Book Review – A Test of Time Volumes 1, 2 & 3 by David Rohl
Just occasionally, a piece of historical scholarship comes along that challenges the foundations of our understanding of a period of history and the received wisdom of the academic establishment, Usually, it is denigrated or, more dangerously, ignored by the academic establishment in a discipline whose own lifetime work is threatened with being shown to be wrong or even foolish, something with which academics of any discipline cannot cope.
Virginia Hunter’s analysis of Thucydides’ historical method was one such and was clearly correct, but even now much academic literature tends to ignore it, and her brilliant book was small beer compared to the H bomb set off by David Rohl’s Test of Time trilogy because his work threatened the entire chronology of ancient history pre 650 BC, and to validate the historical narrative of the Old Testament by arguing that the dating of the archaeology was out by an average of three centuries. It was explosive stuff and is still just breezily dismissed by the academic orthodoxy which never engaged with the details of his arguments or his use of new forms of evidence. That he was prepared to stick his neck out and then extrapolate his ideas on ancient Egyptian chronology into the histories of the other contemporaneous ancient peoples and, even worse, the historical basis of the things described in the Book of Genesis, led them to try to portray him as a slightly more respectable Graham Hancock (a fraud of the Von Daniken school, sorry – he is) when Rohl is a proper ancient historian and Egyptologist. The fact that he won a global mass audience and his own television series would have had many academics chewing the carpet with envy.
I first came across his ideas on ancient Egyptian chronology in his series ‘A Test of Time – Pharaohs and Kings’ on Channel 4 in the late 1990s back in the days when British television was interested in highly intelligent programming. From there I bought his first book, ‘A Test of Time: The Bible – From Myth to History’. Explosive stuff – arguing that the Old Testament’s history is supported by the archaeology because the accepted chronology, which is based on ancient Egyptian history, is misdated by an average of three centuries, and that if this corrected the archaeological record accords perfectly with the world described in the Old Testament. This is dynamite for the modern secular academic establishment, eg figures like Joseph and Saul appear in ancient Egyptian archives albeit under different names, there is archaeological evidence for the Plagues of Egypt etc.
Politically it was equally explosive because it provides evidence that the Hebrews were who they said they were, not just another Canaanite people who somehow developed a monotheistic religion, that Israel has a claim going back to Abraham… And then when Rohl started pointing out the ramifications for Mycenaean, Minoan, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite and Sumerian history given that these are all dated by reference to Egyptian chronology he upset just about everybody…
But not all, because individual scholars had been pointing out for some time various problems with the then accepted ancient chronology before the rise of Classical Greece, but Rohl was the first to put it all together into one overarching theory – what he called the ‘New Chronology’ – that threatened academic received wisdom about the ancient world.
In fact, a book published by the historian David James called ‘Centuries of Darkness’ in 1987 had put some of these dissenting ideas together, pointing out many problems in the dating of the archaeological record and that it was probably out by two or three centuries. James started from the Greek perspective and worked outwards to neighbouring cultures. To put it very simply, the transition from Mycenaean to what we call Classical Greece is barely understood and conventionally argued to have been a dark age of over three centuries because of the dearth of archaeological evidence, especially graves, when synchronised with accepted Egyptian chronology.
There is a problem with the Greek Dark Age, supposedly lasting from circa 1000-700 BC. The Mycenaeans spoke Greek as did the Classical Greeks, but simply used a different script, Linear B as opposed to what we know as the Classical Greek alphabet, but in all other respects there was great cultural continuity and Homer depicts a world with ingredients of both. But we are asked by conventional chronology to believe that there were three centuries in between in which the Greek population suddenly and inexplicably fell by 90% and then 300 years later magically recovered within a generation or two, whereas the Greeks’ own myths painted a picture of great continuity, with the Mycenaean palace economies collapsing as the Greek speaking Dorians invaded a country exhausted by the long war with Troy. If, as James and others argued, there was no Greek Dark Age, just a 30-50 year hiatus, the whole history of the Near East changes profoundly.
James was an academic in the ancient history department at University College London, a department well known for proposing some profoundly disquieting (for conventional academics) ideas as well as some of the most original thinkers among ancient historians.
