can now be overcome thanks to the new radiocarbon model for dynastic Egypt recently published by Bronk Ramsey and colleagues, which shows that, at least for dynastic Egypt, there is no fundamental discrepancy between radiocarbon data and the historical chronology (C. Bronk Ramsey et al., "Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic Egypt," Science 328 [2010] 1554–57).

The main arguments for a high Aegean chronology are summarized and discussed in great detail in the contributions of Manning, Friedrich, and others (cf. W.L. Friedrich et al., "Santorini Eruption Radiocarbon Dated to 1627–1600 B.C.," Science 312 [2006] 548; S. Manning et al., "Chronology for the Aegean Late Bronze Age 1700–1400 B.C.," Science 312 [2006] 565–69). Based on short-lived dates from all over the Aegean spanning Late Minoan (LM) IA up to LM II and on the famous branch of an olive tree, the Santorini eruption should date to the second half of the 17th century B.C.E.

Nevertheless, the reliability of this evidence is questioned by Wiener. He comments on the method of radiocarbon dating, addressing issues such as inter-lab differences, decadal vs. single-year calibration, intra-year seasonal differences, volcanic vents, and other possible causes for radiocarbon offsets. However, he has to conclude that at least data for LM IB destructions on Crete ca. 1450 B.C.E. apparently "are consistent with the historically well-established chronology" (286). Wiener further cites (still unpublished) radiocarbon dates from the site of Tell el-Dab'a as evidence that "some radiocarbon determinations produce accurate chronological dates, and others do not" (279), and he briefly summarizes the archaeological arguments for a low chronology, putting much emphasis on the occurrence of the famous White Slip I bowl from Thera, dating it (without further arguments) "before c. 1560 BC" (279), referring also to the occurrence of Cypriot pottery wares at key sites in Egypt and the Levant.

New radiocarbon data for Middle Helladic Lerna, which contributes to the ongoing discussion, is presented by Voutsaki and colleagues, apparently supporting a high chronology, as all dates for Middle Helladic III fall before 1700 B.C.E. (cf. also the dates for the beginning of Late Helladic [LH] I in the new Aegina Kolonna sequence, also supporting a high chronology: Wild et al., "14C Dating of the Early to Late Bronze Age Stratigraphic Sequence of Aegina Kolonna, Greece," Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B 268 [2010] 1013–21).

The consistent results of radiocarbon data for the early Late Bronze Age, now also including Lerna and Aegina Kolonna, do indeed present a challenge for the archaeological model, which dates the Santorini eruption after the beginning of the Egyptian New Kingdom (i.e., after ca. 1550 B.C.E.). Many questions raised by Wiener are sufficiently answered by Manning and Friedrich at the end of the volume, and the consistency of the radiocarbon evidence from different sites is indeed thought provoking.

Even further evidence might come from chemical analysis of tree rings. Pearson and Manning show that varying concentrations of certain elements reflect volcanic eruptions. Trees from Turkey and Cyprus show markedly increased concentrations of copper, zinc, and aluminum in 1815 C.E., the year of the Tambora eruption. They also tested relative tree ring 854 of the Anatolian dendrochronology, which tentatively was linked to the Minoan Santorini eruption, dating to 1650 +4/−7 B.C.E. (S. Manning et al., "Anatolian Tree Rings and a New Chronology for the East Mediterranean Bronze-Iron Ages," Science 294 [2001] 2532–35). Sulfur and zinc saw a dramatic increase at this particular ring, indicating a volcanic eruption. However, Hauck and Ünlü, looking for elemental traces of the 1991 Pinatubo eruption in trees of Pinus sylvestris from western Turkey, state more skeptically that "the interpretation of elemental concentration peaks in this study and in tree-rings in general is still uncertain" (117).

Although there are marked differences between archaeological and radiocarbon dates for the early Late Bronze Age, a few centuries later no discrepancies between humanities and science seem to exist. Manning and colleagues offer a new radiocarbon model for the last voyage of the Uluburun shipwreck, which carried goods from the Aegean, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt, including a gold scarab of Queen Nefertiti, wife of King Akhenaten. Based on a wiggle match of the ship's keel used as a terminus post quem for short-lived samples that were found on this ship, the new model results in a most likely date for the last voyage between 1340 and 1289 B.C.E. for the 2σ-range, being perfectly in accordance with historical and scientific data for the reign of Akhenaten. French and Shelton comment in their contribution on the LH IIIA2 pottery found in the Uluburun wreck, citing perfect parallels from Amarna and Mycenae.

Further contributions on Aegean chronology include an overview of different chronological schemes for the Early Bronze Age by Kouka, new results from Liman Tepe for this crucial period, and a new system for measuring variability in the pace of artifactual change through time by Rutter.

Overall, this volume presents an important overview of current research linked to Anatolian dendrochronology and archaeology, with a special focus on Aegean chronology. Together with the recently published proceedings of a conference on the Santorini eruption (D.A. Warburton, ed., Time's Up! Dating the Minoan Eruption of Santorini. Acts of the Minoan Eruption Chronology Workshop, Sandbjerg, November 2007 [Aarhus 2009]), this book is of considerable importance for the ongoing discussion on the absolute chronology of eastern Mediterranean civilizations and should not be absent from archaeological libraries.

Felix Höflmayer
Orient Department
German Archaeological Institute
Podbielskiallee 69-71
14195 Berlin


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