New carbon-dating tool could pinpoint ancient eruption, gauge if tied to Exodus

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

A NEW CHRONOLOGY

New carbon-dating tool could pinpoint ancient eruption, gauge if tied to Exodus

Calibration technique aims to show exactly when Thera erupted on Santorini, some 4,000 years ago. Volcanic blast has been linked to rise and fall of civilizations, even the Plagues

  • Assistant professor of dendrochronology Dr. Charlotte Pearson in her lab at the University of Arizona. (Robert D. Demers)
    Assistant professor of dendrochronology Dr. Charlotte Pearson in her lab at the University of Arizona. (Robert D. Demers)
  • Ancient wood sample used by assistant professor of dendrochronology Dr. Charlotte Pearson in her lab at the University of Arizona. (Robert D. Demers)
    Ancient wood sample used by assistant professor of dendrochronology Dr. Charlotte Pearson in her lab at the University of Arizona. (Robert D. Demers)
  • Image of Akrotiri, a Minoan Bronze Age settlement on Greek island of Santorini where the volcano Thera erupted, wiping out the island. (Gretchen Gibbs)
    Image of Akrotiri, a Minoan Bronze Age settlement on Greek island of Santorini where the volcano Thera erupted, wiping out the island. (Gretchen Gibbs)
  • In a May 26, 2018 photo, area residents, the media and national guard flock to what is now the end of Leilani Avenue to take in the fiery show at fissures 2, 7 and 8 of the Kilauea volcano near Pahoa. (George F. Lee/The Honolulu Advertiser via AP)
    In a May 26, 2018 photo, area residents, the media and national guard flock to what is now the end of Leilani Avenue to take in the fiery show at fissures 2, 7 and 8 of the Kilauea volcano near Pahoa. (George F. Lee/The Honolulu Advertiser via AP)
  • The Crossing of the Red Sea by Nicolas Poussin, 1634 (Public Domain)
    The Crossing of the Red Sea by Nicolas Poussin, 1634 (Public Domain)

The ancient eruption of Thera on the Greek island of Santorini has long been a font for popular flights of fancy. The volcano’s devastating blast — volcanic rock has been discovered as far away as Greenland — was thought by Plato to be the source of the famous Greek legend of Atlantis. With black ash-filled skies, pillars of fire, and disastrous tsunamis that may have reached the shores of Egypt, the eruption’s potential fallout is used as “scientific” source material by some theorists to explain the Book of Exodus plagues, and even the parting of the Red Sea.

While these theories do not currently get much mileage in academic circles, the allure and mystery of the very real eruption of Thera is abiding among scholars attempting to pinpoint its actual occurrence. And because it was such a terrifically cataclysmic event in the Mediterranean, if scientists are able to accurately date the blast, other ancient “floating,” or unattributable, dates may fall into place in its wake.

Now, a University of Arizona study on carbon dating methodology could catalyze a shift in the timeline for ancient Mediterranean chronology, and potentially set a firm date for the natural disaster.

In a new article published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances called “Annual radiocarbon record indicates 16th century BCE date for the Thera eruption,” an interdisciplinary team led by dendrochronologist, or tree-ring expert, Dr. Charlotte Pearson attempts to use high-resolution radiocarbon dating methods to firm up the Thera blast, one of the most elusively undated events of the ancient world.

Using the study of tree-rings’ radiocarbon-14 molecules, alongside a new proposed annual radiocarbon calibration curve (as opposed to the current decade-averaging approach), Pearson’s team aims to arrive at a more precise dating for the blast.

Assistant professor of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona Dr. Charlotte Pearson. (Peter Brewer)

This data, along with radiocarbon dates of several organic samples frozen in time immediately preceding the volcano’s eruption, will then be synchronized with archaeological evidence from sites where Thera pumice was discovered, including the Aegean, Egypt, and the Levant — in particular Israel’s Tel Ashkelon and Tel el-Ajjul in Gaza.

The Odeon at Ashkelon was shaped in a semi-circle and probably held either city council meetings or musical events – or both. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am, at Tel Ashkelon)

“What we are trying to do is be part of the global realization that the radiocarbon calibration method is ready for an improvement. Because now the technology is there to measure the radiocarbon in every single tree ring, and we’re just pulling out one treasure from the box — in this instance the carbon-14, and seeing how that can be applied to improve the way we date material in the Mediterranean… and anywhere in the world,” said Pearson, in a video explaining her project.

