captive sea people fresco

Captive “Sea Peoples” from a relief at Medinet Habu temple.

Could a series of catastrophes over a century or more, have led to the final collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations in the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East after nearly two thousand years of growth and prosperity? The historian Eric Cline thinks so: “We must now turn to the idea of a systems collapse, a systemic failure with both a domino and multiplier effect, from which even such a globalized international, vibrant, intersocietal network as was present during the Late Bronze Age could not recover.” Are there lessons here for our own time?

The First Global Economy

sailing vessel replica

Replica of the Uluburun shipwreck. Photo by Murat Akar.

In 1982, a diver discovered a shipwreck off the shore of Uluburun, on the southwest coast of Turkey, that proved to be a turning point in our understanding of the extent of trade and contact between the peoples of the Late Bronze Age. The sunken vessel dated to about 1,300 BCE, and, as the oldest of three vessels found from the period, it finally focused attention on the magnitude of international trade in this region over 3,000 years ago.

From the ship’s cargo, it almost certainly was traveling westward. Beginning its journey possibly from the Levant, and stopping at Ugarit in northern Syria and then Cyprus, it probably followed the southern coastline of Anatolia (modern Turkey), bound for a port city in the Aegean. Along the way, it had taken on board what Eric H. Cline, the author, historian, archaeologist, and professor of Classics and Anthropology at The George Washington University, describes as “an incredible assortment of goods.”

Bodrum Underwater Archaeology Museum's Uluburun shipwreck diorama.

Bodrum Underwater Archaeology Museum’s Uluburun shipwreck diorama.

 To appreciate the extent of international trade and contact at the time, consider this list from Cline’s fascinating book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, of the cargo found on this vessel:

Ivory duck container rescued from a shipwreck


A duck-shaped ivory cosmetic container.

In addition to its primary cargo of ten tons of Cypriot copper, one ton of tin, and a ton of terebinth resin, – (from pistachio trees) that could be used in the perfume manufactured at Pylos on mainland Greece and then shipped back to Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. … There were also two dozen ebony logs from Nubia; almost two hundred ingots of raw glass from Mesopotamia, most colored dark blue, but others of light blue, purple, and even a shade of honey/ amber; about 140 Canaanite storage jars in two or three basic sizes, which contained the terebinth resin, remains of grapes, pomegranates, and figs, as well as spices like coriander and sumac; brand-new pottery from Cyprus and Canaan, including oil lamps, bowls, jugs, and jars; scarabs from Egypt and cylinder seals from elsewhere in the Near East; swords and daggers from Italy and Greece (some of which might have belonged to crew members or passengers), including one with an inlaid hilt of ebony and ivory; and even a stone scepter-mace from the Balkans. There was also gold jewelry, including pendants, and a gold chalice; duck-shaped ivory cosmetic containers; copper, bronze, and tin bowls and other vessels; twenty-four stone anchors; fourteen pieces of hippopotamus ivory and one elephant tusk; and a six-inch-tall statue of a Canaanite deity made of bronze overlaid with gold in places—which, if it was supposed to serve as the protective deity for the ship, didn’t do its job very well. … The tin probably came from the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan, one of the few places where it was available during the second millennium BC. The lapis lazuli on board came from the same area, traveling thousands of miles overland before being brought onto the ship. … One of the smallest objects found on board the ship was also one of the most important— an Egyptian scarab made of solid gold. Rare as such an object might be, it was made even more unusual by the hieroglyphs inscribed upon it, for they spelled out the name of Nefertiti, wife of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten.”

Cline surmises the ship may well have been sent from Mycenae “on a shopping expedition to the Eastern Mediterranean and sank on the return voyage.” As he points out, from the gold scarab we know that it could not have left Egypt before Nefertiti came to power in Egypt about 1350 BCE. Three other independent dating mechanisms, including radio carbon dating, all point to this same period for the ship—the beginning of the thirteenth century BCE.

Gold scarab and glass ingots

From the Uluburun shipwreck: scarab of Queen Nefertiti and glass ingots.

Much like contemporary global relations, we know from written evidence as early as 1800 BCE that numerous networks were necessary to keep the economy in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean region functioning smoothly. Thousands of tablets containing important information about the administration of the city-state of Mari have been found, including over 3,000 letters that reveal the nature of diplomatic relations between political entities in the region, and the trading networks that connected areas as far as Afghanistan (from where they acquired tin), to Cyprus (known for its copper) and Crete (known for its bronze, so an importer of both). Written sources include the royal correspondence known as the Amarna Letters in Egypt from the time of the pharaohs Amenhotep III and Akhenaten in the mid-fourteenth century BCE, the archives at Ugarit in north Syria during the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries, and those at Hattusa in Anatolia during the fourteenth to twelfth centuries. They all speak of diplomatic, commercial, transportation and communication networks, and reveal the ups and downs of diplomatic relationships between pharaohs and kings, their states and empires.