Rohl’s Egyptian Chronology
Rohl is another graduate of that department and has collaborated with James at times, but an Egyptologist and he arrived at similar conclusions to James by identifying some puzzling Egyptian archaeological anomalies which undermine the accepted chronology. His arguments are compelling, and then he delivers a broadside into the conventional chronology’s underpinnings. Egyptian chronology is derived from the fragmentary Pharoah lists which set out the reign lengths for each Pharoah which historians have generally presumed to be largely sequential, ie one Pharoah’s reign follows another. The problem is that they don’t – at several times, particularly during the First, Second and Third Intermediate Periods, Egypt was divided into rival states with different dynasties reigning simultaneously, and furthermore some dynasties had the practice of Pharoahs ruling alongside their sons and heirs for a period, so the historical period must be too long.
Rohl goes back to basics to reconstruct the chronology using new scientific technologies and retrocalculation of astronomical phenomena recorded by the ancients of the day, and produces a compelling new chronology which shortens the conventional chronology by three centuries from the unification of Egypt under the first Pharoah Menes to the collapse of Egyptian independence before the Assyrian conquest. What he suggests accords closely with the Greek derived arguments of James and the Greek and indeed Near Eastern Dark Age of the 1st millennium BC simply evaporates. Furthermore, and quite distinctly, over a decade after Rohl’s books, a separate team of archaeologists investigating the tomb of Menes, the first Pharaoh, concluded that he had lived and united Egypt a full three centuries later than conventionally thought, providing more support for the ideas of Rohl, James and others.
From Egypt to the Near East
Most academics who had developed a revolutionary and compelling new understanding of the magnitude of Rohl’s New Chronology would have spent the rest of their career deepening the arguments and evidence for it in their core discipline, Egyptology in his case. Rohl however did not. He already knew from the likes of James etc that early Greek history was problematic and could be re-argued to be consistent with his ideas on Egyptian history, but also that Egyptian chronology is the spine of all ancient cultures’ history – they are all largely dated in relation to Egypt because the latter is the one with a consistent history and archaeological records for three full millennia before Christ. No other culture’s history was more intimately interwoven with that of Egypt than that of the Hebrews and having shortened Pharaonic chronology by three centuries, Rohl then investigates the impact of this New Chronology on the history of the Hebrews described in the Old Testament.
Rohl’s conclusions are startling. Suddenly, the events and characters outlined in the Old Testament all appear in the archaeological record, as does their history from the Egyptian perspective with figures like Kings Saul and David appearing in the royal diplomatic archives of the Pharaohs, and even more astoundingly the tomb of the Patriarch and Vizier Joseph, and the Seven Fat and Seven Lean years as recorded in the levels of the River Nile, and above all the evidence of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and the final great plague that helped set them free. It’s astounding, convincingly evidenced and so dynamite that it is no wonder it has run into massive academic resistance.
From Egypt to Sumer (Volume 2)
The origins of Pharaonic Egypt are controversial – from where did it emerge in only a few generations from a land of scattered rural communities into a powerful unitary state? Here again Rohl digs into long established but subversive academic ideas, promulgated most notably by the ancient history department at UCL, that Egypt’s rise was triggered by conquest of explorers from prehistoric Mesopotamia, Sumer or even earlier, the antediluvian inhabitants of Mesopotamia who built the first cities in history, notably Eridu. This theory of Egypt’s origins goes back a century and was called ‘the Dynastic Race Theory’, something today quite anathema to woke academia, irrespective of whether it may be factual or not. Again the fact that it accorded with the beliefs of other ancient peoples, such as the Phoenicians, about their origins did not help its cause among the wider academic establishment.
However, it starts in the dry wadis of Egypt’s Eastern Desert that link the Nile valley and the Red Sea where a survey led by Rohl rediscovered lost ancient rock carvings that appear to show typically Sumerian reed boats and warriors being dragged over the desert to launch on the Nile as a prelude to conquest. Rohl then outlines the nature of the Old Kingdom’s inner aristocracy associated with the royal family – the ‘Followers of Horus’ – and argues that they appear to be of Sumerian origin, the descendants of the Sumerian conquering elite who became progressively acculturated into Egyptian culture in the way that the Norman conquerors were progressively Anglicised in the centuries post 1066.
