Revisionism, Biblical Chronology in the Light of Stratigraphy at Tell Brak

by Alan Montgomery

Tell Brak is a mound situated in the Khabur Valley area just west of the ancient city of Ashur. It was part of the homeland of the Mitannian / Hurrian peoples and may have been an important political centre during the time of the Middle Assyrian empire and the Late Assyrian empire. Tell Brak must have been a point of conflict between the Assyrians and the Mitannian kings. Some Mitannian kings are known from the El Amarna letters to the Egyptian Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty. This provides contact with both the Egyptian and Assyrian worlds both of which have established chronologies. The stratigraphy of Tell Brak offers the opportunity to examine a site that might have both Egyptian and Assyrian chronological markers and to compare the accuracy of the two chronologies with respect to one another.

Oates [1] lays out the stratigraphy and ceramics of Tell Brak as follows:

BLevels 9-8

Old Babylonian (OB) represented by the Khabur pottery types. These follow the time of Shamsi-Adad I - dated 1800-1600 BC. According to the latest Mesopotamian chronology these dates should be altered to 1700-1500 [2].

BLevel 7

This is the intermediate level between OB and Early Mitanni.

BLevel 6

Early Mitanni ware appears. Immediately after the fall of Babylon, Hurrians are known to have dominated the Assyrians. A Hurrian palace was constructed at this time. Oates dated this to the latter part of the 16th century.

BLevel 5

Middle Mitanni ware appears. Hurrian domination of Assyria continued. At the beginning of Level 5 is debris from a natural catastrophe. First evidence of influence from the west; parallels with material from Alalakh.

BLevel 4

Late Mitanni ware appears. Major Stratum showing long and prosperous occupation. There are two destruction layers. More western influence is apparent as well as Assyrian influence.

BLevel 3

Late Mitanni ware continues and there is a prominent re-paving of surfaces.

BLevel 2

Late Mitanni ware continues. Oates dates for Level 2 begin in the last half 14th century and end about 1250. Late Amarna letters and other Middle Babylonian texts appear for the first time.

BLevel 1

Appearance of either Middle Assyrian (MA) III pottery according to Pfalzner or according to Oates MA I types. Mycenaean pottery was found. Some Late Assyrian 900-700 finds on surface were unstratified; e.g. Hand of Ishtar.


What do the actual artifacts tell us?

Level 1 B Mycenaean III B1 stirrup jar at the bottom of Level IB would normally be dated between 1330 and 1260 BC. Pfalzner is the world=s leading authority on MA pottery and his opinion concerning the Level I MA 3 pottery is hereby accepted. Boundaries of MA 3 are not yet well defined but it starts about Tiglath Pileser I circa 1114. Thus it is evident that the dating of Assyrian pottery and Mycenaean pottery are incompatible. This forces Oates to classify the Assyrian ware as MA I rather then accept the incongruent MA III designation.

Level 2 B Ivories appear paralleled in LB Alalakh IV circa 1450 - 1400. Texts of el Amarna Late Mitanni Kings Artashuma and Tushratta circa 1340-30 and a seal of Shaushtater circa 1450 appear with Middle Babylonian epigraphy. Seal impressions parallel Nuzi II, circa late 14th century 7[1, p.274]. There were 2 destructions; the latter dated by C-14 tests on charcoal from a doorpost to 1293 BC. Some mosaic glass #30 [1, p.83] is paralleled at al Rimah in strata ascribed to T-N 1 [circa 1220]. Bowl 3, p.29 also p.236, is a geometric design attested only in the Neo-Assyrian eras. There is no epigraphic evidence of the Assyrians at Level II. There is clearly some dating that is incompatible. Late Bronze aged materials dating from 1450 - 1330 by parallels from the west are contradicted by Carbon-14 (which on charcoal samples is biased high) and Iron Age materials dated (1220 - 900) from Assyrian sources.

Level 3 B Is marked by some destruction levels overlain by hardened red libn as though a new start were required after a major destruction.