The Crossing of the Red Sea by Nicolas Poussin, 1634. (Public Domain)

One of the ongoing problems in dating the Thera eruption is that the timings derived from radiocarbon dating and archaeological evidence do not currently match up: The radiocarbon testing of contemporary organic material consistently results in a date of the late 17th century BCE. However, when archaeological evidence is also taken into account, two schools of thought are formed — a “high” or “low” chronology — which place the blast date about 100-150 years apart, from 1650-1500 BCE.

Now Pearson proposes that the calibration curve may be shifted to an annual resolution to resolve the discrepancy.

“We can use the annual precision of tree rings in combination with carbon-14 to underpin some big questions in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations,” said Pearson. “We can look at the tree rings as a timeline and connect with people that lived in the past, and I think that gives us more of a sense of who we are, but also a sense of where we’re going and perhaps ways to deal with some of the issues that we might collectively face.”

How does C-14 dating work?

Radiocarbon testing was developed by an American former Manhattan Project scientist, physicist Willard Libby, as a tool for archaeologists to date ancient organic material in the wake of World War II. In theory, when radioactive atmospheric rays hit nitrogen in the atmosphere, they form radiocarbon, an isotope that is distinctive in that it has eight neutrons and an atomic mass of 14 (thus the term “C-14”).

In the atmosphere, the C-14 is mixed with oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is then “inhaled” by plants through photosynthesis. The plants are ingested by animals and transported through their bodies. When the flora or the fauna die, the C-14 also begins to decay. The smaller the amount of C-14, the older the sample, which is then assigned a date according to a calibration scale.

The current iteration of the calibration scale, called IntCal13, was crystalized in 2013 and is increasingly seen as a not fully reliable measure for assigning dates. The curve is based on securely dated findings taken from trees, usually oaks or conifers, from the northern hemisphere. But a recent study from Cornell University’s Prof. Sturt Manning asks whether these hardy northern trees are a good source or have the same growing patterns as, for example, olive, which is grown in arid regions such as the Levant.

Prof. Sturt Manning coring an example multi-century old Juniperus phoenicea tree near Petra in southern Jordan of the type employed in the Taybet Zaman buildings. (Sturt Manning, Cornell University)

An additional wrinkle, says the new Pearson study, is that the decadal or semi-decadal approach used by most labs today averages and flattens spikes in data. In her study, Pearson pushes for a more high-resolution, single-year focus, instead of taking decades of data and averaging them, so anomalies such as the Thera eruption could be more precisely addressed.

Pearson explained in an email to The Times of Israel that her team attempted to create an annual average plateau from the C-14 records gleaned from individual securely dated tree-rings, such as Irish oak trees and the North American bristlecone pine.

The next stage was to study how annual tree rings’ C-14 readings were affected during “spike” events, and how the calibration curve could be improved to accommodate these one-off occasions.

View of the damage caused by the eruption of the Fuego Volcano in village of San Miguel Los Lotes, in Escuintla Department, about 35 km southwest of Guatemala City, taken on June 5, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Johan ORDONEZ

“Such events have already been shown to have a powerful role as anchor points for synchronizing chronologies. But we also wanted to test, given the large amount of annual data that are now being published, how such data might contribute to the onward improvement of the radiocarbon calibration curve. I.e., is there any point in spending time and money on a lot of annual 14C measurements? Could it help improve calibration?” asked Pearson.

In general, the team found there would not be massive shifts in radiocarbon dating calibration using this annual approach — except for cases of catastrophic events such as the Thera eruption.

A radiocarbon ripple effect

The Thera eruption, the focus of the study, was a “spike” in radiocarbon evidence, and its dating could potentially be improved with an annual calibration — to the benefit of many other ancient Mediterranean chronologies.

“The event has been intensively studied from archaeological and paleoenvironmental perspectives because it provides a geological marker that, if precisely dated, could synchronize Bronze Age histories of the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East and anchor a wide range of contemporary environmental data,” according to the paper.

Assistant professor of dendrochronology Dr. Charlotte Pearson in her lab at the University of Arizona. (Robert D. Demers)

One such example of how dating Thera could influence other cultures is the dating of pharaonic Egypt: It is possible the Thera eruption was noted in contemporary or close-to-contemporary documents found in Thebes.