From there Rohl digs into the origins of Sumerian civilisation and its commonalities with the antediluvian world described in Genesis. Here he becomes rationally speculative given that surviving evidence is so thin, and whether one is persuaded is largely a matter of one’s mindset. Personally, when it comes to ancient history, I am a maximalist, inclined to give the ancients the benefit of the doubt, to accept that there is usually an element of garbled truth in even most ancient myth, that the ancients were not systematic liars or intending to mislead, but people who saw truth differently to we moderns but were honest in their own way and as intellectually curious as ourselves. It’s certainly a compelling and fascinating read, if shaky towards the end.
From Egypt to Greece (Volume 3)
In his final book Rohl returns to Dark Age Greece, specifically Minoan and Mycenaean Greece, and its connections with ancient Egypt. Herodotus, the first Greek historian who travelled extensively in the Near East in the 5th century BC, argued that much of Greek culture was derived from Egypt, something disregarded by modern academics. But recent archaeological evidence suggests that the links between the two were very old and close, and even that in the Second Intermediate Period a Greek dynasty may have ruled the Delta under the guise of the Greater Hyskos who invaded Egypt in the turmoil caused by the Exodus of the Hebrews.
We then get on to the thorny issue of the Sea Peoples, a wave (or waves) of mass migration that destroyed many of the civilisations of the ancient Near East and which unsuccessfully invaded Egypt and who may or may not be related to the Philistines of the Bible. Here even Rohl struggles to gain some clarity with his New Chronology because it seems there was more than one wave of Greek or other inspired migration from the Aegean basin, separated by centuries, and more confusingly other non Greek peoples were involved, and many appear to have been the first users of iron in much of the Near East, achieving military dominance over the established bronze age kingdoms. It’s in this era that the Trojan War happened, that many of the Greek myths took shape from kernels of forgotten events and heroes, and quite possibly that Lydians from Asia Minor came to Italy and created the Etruscan civilisation of Tuscany, and even the foundation of Rome itself.
It all gels well with James’ work, albeit Rohl engages much more with Greek myth, Egyptian history and what we know of other Near Eastern peoples. I find it plausible and compelling.
Firstly, Rohl’s books, while well written and very well structured and illustrated, are not always easy reading, if only for the very detailed fact into which he delves. He is constructing a revolutionary new chronology for the ancient pre Classical world and drawing on evidence from a range of dead civilisations, some of which the average reader won’t have heard of. Some chapters will require repeated readings before moving on to the next. It’s a massive undertaking, in its depth, breadth and ambition. If you accept it, the Old Testament is rehabilitated as history, as is much of what the Greeks and other ancient peoples believed about their own origins, myth is shown to have a factual basis and the ancient world comes to life and suddenly makes sense. It’s like the dislocated spine of ancient history has had a series of sessions with a chiropractor and has been manipulated back into place and suddenly works again and less painfully. For me, in some ways this makes the whole argument greater than the sum of its evidenced parts because all the jarring contradictions of ancient Chronology, archaeology, the origins myths of certain cultures, Homer, the Old Testament etc suddenly click into place and become consistent.
Rohl is honest enough to concede that he has probably got some of the detail wrong and that many other scholars have done much of the specific leg work, but he has pulled it all together and made sense of it. As an ancient Greek historian, I am persuaded about the modern myth of the Greek Dark Age (the Greeks never thought they had one) in which I never believed, and from there the whole conventional ancient chronology unravels. Rohl has pulled it apart from the Egyptian corner, but whichever corner you start from you end up with the Hebrews and Sumerians as well as the Greeks and Egyptians, and the close links between them. And much of what Herodotus recorded about what ancient peoples thought about themselves, long derided by moderns, suddenly seems to make sense.
I love it. It’s profound, strongly evidenced, courageous, illuminating, fascinating, humble and a deadly riposte to the arrogance of moderns who tell the ancients that we know more about their history than they did. I’m largely persuaded, and no one has been able to torpedo it – they’ve barely tried, but rather ignored it loftily, which is always a sign they cannot sink it. It’s worth the effort and in the process you will gain a fascinating insight into a plethora of long dead peoples and civilisations in a way you won’t get from any other book on ancient history I have seen.
Above is a recent Youtube film posted by David Rohl which gives an introduction into this developing school of ancient chronology.
© JD de Pavilly 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file