ARCANE Project

Presentation of the ARCANE Project

1. Scientific Background

A Brief History of the Project

Chronology underpins all archaeological and historical studies. To establish the proper sequence of events is a prerequisite condition for writing history. The synchronization of chronologies, and therefore of histories, of the various areas of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East is an essential task without which the development of civilizations, their reciprocal influences, their merger and divergence, cannot be described and understood.

The chronological framework of these civilizations had been broadly outlined by scholarship until the 1960s. Since then, however, the multiplication of excavations and the widespread use of C14 dates have simply revolutionized our knowledge. More discoveries have been made in the last forty years than in the preceding century. This accumulation of new data has not much modified the chronology of the first millennium BC, but that of the Bronze Age — the second and third millennium BC — has been profoundly altered. New schemes of periodization have been formulated; new chronologies worked out, and new synchronisms proposed, based on a large variety of sometimes-conflicting data originating from expanded geographical horizons.

As a result, disagreements between specialists are numerous and profound, controversies frequent and uncertainties general. In particular, different scholars may sometimes use the same term to designate a period to which they ascribe a different archaeological definition and time span. In such extreme cases, scholarly communication is jeopardized.

To remedy this situation, specialists of the second millennium in Egypt and the Levant have resolved in the last decade to intensify international cooperation in the framework of a project geared to the solution of major chronological problems.

But nothing has been done yet to establish on solid grounds the chronology of the third millennium BC in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East and to propose an overall synchronization of its various cultures.

It is in order to fill this void that in 2002 a group of scholars representing several academic and research institutions met at the University of Pisa for a two-day workshop. The outcome of this meeting was the creation of an international research project entitled “Associated Regional Chronologies for the Ancient Near East”, summarized by the acronym ARCANE.

This initial meeting, and a second one held in Paris in December 2003, laid the scientific, methodological and administrative foundation of a 5-year project.

The Problems

The need for a drastic revision of the current chronological framework of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern Early Bronze Age is the result of three trends, which characterize the research of the last three decades:

  1. A considerable increase in the number of reliable archaeological sequences. Our knowledge of the archaeology of each area has much increased, but more and more in isolation and less and less in conjunction with neighbouring areas, to say nothing of distant areas;
  2. The main result of recent studies on the absolute chronology of the second millennium BC has been a lowering (ca.150 years) of the accepted dates of the major historical events considered as cornerstones for the absolute chronology. The consequences of the introduction of this low chronology have yet to be drawn for the chronology of the preceding millennium.
  3. There has been a drastic development of C14 datings, opening the possibility to obtain secure absolute dates. However, it has revealed growing discrepancies between the results of C14 datings and those of empirical chronologies based on archaeological sequences, the former being usually much higher than the latter would suggest. It appears that these discrepancies are of different magnitude according to various areas.

It is necessary to find a solution to the current problems in order to enable the synchronization of the earliest civilizations of the ancient Near East, which witnessed the first appearance of cities, the emergence of the State and the invention of writing. The issues at stake have thus a general historical significance, far beyond the practical chronological frames of basic archaeological research.

2. Aims and Goals

The ultimate goal of the ARCANE project is to produce a reliable relative and absolute chronology of the entire Near East based on the synchronization of regional chronologies for the third millennium BC.

“Third millennium” is a conventional designation corresponding, in fact, to the period called by archaeologists the “Early Bronze Age”. In current terminology, the Early Bronze Age begins during the course or with the end of the fourth millennium, and its end may occur at the beginning of the second millennium, depending on the area. Hence, the chronological focus of the project is the third millennium BC, but the time span considered may infringe more or less on the preceding and following millennia.

Within this long time span, the project intends to review all aspects of the material culture, together with the artistic manifestations, the historical and epigraphic records and the various methods of dating (mainly C14, but also thermo-luminescence, thermo-remanence, dendrochronology, etc.).

Its geographical scope covers the entire Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern area, from Egypt to Iran and from Cyprus and Anatolia to the Arab-Persian Gulf.

Within this large territory, the study approach is regional: the aim of the project is first and foremost to achieve the establishment of regional archaeological sequences which will be ultimately synchronized in order to obtain a synthetic view of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern chronology. Hence the title of the project.

For working purposes, twelve regions have been isolated (see map) on the basis of a preliminary archaeological analysis discussed during the workshops organized in Pisa and Paris. These regions are: Southern Levant (SL), Northern Levant (NL), Cyprus (CY), Aegean (AG), Western & Central Anatolia (WA), Eastern Anatolia (EA), Middle Euphrates (ME), Jezirah (JZ), Tigridian Region (TG), Central Mesopotamia (CM), Southern Mesopotamia (SM), and Western Iran (WI). These regions constitute the operational framework of the Regional Groups.

However, since several archaeological data cannot be treated at a regional level and necessitate a wider treatment, the project has also a transregional, or transversal, dimension: the critical examination of radiocarbon dates, art historical studies, as well as epigraphic and historical evidence need to be considered in a broader framework. They constitute, therefore, the focus of additional research groups, called the Transversal Groups.

3. Procedures

A Gradual Approach

The development of the project is planned in three steps:

  • First at a regional level, by establishing regional periodizations;
  • Then at a supra-regional level, by synchronizing the different regional periodizations;
  • Finally, a global synchronization of the entire study area will be attempted.