Recently, new readings of ancient Egyptian inscriptions have led scientists to propose an Egyptian documentation of the disaster. On the Tempest Stela, the Pharaoh Ahmose describes a major catastrophic climactic event, including loud explosion, earthquakes, and darkness, according to Nadine Moellerassociate Professor of Egyptian Archaeology at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

“It is now time to consider the possibility that the Tempest Stela is indeed a contemporary record of the cataclysmic Thera event,” Moeller wrote in a 2014 article.

According to a 2014 University of Chicago press release about the Stela, Ahmose was the first pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, which marked the beginning of the powerful New Kingdom. For decades, scholars have debated the actual start-date of the New Kingdom era. Assuming the Tempest Stela is dated in close proximity to the Thera eruption, then Egyptian pharaonic chronology would have a new “anchor” for its timeline.

The Pearson article writes that “evidence indicates that the eruption occurred after the start of the New Kingdom in Egypt, which, according to proponents of conventional, archaeologically based chronology, is considered to be sometime after c.1550 to 1500 BCE.”

A picture taken on September 9, 2017 shows Egyptian archaeologist restoring a wooden sacrophagus at a newly-uncovered ancient tomb for a goldsmith dedicated to the ancient Egyptian god Amun, in the Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west bank of the ancient city of Luxor, which boasts ancient Egyptian temples and burial grounds.(AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)

However, according to the Pearson study, “direct radiocarbon evidence for the Thera eruption currently places this event multiple decades earlier than the earliest possible start of the New Kingdom.”

For example, in 2006, an olive tree on Santorini that was buried under volcanic ash was radiocarbon dated, and found to pinpoint the Thera eruption between 1621-1605 BCE. While this discrepancy is a blink in terms of the historical record (or the current lifespan of the State of Israel), it causes a clear conundrum for archaeologists and historians.

But is Pearson’s annual approach to solving spikes such as Thera earth shattering?

In her study, she writes, “No definitive calibrated radiocarbon range for the Thera eruption is currently possible, but the altered position of the 14C plateau indicates that improved calibration has much to offer chronological synchronization of human and environmental timelines in this period.” To paraphrase, while she cannot arrive at a solid timing for Thera, the methodology of the calibration curve may still benefit.

Cornell University’s Goldwin Smith Professor of Classical Archaeology in the Department of Classics and director of the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory Sturt Manning. (courtesy)

Fellow dendrochronologist Sturt Manning, a professor at Cornell University, told The Times of Israel that the Pearson study has an “impressive dataset” and that the results were “a little bit of a surprise,” for which he awaits confirmation from other labs.

“I suspect when other labs have run data on 1-year samples in this period the ‘real’ picture will be somewhere between the previous one and the Pearson et al. findings. So some change but rather less dramatic,” Manning said.

“Even so, Pearson et al. over-claim. Their revised curve, even if right, does modify dates just in this period, yes. But where there are sequences of 14C dates from longer order series, whether archaeological, or from the series of Pharaohs, etc., then it will make much less difference as the rest of the calibration curve is not changed they say,” he wrote.

A source for Exodus?

The new dating doesn’t only affect the timing of the eruption of Thera or Pharaoh Ahmose’s reign and the start of the New Kingdom. It could also help assign dates to other important events such as the end of the Babylonian Empire, as well as the rise and fall of the Anatolian Hittites and the mysterious Semitic-speaking people called Hyksos.

The Exodus: Illustration of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt in the Kaufmann Haggadah, 14th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some theorists say dating Thera could solidify the natural source of the Exodus narrative as well.

Asked whether she sees her study as having implications on the dating of the roots of the biblical Exodus story, Pearson questioned her qualifications to answer. In an email she wrote, “All I can say is that continued work to improve chronological frameworks is essential for the study of past civilizations!”

Image of Akrotiri, a Minoan Bronze Age settlement on Greek island of Santorini where the volcano Thera erupted, wiping out the island. (Gretchen Gibbs)

There is no doubt the eruption was an event of biblical proportions. According to Greek archaeologist Christos G. Doumas who excavated on Santorini from the 1970s to 1990s, “When the volcano literally ‘blew its top,’ the sides of the mountain collapsed into the abyss; then the sea poured into this great caldera — 32 square miles of it… The blast was so powerful that the eruption column reached an estimated height of 20 miles, sending particles of dust hundreds of miles away,” writes Doumas in a 1991 Biblical Archaeology Review article.

Every decade or so, there is a scholar or ostensible scholar willing to go on record and state that the Thera blast may have caused the Exodus narrative. In the 1980s, Johns Hopkins Prof. Hans Goedicke was lauded by the New York Times, then raked over the coals for his suggestions.

