Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.51

C. Brian Rose, Gareth Darbyshire (ed.), The New Chronology of Iron Age Gordion. Gordion special studies, 6.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2011.  Pp. xiv, 181.  ISBN 9781934536445.  $69.95.  

Reviewed by Naoíse Mac Sweeney, University of Leicester (


The New Chronology of Iron Age Gordion is the latest, and perhaps the most eagerly awaited, of the volumes in the ‘Gordion special studies’ series. The chronology of the Iron Age in Anatolia remains notoriously obscure, and has proved a stumbling block for scholarship due to the lack of evidence available, especially in central and western Anatolia. Anatolian archaeologists have long looked to the site of Gordion to help solve this problem. Gordion, the capital of Phrygia and the seat of King Midas, would have been an important centre in the Iron Age. Indeed, the site identified as Gordion offers a rare opportunity to investigate a largely unbroken Iron Age stratigraphic sequence, and to establish a firmer chronology for the Iron Age in Anatolia as a whole.

The site was first investigated in the early twentieth century, and a chronology established which depended substantially on classical and Neo-Assyrian literary sources, using the reign of Midas and the invasion of the Kimmerians as key chronological points. However, new excavations and the application of scientific dating techniques over the last decade have prompted a dramatic revision of this chronology. The entire Iron Age sequence is now thought to be much earlier than previously thought, with some levels being re-dated by up to two hundred years. The destruction of the monumental Early Phrygian citadel, for example, is now thought to have taken place in the late 9th century, rather than the early 7th century, BC. The implications of this revised chronology are substantial, not only for those interested in Phrygia and central Anatolia, but also for those interested in the Iron Age throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The new Gordion chronology has therefore generated a great deal of interest and excitement, as well as debate. This edited volume offers, for the first time, a comprehensive discussion of the new chronology, both from a methodological and an interpretive point of view.

The book opens with a brief introduction, which gives the reader a clear overview of the history of research at Gordion, and a short explanation of the key differences between the old and new Iron Age chronologies. This introduction is followed by two historiographical chapters. The first of these is written by Keith DeVries, and discusses in more detail the excavations under the Körte brothers and Rodney Young up until 1973, focusing on the establishment of the traditional chronology. DeVries highlights three key points underpinning the traditional chronology. The first is the destruction layer at the end of the Early Phrygian Period (YHSS 6A), which was dated to c.690 on the basis of literary texts about the Kimmerian invasion and subsequent death of Midas. The second is the burial in Tumulus MM (the so-called ‘Midas Mound’), which was assigned a date in the early eighth century due to a single artefact that had parallels in Neo-Assyrian art under Sargon II. The third is the monumental rebuilding of the citadel, which was thought to have happened some time after the destruction in the sixth century, either during the time of Lydian expansion or under Persian rule. The role played by literary sources, both classical and Neo-Assyrian, in the creation of the traditional chronology is evident. The second chapter, by Mary Voigt and Keith DeVries, describes how the body of evidence against the old chronology grew over the course of the 1950s-90s, culminating in the radical revision of the chronology in the early 2000s. This chapter makes for engaging reading, developing its plots and subplots like a detective story, and describing the slow accumulation of evidence from radiocarbon dating, finds of imported Greek pottery, comparisons of architectural style, survey archaeology and detailed stratigraphic analysis. Taken together, these two chapters provide a novel insight into archaeological history, prompting reflections not only on the site of Gordion itself, but also on the development of archaeological theory and method over the course of the twentieth century.

The following four chapters each provide a detailed analysis of the main classes of evidence which have been crucial in establishment of Gordion’s chronology: textual material, artefacts and ceramics, dendrochronology, and radiocarbon dating.

Chapter 3, also by DeVries, offers a comprehensive discussion of the textual sources relevant for the chronology of Gordion. It provides references for the figure of Midas in the Greek, Roman and Byzantine traditions, as well as in the Neo-Assyrian texts. It also includes a short section on the textual sources for the Kimmerians in Anatolia. The ambiguity of all of these textual sources is highlighted, and the many contradictions between them. DeVries does not offer explanations for this, but there is an implied critique of positivist readings of these texts, and the suggestion that a more nuanced reading of the texts as literary constructions may be more fruitful.

Chapter 4, by Kenneth Sams, focuses on the finds from Gordion. Sams considers a range of different classes of material, including carved stone orthostats, bronze fibulae, arrowheads, and a fragmentary Phrygian inscription. Where individual objects have been used as keystones for chronology, their archaeological contexts are closely considered, and parallels are discussed. Sams also presents the ceramics, focusing particularly on vessels with painted animal decoration, and fine black-polished wares. This evidence from finds, Sams tells us, is consistent with the new chronology for the Iron Age. However, the new chronology also has some significant implications for the interpretation of some of these finds. Sams mentions this briefly in the context of certain pottery styles, but does not go into detail about it here.

Chapter 5 is the longest chapter of the book, and presents the dendrochonological work done at Gordion. Ian Kuniholm, Maryanne Newton and Richard Liebhart introduce the history of dendrochronological analysis at the site, which goes back to the late 1950s. The chapter goes on to discuss the establishment of a full Anatolian dendrochronological chart, and highlights some of the non-chronological insights that can be gained from analysis of the wooden remains. A longer discussion describes the various techniques used over the year to achieve absolute dates in the dendrochronological sequence, including use of radiocarbon. The methodological discussion is full, and includes reflections on sampling strategies, statistical methods, and the potential pitfalls of radiocarbon. A detailed appendix with tables, graphs and accompanying commentary allows readers to explore the research further.

The sixth chapter, by Sturt Manning and Bernd Kromer, is concerned with the radiocarbon dating of the site, and focuses in particular on the Early Phrygian destruction layer (YHSS 6A). The chapter summarises all the radiocarbon dating work conducted at Gordion up until 2010, explicitly addressing the potential problems with the data and making reference to the tree-ring samples first mentioned in Chapter 5. Once again, this chapter contains detailed discussion of sampling methods and tools of analysis, presenting raw data as well as interpretation. This chapter, like the others before it, concludes in favour of the new Iron Age chronology.

The final concluding chapter, by Kenneth Sams and Mary Voigt, summarises the latest understanding of Gordion’s development over the Iron Age, describing the various complex phases of construction and re-construction from the tenth until the fourth century BC. The establishment of the new chronology has meant that a clearer picture can be gained of the site’s development, and new interpretations must be put forward for its history. Sams and Voigt highlight some areas where the new chronology has brought forth new insights, such as the sequence and occupants of the tumulus burials, and the character of Kimmerian activity in Anatolia. However, the implications of the new Gordion chronology for Anatolian and Near Eastern archaeology are far broader than any of the authors, in their modesty, claim. The idea of a ‘Dark Age’ in the Early Iron Age has long been critiqued, but with back-dating of the monumental Gordion remains into the tenth century, this idea must finally be abandoned. The political map of the Near East must also be redrafted, to take into account Gordion as a peer and contemporary of the Neo-Hittite states in the east. Finally, the comprehensive publication of this work allows other scholars to build on the research done at Gordion, to shed even more light on the Anatolian Iron Age.

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