Dendrochronological Dating
of the Uluburun Ship

by Dr.Cemal Pulak

Orginally published in the INA Quarterly, Spring 1995
Volume 23 - No. 1, Spring 1996

A key question for the proper interpretation of the Uluburun Shipwreck is obviously the date of the ship. The artifacts studied until now yielded only a relative date within the Late Bronze Age, specifically Late Helladic IIIA:2. However, recent developments toward refining the Mediterranean master tree-ring sequence allow determining an absolute date for some Uluburun finds with considerable certainty. This, in turn, has enormous implications for Eastern Mediterranean chronology.

Ceramics sequences in the Mediterranean have been established with some precision. The Bronze Age has been divided into Early, Middle, and Late. Late Bronze Age corresponds to the Mycenaean era on the Greek mainland, known a s Late Helladic (LH), and the Late Minoan (LM) on Crete. The final phase, LH III, is subdivided into A, B, and C. These sequences allow determining the relative date of an archaeological locus on the basis of the pottery type(s) found there. They also give a general indication of absolute date. LH IIIA (including both IIIA:l and IIIA:2) roughly corresponds to the l4th century B.C., IIIB to the l3th, and IIIC to the l2th and part of the llth century.

The sequence of events in Egypt is well known because scribes kept detailed lists of the regnal years of their kings. At the end of the l8th Dynasty, the long reign of Amenhotep III was followed by the 16-year rule of Amenhotep IV (who changed his name to Akhenaten and moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna). Akhenaten was briefly succeeded by Tutankhamun (who transferred the capital to Memphis in his third regnal year), after possibly others, before his family died out. The general Horemheb (who demolished Aznarna) reigned for about 28 years before Ramses I founded the l9th Dynasty. This established framework allows the estimation of absolute dates throughout the era if just one fixed date can be determined. However, there has been considerable scholarly disagreement concerning chronology.

There are several competing systems for dating events in the second millennium. These differ both in the way they synchronize events in Egyptian history with periods in the pottery sequence, and in the absolute dates they assign to these events. A synchronism between Akhenaten, the l8th Dynasty rulers who succeeded him, a nd the LH IIIA:2 to IIIB:1 period is suggested by the quantities of LH IIIA:2, and to a lesser extent of the newer style IIIB:l, pottery found a t Amarna. The "high" chronologies would date Akhenaten's death as early as 1360 B.C., "middle:" chronologies around 1347, the most common "low" chronologies around 1336, and "ultra-low" chronologies a s late as 1324. Until now, there has been no published evidence for dating any of the LH IIIB:1 pottery at Amarna more precisely than to the period from Akhenaten to Horemheb, inclusive.

What, if anything, does the Uluburun material tell us about Eastern Mediterranean relative and absolute chronologies? The ceramics, jewelry, and wood provide invaluable evidence. J. Rutter, who is studying the Mycenaean pottery from Uluburun for publication, notes the chronological homogeneity of the assemblage and dates it to the LH IIIA:2 period. Although Rutter has yet to personally examine the pottery, some of which is still in need of cleaning, he further notes that none of the Uluburun vessels appears to have any morphological or decorative features that require a LH IIIB:l dating. Since the pottery on the shipwreck shows the developed characteristics of LH IIIA:2, but not of LH IIIB:l, it must predate the transition between the two styles that occurred toward the end of the brief occupation of Amarna (assuming that the Mycenaean pottery from the wreck is representative of its time and was not a collection consisting exclusively of heirlooms).

The unique gold scarab of Egypt's Queen Nefertiti, Akhenaten's beloved wife, appears to be fairly worn from use, which suggests that it had been around for some time before it was taken on board the ship. Furthermore, it may have been part of a jeweler's hoard, as it was discovered in the midst of complete, cut, and folded jewelry pieces and other bits of scrap precious metals. If the scarab was a part of the scrap hoard, which is debatable, it almost certainly arrived on the ship after Nefertiti's time, when her scarab would have been worthless except for its gold value. Before the death of Akhenaten (or at latest the removal of the capital to Memphis), a scarab of the Queen would have been a venerated object unlikely to be discarded. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that the scarab would have long survived the eradication of all references to Akhenaten's family under Horemheb without being melted down.

In the hope of obtaining an absolute date for the ship, seven wood samples taken from the keel-plank, planking, and cedar logs were submitted to Peter Kuniholm of Comell University for dendrochronological dating. While some samples did not have a sufficient number of tree rings to match the established master sequence, others with more rings appeared not to match at all. A large log-like piece of undetermined purpose, but with its outer layers trimmed, yielded a date of 1441 B.C. ±37 years, the uncertainty factor arising from the carbon dating of samples constituting the floating master conifer-ring sequence. A small log or branch, presumably fresh-cut firewood, however, yielded a date of 1356 B.C. ±37 years, with an additional unmeasurable ring on the exterior. Kuniholm further reports that recent calibration curves, along with several other factors, allow for the modification of these dates by shifting the entire floating sequence to the extreme recent end of the ±37 years. This would then date the most recent sample on the wreck to 1319 ±2 B.C. or 1318 ±2 B.C., after taking into account the unmeasurable ring. It would appear, therefore, that the ship sank sometime after that date, but probably not much later.

If the scarab, the collection of Mycenaean pottery from the wreck, and the absolute sinking date are addressed in concert, they bear important implications for Aegean chronology. The evidence indicates a relative date for the sinking of the Uluburun ship very near the end of LH IIIA:2 and within a few years, or at most decades, after the death of Akhenaten. The shipwreck thus provides a very valuable synchronism between the pottery sequence and the kings list. The evidence supports moving the date of the LH IIIB:l pottery at Amarna forward from Akhenaten's time to nearer the end of the l8th Dynasty.

Of equal importance is that dendrochronology gives an absolute date for the synchronization point in 1318 B.C., or shortly after, which narrows to approximately 1320-1295 B.C. the possible range of dates for the LH IIIA to IIIB transition, and rules out the "high" chronologies and favors the lower chronologies for Egyptian history. Thus, INA's Uluburun excavation will provide crucial assistance in dating events in New Kingdom Egypt and throughout the wide distribution range of Mycenaean ceramics.