Technicolor Dreams

My colleague Rod passes on a link to an exhibition of colour photographs from Czarist Russia. Produced by taking three plates with coloured filters, the resulting pictures are projected back with the same filters, producing images that are incredibly vibrant. I guess I tend to visualize the 19th and early 20th centuries as drab and dull, because all the pictures are in black and white. These pictures are almost shocking in the intensity of their colours.


As I’ve written before, one of my abiding interests is cryptohistory. Unfortunately, like many of my interests (hmm), this area draws more than its fair share of loonies of the Von Daniken ilk. However, there is some good stuff available in the great mass of chaff.

Teetering on the very edge of the Ancient Astronaut abyss is Graham Hancock, an explorer who has written several books and produced several television specials on various topics. He started out investigating the Ark of the Covenant, tracing it to a church in Ethiopia whose priests wouldn’t let him in to verify his theory. That’s the main problem with Hancock — he assembles a lot of provacative and frankly seductive evidence, but never quite seems to be able to get to the payoff.

Later he delved into some of the more intriguing areas of ancient cryptohistory: the medieval Portolano maps, which seem to show Antarctica (then undiscovered by Europeans) and coastlines as they would have appeared during the last Ice Age; the remarkable astronomical knowledge (in particular with reference to the precession of the equinoxes) of ancient cultures; stories of a great flood from around the world; ancient megalithic structures, including some in South America that seem to depict animals extinct since prehistoric times. The conclusion is obviously that there existed an advanced seafaring culture far earlier than our histories record.

So Hancock has spent many years diving for clues that may yet remain in coastal waters, evidence of this hypothetical culture. Unfortunately he’s only been able to show pictures of vaguely geometric boulders and such. The big payoff would be carved materials or writing, of course, of which there is a conspicuous lack. There is one aspect of his stuff that remains intriguing, though. There is still a very large continent that remains unexplored by our historical tradition — Antarctica. It’s a howling wasteland of ice now, but evidence indicates that it was much warmer in past times. It would be interesting indeed to see what’s under all that ice.

Unfortunately Hancock has taken up with the Masonic conspiracy theorists (the subject of my previous post) and become predictable.

More firmly grounded in history and academia is David Rohl, whose New Chronology proposes a shakeup in the timeline of the ancient Near East, especially with reference to the use of the Bible as source material. As modern archeology developed over the past century, it became increasingly clear that there was very little correspondence between the archeological record and the Bible until late in the Divided Kingdom period, when the Biblical history could be compared to newly-discovered Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian archives.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are obviously legendary, preserving only dimly the memory of actual events or historical trends in a tapestry of didactic parable and metaphor. But after that the account becomes pretty prosaic, and it was disappointing to find that at the time of the Israelite conquest of Canaan Jericho had been in ruins for 300 years, there was only a gradual influx of Israelites, and that the grand and wealthy reign of Solomon was supposed to have taken place during the early Iron Age, a singularly impoverished era, if the remains of the material culture is any indication. The “Minimalist” school of Near-Eastern archeology went so far as to assign David and Solomon to the shadowy mist of legend.

The standard chronology was tied to one correspondence: I Kings records that an Egyptian Pharaoh named “Shishak” attacked Jerusalem during the reign of King Rehoboam. This is dated to around 925 BC by counting Israelite Kings back from well-attested Assyrian archives a few generations later. It was traditionally assumed that this was the Pharaoh Sheshonq I, of the twenty-second dynasty. This assumption established the Egyptian chronology and with it much of the structure of dating for the ancient Near East, including the dating for technological periods, e.g. the various Bronze and Iron ages. In this chronology, we find Hebrews in Canaan (the “Habiru” of the El-Amarna letters) when they are supposed to be (in the Bible) in Egypt, and vice versa; Jericho is destroyed long before the Israelites show up in Canaan, Solomon reigns in a period devoid of trade and architecture, etc.

But what if that assumption was wrong?