Level 4 B There are 5 building levels in level 4 indicating long occupation. Mitanni ware is paralleled at Alalakh IV circa 15th century [1, p.72]. There is a sheet metal disk [1, p. 117] which has parallels in the MB II 17th / 16th century at Tell Mardikh . See #67 on page 270 for drawing. Also there is a glazed vessel parallel to 16th century Alalakh V [1, p.117]. Small stone statuettes [1, p. 106] in fill under Level 4 house parallel Alalakh V. The parallels with Alalakh IV/V show a time that is transitional between the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze in Egypt, circa early 16th century in the conventional time frame.

Level 5 B In Level 5 there is more Nuzi pottery, red-edged pottery and a grey burnished ware. It has two destruction debris levels. There are some frit-headed nails. Oates [1, p.240] comments that there is a parallel process used on pendants in an MA grave in Assur. See also p. 117 where he mentions that this technique is known from the MB in Levant. There is ovoid shaped grooved travertine vases that have parallels in the 12th Dynasty, MB II Ebla and Ugarit 19th / 16th century. Red-edged bowls begin to appear in numbers in Level 5 and continue to Level 1. Oates, p. 73 notes parallel at al-Rimah in 15/14th century MA context. Burnished Greyware pottery in Level 5/6 destruction layers is paralleled by late fourteenth century Greyware at Nuzi. [1, p.73]

Level 6 B There is a destruction layer at the top of Level 6 that appears to be a natural disaster. There is plenty of Mitanni ware and glazed pottery, which Oates [1, p. 72], noted, has parallels in Alalakh 6, MBII, 17th/16th century.


Level 9 and 8 are Old Babylonian. Using the latest Mesopotamian chronology by Gasche et Al [2] they should be dated to 1700-1500. Level 7 is a transitional layer followed by Hurrian/ Mitanni strata Level 6 circa 15th century. At this time the Hurrians dominated the Assyrians. In Level 5 the burnished Greyware with parallels at Nuzi Level II [1, p. 66] and the red-edged bowls paralleled at nearby al-Rimah [1, p. 73] should date the level to the 14th century. In addition, there are some frit-headed nails [1, p. 240] with parallel processes used on pendants in a Middle Assyrian (MA) grave in Assur circa 14th/13th century. So far all makes reasonable sense. However, in Level 2, there is a Neo-Assyrian geometric pattern Bowl 3, [1, p. 29, p. 236]. This means Levels 4 and 3 are 13th to 11th centuries so that Level 2 can be placed in the 10th and 9th century.

However, this produces serious problems for other chronological markers, namely those determined by Egyptian chronology, primarily from Alalakh. In Level 6 (Late 15th century), there is glazed pottery paralleled at Alalakh Level 6 dated to the 17/16th century. There is a least one and as much as two centuries' difference. In Level 5 (14th century) ovoid shaped grooved travertine vases, typically 19/16th are found. The 14th / 13th century frit-nail technique is known from the MB II in the Levant. There is a two to five century difference in Level 5. In Level 4 (13/12th), there is a sheet metal disk, which has parallels in MB II Tell Mardikh dated to the 17/16th [1, p. 118 ]. Also there is a glazed vessel [1, p.117] and small stone statuettes [p.106] with parallels to Alalakh 5 {16/15th} century. There is two to four centuries' difference in Level 4. In Level 2 (10th /9th) there are ivories with parallels to Alalakh 4 15th / 14th centuries and texts of late Mitanni Kings Artashumara and Tushratta late14th century. At Level Ib (9th) is a Mycenaean LHIII B1 14th/13th stirrup jar. Levels 1 and 2 contain four to five centuries' difference.

There is a clear pattern of chronological discord from the Level 5 down to Level 1. Egyptian dates are consistently 200 to 500 years higher than their Assyrian counterparts. This is exactly what would be expected under a Velikovsky-like revision. The Geometric bowl's earliest date is 900 and the Mycenaean jar is 1260 at the latest. This makes the gap a minimum of 360 years, an amount that exceeds the revisions of James and Rohl. More probably, the gap is over 400 years.

Furthermore, the Amarna texts at Brak have "Middle Babylonian" epigraphy, as indeed do all the Amarna letters. If these letters belong to the 9th century as Velikovsky proposed, rather than the conventional 14th century date, then there might be Assyrian influence in these letters. Since Assyrian influence in Syria did not occur before the 13th century, such an influence on 14th century documents would be hard to explain. According to Soden, an Assyriologist, Amarna letters from northern Syria display "astonishing" Assyriansms [3]. Soden does not identify whether these are Middle or Late Assyrianisms. However, these Assyrianisms are not restricted to northern Syria. Moran notes the same thing about the Jerusalem letters [4]. This suggests that the Assyrianisms reflect a Late Assyrian context, as Assyria had no influence in Jerusalem in the era of Judges nor was Jerusalem a capital city at that time.