First Phase : Regional Periodization

Each Regional Group will produce a synthesis of its results, in the form of a volume presenting a regional periodization, a table of synchronization of the stratigraphic sequences of the major sites, and a series of contributions illustrating the categories of objects which characterize the material culture for each period (type fossils).

Second Phase : Cross-Regional Synchronization

During the second phase of the project, the same methodology will be applied for synchronizing the different regional periodizations. Interregional workshops will be organized for comparing the assemblages of artefacts, e.g., for Southern and Northern Levant, for Iran, Central and Lower Mesopotamia, etc. The role of the three Transversal Groups will be especially important at this stage of the project.

Third and Last Phase: General Synthesis

The last and final phase of the project will consist of a general synthesis elaborated in the course of a final conference. It will result in a final volume with chronological tables, contributions about the periodization and chronology of the different regions, illustrations of the regional assemblages, and distribution maps for some widespread types of artefacts.

Workshops and Conference

The project involves the organization of several international meetings at the three phases of its development:

  • Regional and Transversal group Team Leaders will meet at least once a year to monitor the development of the project.
  • Each Regional Group will organize one or two workshops bringing together the members of the group and several field archaeologists and specialists of related disciplines and natural sciences. It is essential that the work of each Regional Group expresses the consensus of opinion of the largest possible number of scholars, within and outside the ARCANE group.
  • Several workshops will review interregional data.
  • A general conference will be organized in 2010 or 2011 to mark the conclusion of the project and the formulation of a global synthesis.


Publications will appear in a special series to be published by Brepols Publishers as the project develops. As mentioned above, each Regional and Transversal Group will produce a volume summarizing its results; the interregional workshops and the general conference will also generate separate volumes. Altogether 21 volumes are planned.

4. Specificities

The ARCANE project represents a radically new scholarly endeavour in the field of Near Eastern studies. It presents unique features in its scientific approach, methodology and organization.

A New and Common Methodology

The project seeks explicitly to set new scientific standards through the use of a common methodology applied by all Regional Groups. In particular:

  • All Regional Groups will follow the same working procedures aimed at reviewing the evidence as objectively as possible, in order to avoid the biases accumulated in the course of five or six decades of scholarship. For example, to avert the situation of terminological confusion mentioned above, in which periods with different archaeological definitions or chronological time span may have the same designation for different scholars, each Regional Group will use, initially, as a provisional working terminology, “neutral” designations of period by combining the acronym of the region with an Arabic number indicating the phase (e.g., “ESL 1” for “Early Southern Levant Phase 1”, “EJZ 2” for “Early Jezirah Phase 2”, etc.).
  • Participants will try to develop, in the course of the project, a common terminology to define periods and types of material;
  • In selecting the data for chronological purposes, they will aim at selectivity rather than quantity; i.e., they will consider only stratigraphically safe material and concentrate on complete assemblages discovered on sites of which archaeological sequence is beyond dispute;
  • In addition, a large amount of newly discovered and unpublished material will be used, in order to guarantee that the project represents the most up-to-date treatment of the subject.

An Emphasis on Pluridisciplinarity

The project is resolutely pluridisciplinary: in addition to archaeologists, it includes historians, art historians, epigraphers and specialists of various dating methods.

The Mobilization of an International and Comprehensive Team of Scholars

These specialists belong to some 26 different countries and represent the major European academic and research institutions, active in this field. It should be emphasized that the project will actually regroup all the countries and the majority of the scholars and institutions involved today in the study of the Early Bronze Age of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern area. At this point in time, it will represent a major and unique scientific endeavour.

The General Exchange of New Unpublished Data Between All Participants

The modus operandi of the project implies the permanent exchange of information — in particular the as yet unpublished data — between all participants through email and internet. A web site is currently set up at Tübingen University in order to provide information accessible to the general public, as well as administrative and scientific data accessible only to the members of the ARCANE project.

The permanent sharing of unpublished data represents the introduction of new scientific behaviour in a discipline like Near Eastern archaeology.

The Association of Graduate Students and Young Scholars

Finally, it should be emphasized that the project will bring together three generations of scholars. Special attention will be devoted to the training of doctoral and young post-doctoral students belonging to the participating institutions. In particular, several M.A. and doctoral dissertations will be ascribed to students in the framework of the project.

5. Structure

Since the ARCANE project brings together a large number of scholars from different countries, its structure should secure an efficient and harmonious functioning. The organizational structure is the following:

Steering Committee

The Steering Committee is composed of 12 members representing the 12 funding national research agencies.

The Committee includes :

  • a Chairman;
  • two Executives, assisting the Research Coordinator and maintaining the interim of administrative tasks;
  • eight Members.

Research Coordination

The Research Coordinator has the responsibility to ensure the general coordination of the Programme.

Team Leaders and Topic Coordinators

Each of the twelve Regional Groups and of the three Transversal Groups is composed of one or two Team Leader(s) and several Topic Coordinators who will deal with a specific aspect of the regional project (pottery, stratigraphy, metal, glyptic, architecture & city planning, lithics, burials & funerary practices, etc.). Each group will also obtain the ad hoc collaboration of field archaeologists, art historians and various specialists.

ARCANE Project
(PowerPoint file)
-Suggested Guidelines
(PDF file)
Modus Operandi
Regional and
Transversal Groups
Publication Phase
New Periodization Table
ARCANE Database
Database Tools
Meeting Reports
Review by E.S.F. independent experts