Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) is the most notorious of all Bad Archaeologists by virtue of the scandal caused by the publication of his book Worlds in Collision in 1952. His main thesis – that the earth suffered a number of cataclysms in the second and first millennia BC as a result of near-misses by comets ejected from Jupiter that subsequently became the planets Mars and Venus – is essentially astronomical and is indisputably wrong. It was not the thesis of the book that gave Velikovsky his subsequent notoriety but the fact that when the book was ready for publication in 1950. A group of scientists whose work was distributed by the same publisher threatened to withdraw their work from the company’s lists. As a result, Worlds in Collision was published by a subsidiary of the company and its author was correctly able to claim that the scientific establishment had sought to stifle his ideas.
The impact of basic mistakes…
Had it not been for these few scientists, Velikovsky’s work might well have faded into obscurity, full as it is of astronomical speculation based on ancient mythology. However, in the Preface to Worlds in Collision, he announced an ambitious reconstruction of ancient history from the middle of the second millennium BC down to the time of Alexander the Great. This was necessary, he explained, because for Worlds in Collision, he had used “a synchronal scale of Egyptian and Hebrew histories that is not orthodox”. The unorthodox synchronisations included an identification of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1490-1468 BCE) with the Biblical Queen of Sheba, who would have lived in the later tenth century BCE, and Tuthmosis III (1468-1436 BCE) with Pharaoh-Shishak (שישק), separated by five or more centuries on the conventional chronology. Velikovsky’s method involved using the Biblical chronology to redate Egyptian history by providing links between the two histories, one assumed to be dated correctly, the other assumed to be dated wrongly.
Although Volume 1 of a projected two-volume work, Ages in Chaos, was published in 1952, covering the Egyptian Eighteenth Dynasty down to the time of Amenhotep III, it was not until the late 1970s that the remainder of the work began to appear, having now expanded into five volumes. When they did appear, there were surprises in store. Most readers had assumed that Velikovsky’s reconstruction of history would involve the compression of the Third Intermediate period by allowing more dynasties to be contemporaneous than orthodox Egyptologists have usually done. Instead, the public was treated to an identification of Ra‘messe II (1289-1224 BCE) with the Biblical Pharaoh-Necho (c 600 BCE), his Hittite opponent Muwatalliš II (1295-1272 BCE) at the Battle of Kadesh (c 1274 BCE) with Nabukudurriusur II (Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon 605-562 BCE), and Ra‘messe III (1184-1153 BCE) with Nechtnebef (Nektanebo, 380-362 BCE), one of the last indigenous rulers of Egypt before Alexander’s conquest in the late fourth century BCE.
Needless to say, this reconstruction is entirely text-based. There is no stratigraphic evidence from Egypt or the Levant to back up these claims that not only down-date some pharaohs by as much as seven centuries but also reverse the sequence of numerous individuals. Some well-attested pharaohs (such as Ra‘messe VI, 1142-1135 BCE)) are dismissed as controlling only small oases in opposition to the Ptolemies (305-30 BCE); some (such as Psamtik I, 664-610 BCE) are downgraded to Persian satraps. Even if (like Peter James) we accept that there is something not quite right with Egyptian chronology, it is unlikely to be this fundamentally wrong. Two centuries of archaeology have been devoted to working out the sequence of pharaohs (indeed, a valid criticism of Egyptology is that it has devoted too much effort to this enterprise!) and although there may be room for squeezing and stretching individual reigns or altering the degree of overlap between contemporaneous rulers, there is not the latitude to make Ra‘messe III (1184-1153 BCE) a contemporary of Philip II of Macedonia (359-336 BCE)!
The religious and political bias of a Bad Archaeologist
As with so many Bad Archaeologists, Velikovsky’s need to rewrite history stems from a fundamentalist viewpoint. He assumes the primacy of the Hebrew Bible; even if Genesis has to be taken as largely allegorical, he regards it as a detailed and accurate account of the history of the Middle East from the Exodus onwards. Anything that disagrees with it is therefore wrong and needs to be corrected. Velikovsky was clearly sympathetic to the Zionist cause, although it is not altogether certain that he would have regarded himself as a Zionist. Even so, the final sentence of Part II, Chapter VI of Worlds in Collision makes his feelings about his Jewish heritage clear: “from the desperate and heroic struggle for national existence on its narrow strip of land…, it became a nation chosen to bring a message of the brotherhood of man to all the peoples of the world”. A reconstruction of ancient history written from so passionate a viewpoint cannot but be sidetracked down some bizarre roads leading to a town called Bad Archaeology.