Gadd, referring to Middle Babylonian tablets of the 'Middle Kassite' period, says, "But the salutations which follow this (the introduction) show a characteristic increase of formality over those of the Hammurabi period (17th century). One official, writing to another, adds after his name 'your brother' and the phrase 'be it well with you', which is ubiquitous in the "Amarna and Late Assyrian letters [Gadd, 1975, p.39]." (Italics added) These 'Middle Kassite' tablets confirm that the Assyrianisms of the Amarna letters are Late Assyrian. Further confirmation stems from the fact that these texts have similarities to Neo-Babylonian texts at Nippur, circa 755 - 612, Cole states "The terminology used to denote alliances in the letters from Nippur is remarkably similar to the language employed in the Aramaic texts the letters of the el Amarna age [Cole, p. 27-8.].

The above interpretation of the stratigraphy of Tell Brak agrees with the evidence of the Amarna letters; that the time of the Amarna letters is Late Assyrian i.e. 10th / 9th century and not the 14th century. This demands a significant revision of Egyptian chronology based on the superior chronology of the Assyrian king lists. This confirms Velikovsky's revision in size and direction. Of greater importance is the fact that none of these evidences is dependent on any supposedly unconventional technique of moving "ghost" dynasties or any specific reordering of Egyptian dynasties. This said, the end of the 18th Dynasty in the 10th/ 9th century leaves a maximum of 200 years to cover the 600 years until the conquest of Egypt by the Ethiopian Emperor Piankh. Since the Libyans must occupy the bulk of these years there is virtually no room for the 19th to 21st Dynasties. Therefore, one must accept some Velikovsky-like scheme.

What effect does this have on biblical chronology? If the 18th Dynasty is brought forward 400 years to match the evidence from Tell Brak, there is one obvious casualty in the arsenal of Christian apologetics. Conservative Christians promote a 15th century date of the Exodus against a 13th century liberal date in the 19th Dynasty. The liberal date suffers from chronological problems and the fact that a 19th Dynasty Egyptian stele mentions the Israelites as an established people in Canaan, not leaving enough time for the Exodus, the wanderings in the Sinai and the Conquest under Joshua. The conservative date, accepting conventional Egyptian chronology, puts the Exodus in the middle of the 18th Dynasty. The conservative position suffers from the fact that much is known about the 18th Dynasty and nothing is known about oppression of Nile Delta slaves, Moses, the plagues, loss of Semitic slaves nor general economic and military collapse that would naturally follow the Exodus. It is devoid of people and history that could link it with the Exodus. (For a inconclusive attempt to find Moses in the 18th Dynasty see D. Hansen, Moses and Hatshepsut, Bible and Spade, Vol. 16 (2003) , No. 1). To move the 18th Dynasty forward 400 years would, of course, eliminate the 18th Dynasty as a candidate for the dynasty of the Exodus and a fortiori the 19th Dynasty. I am convinced that the promotion of only these 2 views only leads to increased skepticism on the part of honest scholars of ancient history.


[1] Oates, D, Oates, J. and McDonald, Helen, Excavations at Tell Brak: Volume 1 The Mitanni and Old Babylonian periods, 1999, British School Of Archaeology in Iraq.

[2] Gasche, H., Armstrong, J.A., Cole, S.W. and Gurzadyan, V.G., Dating the fall of Babylon: A Reappraisal of Second-millennium Chronology, 1998, University of Ghent and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

[3] Soden, W, Sumer, Vol. 42 (1986), p. 106.

[4] Moran, W.L., Unity and Diversity, Goedicke et al., Editors, 1975, p. 154.

[5] Gadd, J., Assyria and Babylonia 1370-1300 BC, Cambridge Ancient History. II:2, 1975, Cambridge University, Cambridge.

[6] Cole, S., Nippur in Late Assyrian Times, 755-612 BC, State Archives of Assyria, Study IV, 1996, Helsinki, p. 27-8

posted, May 15, 2003.

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