An entertaining, if not entirely drily factual, 2006 documentary called “The Exodus Decoded” by Canadian “Indiana Jones” filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and producer/director James Cameron caused waves of backlashin scholarly circles.

In general, the theories state that Thera jump-started tsunamis that could have caused the parting of seas (location is subject to change depending upon the scholar). Additionally, it may have sparked a pillar of fire in the sky visible as far as Egypt.

Other environmental effects of the Thera eruption likewise may have caused “some major hemisphere-wide climate episodes” that could link to the plagues, wrote Cornell’s Manning in an email outlining the more popular theories. Some scientists tie the dating to the Israelites in Jericho, based on radiocarbon dating of the city’s destruction.

The linkage between Thera and the Exodus narrative is fodder for numerous articles, books, and even conferences, including the one held in 2013 at UC San Diego called “Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination” where University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Mark Harris, a former physicist and current theologian, delivered the lecture “The Thera Theories: Science and the Modern Reception History of the Exodus.”

In his witty 20-minute talk, Harris broke down the various “Thera theories,” and noted that, regardless of their pseudo-scientific questionable veracity, the “volcano remains a rich resource for the imagination.”

The theologian said that implementing it as an interpretation of the miracles is as legitimate as reading the text through a feminist lens or through liberation theology.

“The Thera theories give us ‘scientific readings.’ They challenge or inspire the imagination without necessarily requiring a firm historical commitment that this is what really happened,” said Harris.

He personally does not think Thera had a role in the Exodus, but clearly fathoms the impulse of those who do.

“There is a fascination with the Bible in the popular imagination, and there’s a fascination with science, and when the two get together, you literally get an explosive combination,” said Harris.

Egypt Takes New Step to Become a Regional Energy Hub

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY  OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

Egypt Takes New Step to Become a Regional Energy Hub

Thursday, 28 December, 2017 – 12:00
FILE PHOTO: A plant’s gas tanks are seen at the desert road of Suez city north of Cairo, Egypt August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Asharq Al-Awsat

In the coming days Egypt will inaugurate a new wharf for natural gas and petroleum product tankers on the Gulf of Suez.

SUMED, which has operated two pipelines from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, will build the new wharf.

The 2.5 km wharf will have three berths to receive natural gas and petroleum products carriers.

“The country has been building fuelling depots for ships along the Suez Canal and expanding its refining capacity, and has an extensive pipeline network and two idle gas liquefaction plants ready to export new gas as it arrives,” Reuters stated.

SUMED is owned %50 by the Egyptian government, while the rest by Arab oil exporters in the Gulf.

The pipeline is spending $415 million to develop its facilities, including building nine 300,000 cubic meter petroleum storage tanks and loading and offloading facilities.

The tanks are due to be completed by the end of 2018, said SUMED chairman Mohamed Abdel-Hafez.

NBK-Egypt provided $300 million in financing for the project, according to a statement by the bank in May.

Houthis Abduct Employees From Norwegian Refugee Council In Yemen

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ASHARQ AL-AWSAT DAILY NEWS PAPER OF SAUDI ARABIA)

Middle East

Houthis Abduct Employees from Norwegian Refugee Council

NRC

Aden – Houthi rebels in Yemen detained six Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) national staff and a contracted driver in the Red Sea district of Hodeidah, according to a statement issued by the Council on Monday.

The detention seemed to be based on the fact that when the NRC staff opened the hygiene kit boxes at the distribution, they came to learn that the boxes, which had no markings on the outside, had a text written on the inside of the boxes that said: “The campaign of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for emergency response.”

The boxes were dated January 2015, before the conflict escalated in March 2015 and were originally used for food.

They had been reused by the contracted vender as hygiene kits packaging. Recycling like this is common in the country.

The Oslo-based non-governmental organization confirmed that it is impartial and does not take sides, stressing that it takes this issue extremely seriously and is currently investigating the matter.

“Our highest priorities now are to safeguard the safety and security of our staff, and investigate this matter fully. We are in contact with the local authorities, and we request that the authorities guarantee the safety, security and well-being of our staff in al-Hudaydah, which has been assured.”

In a statement carried by Yemen’s pro-government Sabanew.net news website, Local Affairs Minister Abdul Raqib Fattah said that the staff had been “abducted” by Houthi rebels from the aid group’s offices in the Hali district of Hodeida.