David Rohl proposes that the traditional chronology of the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period, and thus the entire traditional chronology of the ancient Near East, is off by up to 300 years. The Third Intermediate Period traditionally runs from 945-715 BC. It was a rather chaotic period with Libyans invading Egypt and ruling, so the account of which pharaoh ruled what when is already somewhat confused. Note that the dates for Biblical events remain unchanged; it is the dates for Egyptian pharaohs and the technological ages that are shifted forward to fill the 300-year New Intermediate Period. Thus if a pharaoh like Ramesses the Great is traditionally thought to have ruled around 1200 BC, the New Chronology has him reigning around 900BC.

Rohl’s argument has many factors, many highly technical; I’ll only summarize a few of them (read his book A Test of Time for the whole deal):

  • The campaigns ascribed in the Bible to “Shishak” and in Egyptian records to “Sheshonq” seem very different. The Bible describes Shishak attacking Jerusalem and other cities in Judah, while in the Egyptian account Sheshonq attacks a completely different set of cities and indeed stays well clear of Jerusalem.
  • There is an Egyptian record of a pharaoh attacking Jerusalem and other cities which matches much better with the “Shishak” account. That pharaoh is Ramesses the Great. The traditional chronology places him about 1200 BC, around the time of the Hebrew Exodus. However, in the New Chronology, he shows up around 900, which, unsurprisingly, is about when Rehoboam reigned in Judah.
  • Now the Asiatic presence in the Nile Delta has moved forward from the first to the second half of the second millennium BC, just when the Bible has the Israelites in Egypt. In fact, there is evidence of a plague, mass graves and complete abandonment of the Delta at just the same time as the Israelite Exodus.
  • Now the destruction of Jericho comes right after the Exodus, and it fits the Biblical story in every detail, from the broken-down walls to the burned grain in the houses. In fact, at this time we now have a wave of destroyed cities across Canaan just when the Biblical conquest occurrs.
  • Even better, the Early Bronze Age has moved up to encompass the reign of Solomon. The Early Bronze Age is characterized by massive building projects, wide-spread international trade, and general wealth and prosperity, just as described in the Bible.

So Rohl’s investigations have proved much more satisfying than Hancock’s. There is in fact an archeological dig in Avaris, in the Nile Delta, which has uncovered an Egyptian palace built on top of a typical Syrian dwelling. In the palace is a statue of a Syrian man of great importance. On the cover of A Test of Time Rohl has dressed him in a coat of many colours.

And in the El-Amarna letters (a collection of diplomatic correspondence between the Pharaoh Akhenaten and various petty kings of the Near East), we find an intriguing set of letters from one “Labayu”, the “Lion of God”, whose letters are written in a very strange kind of Akkadian (the thousand-year-old language of diplomacy) which turns out to be almost pure Biblical Hebrew. This name is not attested in the Bible, but there are intriguing references in the Psalms to the “Labaim” — “great lions” — the soldiers of King Saul, who were pursuing David.

It turns out that Labayu is a king in the highlands of Canaan who is a threat to the coastal Philistine city-states. They request aid from Pharoah, but Labayu remains arrogant: “Does not even an ant when struck bite the hand that struck it?” Then it seems that some Habiru, or “wanderers, outlaws” have joined the Philistines against Labayu. Finally, there is a grand alliance against Labayu, after which we hear from him no more. But the Habiru who were in league with the Philistines rise up against them, now on the side of Labayu’s sons. To anyone who grew up on the stories of Saul, who united the Israelites against the Philistines only to drive his adopted son into their ranks, this gives a delightful frisson. To think that we might be given a glimpse back three thousand years and find that the old Bible stories were true!

Note that the New Chronology is still highly controversial in the academy, with much discussion still ongoing. In his later books Rohl delves deeper and wider into the correspondences between the more legendary parts of the Biblical story, Egyptian and Sumerian mythology, and much else. It’s obviously more speculative, but intriguing nonetheless.