Egypt Is The Safest Country For Tourists In The Middle-East: U.S. Government Reports

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE EGYPT INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER OF CAIRO)

Egypt safest country in Middle East: US government report
Wed, 23/11/2016 – 16:38

Giza pyramids and Sphinx

Egypt has topped a list of Middle East (ME) countries that are safe for tourism and vacations, according to the US government. Other ME countries deemed safe include Jordan, Oman, UAE and Qatar.

In a supplement issued by the Independent ‘Indy 100’, the US government has advised citizens to review the information on the levels of safety for countries around the world, available through US embassies and consulates.
Currently, the regions of lowest safety due to terrorism by the “Islamic State” (IS) group are located in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Whereas the US government urges citizens to be cautious while traveling anywhere in Europe due to fears of suicide attacks by the IS group.
The report comes just in time, as Egypt seeks to attract tourists from Russia and Western Europe in December, one year after the Russian airplane crash that took place in central Sinai in October 2015.
Starting last November, Russia suspended all incoming flights to Egypt. England then suspended flights going to Sharm El-Sheikh.
Russian and British flights represent around 40 percent of inbound tourism to Egypt annually.
The Egyptian government expects improvement in the tourism sector starting the new year, which will positively reflect on providing much-needed foreign currency in the wake of a decision by the Central Bank of Egypt to float the Egyptian pound against the US dollar earlier this month.
While the total capacity of hotels in Egypt is upwards of 225,000 hotel rooms, 65 percent of those are located in the Red Sea and South Sinai regions, attracting seaside tourism from around the world.

China Built Railway Opens Up Ethiopia To Red Sea Port Commerce

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SHANGHAI DAILY NEWS)

Chinese expertise ends Africa logjam

WITH Chinese conductors at the helm, a fleet of shiny new trains yesterday began plying a new route from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to the Red Sea port city of Djibouti, in a major boost to both economies.

The 752.7-kilometer railway, built by two Chinese companies, will link the two African cities in about 10 hours, a far cry from the current excruciating multi-day trip along a congested, pot-holed road.

“We’re so excited. It takes two or three days for a truck to come from Djibouti. The driver doesn’t answer his phone. We don’t know where he is and that can be a bit of a nightmare,” said Ethiopian importer Tingrit Worku. “The train could make a huge difference.”

Some 1,500 trucks a day currently lumber along the road which carries 90 percent of imports and exports from landlocked Ethiopia to the port — a key trade hub to Asia, Europe and the rest of Africa.

“This train is a game changer. Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The connection to the ports (of Djibouti) will give a bounce and our economy will grow faster,” said Mekonnen Getachew, project manager of the Ethiopian Railways Corporation.

Ethiopia was the world’s fastest growing economy last year at 10.2 percent, however the International Monetary Fund estimates that the worst drought in 30 years is likely to see this plummet to 4.5 percent in 2016.

Both countries benefit from economic integration, with Ethiopia gaining access to the sea and Djibouti — the smallest state in the Horn of Africa — gaining access to Ethiopia’s emerging market of 95 million people.

“It is the first standard gauge electrified railroad on the continent built with Chinese standard and technology, and certainly it will not be the last. Many stand to benefit from it,” said Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia La Yifan.

The new railway means the end of the historic French-built diesel line built-in 1917, which fell into abandon in later decades, with frequent derailment.

Yesterday’s inauguration will be followed by a three-month test period, with no paying passengers and carrying only cargo.

However, when the line is fully functional, uniformed Chinese controllers will welcome passengers to spotless platforms of newly built stations all along the route, while Chinese technicians and stationmaster will keep things running in the background.

“We don’t yet have the management experience yet. We have a management contract with Chinese staff for five years, with an Ethiopian counterpart in training,” said Getachew.

China has invested heavily in infrastructure in Ethiopia, funding sub-Saharan Africa’s first modern tramway, which opened last year, as well as motorways and dams.

The new US$4 billion railway, with its red, yellow and green trains evoking the Ethiopian flag, was 70 percent financed by China’s Exim Bank and built by China Railway Group and China Civil Engineering Construction.

A high-level Chinese delegation, in Addis Ababa for the inauguration of the railway, signed further agreements on Tuesday valued at US$100 million for the construction of roads, the state-controlled Fana Broadcasting Corporation reported.

China became Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009.

China built the US$200million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa in 2012 as a gift expressing “friendship to the African people.”

However direct investment in Africa slumped “more than 40 percent” last year, as growth slowed in China.

The railway is the first step in a vast network of 5,000 kilometers of rail which Ethiopia hopes to build by 2020.