ca 1300 BCE

They refer to extravagant gifts exchanged between leaders, such as from Akhenaten to the Kassite king of Babylon: one gift list included gold, copper, silver and bronze, and takes up “more than three hundred lines of writing on the tablet.” Control of Nubian gold mines, meant that the Egyptians had access to vast quantities of gold, which appears to have been well known internationally. Described often in the Amarna collection from outside royal petitioners as “gold is like dust in your land,” or “in my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as dirt.” Gold might be requested in exchange for a marriageable daughter, or because of an existing “brotherly” relationship. Family relationship bonds, inferred or real, strengthened ties, cemented relationships and treaties between rulers.

From about 1800 BCE until around 1200 BCE commerce in the region flourished to the extent that it can be described as the earliest known example of global trade. It included Minoans, Myceneaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots and Egyptians with trade routes to Afghanistan and the Indus Valley. The Bronze Age world exchanged not only goods, but people and ideas – soldiers, merchants, sailors, craftsmen, all bringing with them their stories, histories, insights and religious beliefs to share and compare with others in bazaars, taverns and marketplaces.

From about 1800 BCE until around 1200 BCE commerce in the region flourished to the extent that it can be described as the earliest known example of global trade.

Since most of the cargo sent around the Aegean, Egypt and the Near East was likely perishable, the evidence we have centuries later is a tiny fraction of what took place. However, according to Cline, “We can say with certainty that the far-reaching civilizations that were still flourishing in the Aegean and the ancient Near East in 1225 BC had begun to vanish by 1177 BC and were almost completely gone by 1130 BC. The mighty Bronze Age kingdoms and empires were gradually replaced by smaller city-states during the following Early Iron Age. Consequently, our picture of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world of 1200 BC is quite different from that of 1100 BC and completely different from that of 1000 BC.

The Dark Ages

So, what happened? After nearly two thousand years of growth and prosperity, (ca 3000–1200 BCE) the civilizations in the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East unraveled. It was not the collapse of a single empire or a single civilization like the Roman, the Maya, or the Mongol, but a vast globalized world system of multiple civilizations, from Greece and Italy in the west, to Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia in the east. It included large empires and small kingdoms, all of which fell like a stack of dominoes, down to a final collapse within about one hundred years, between 1225 BCE and 1175–1130 BCE.

The historian Robert Drews describes this period as “the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.” Over the last fifty years Drews, Nancy Sandars and other historians have come up with theories pointing to one primary factor or another. In his book The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Drews wrote that barbarian fighters, including the Sea Peoples, motivated by other elements of the Catastrophe such as drought, brought about the final collapse. “… the Catastrophe came about when men in ‘barbarian’ lands awoke to the truth that had been with them for some time: the chariot-based forces on which the Great Kingdoms relied could be overwhelmed by swarming infantries, the infantrymen being equipped with javelins, long swords, and a few essential pieces of defensive armor. … found it within their means to assault, plunder, and raze the richest palaces and cities on the horizon, and this they proceeded to do.” Unlike charioteers, they were able to approach target palaces and cities through any sort of terrain; burning, killing and pillaging, they committed general mayhem throughout the region. Historian Nancy Sandars felt the cause was the Sea People, though, as Cline points out, in her final edition of a book of the same name, she does say that: “many explanations have been tried and few have stood. Unparalleled series of earthquakes, widespread crop-failures and famine, massive invasion from the steppe, the Danube, the desert—all may have played some part; but they are not enough.

Climate change, plague, drought, invasions and internal strife have all been factors discussed. But as scholars have pointed out, earthquakes, crop failures, political instability and even invasions were not that unusual in the region, and yet within less than one hundred years the states and empires in the area seem all to have disintegrated, or severely diminished. Those who lived in the old core river valley areas of the great cities of Egypt and Babylon got through this terrible time, because they had the population, resources and institutions to emerge into the Iron Age and still maintain their traditional monarchies. But in Asia Minor, the Levant and particularly in the Greek Kingdoms, where civilizations were more remote, they suffered a much greater, decisive collapse.

Map of the Bronze Age collapse ca 1200 BCE

Invasions, destruction and possible population movements during the collapse of the Bronze Age, ca 1200.

Earthquake Storms

We know from recent research by archaeoseismologists, that Greece, as well as much of the rest of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, including Ugarit, was struck by what are known as “earthquake storms” – a series of earthquakes that began about 1225 BCE and continued over fifty years, until about 1175 BCE. Although there is evidence of repetitive rebuilding, the damage caused likely disrupted trade and diplomacy temporarily at least.

Climate Change, Drought, Crop Failure and Famine

There is evidence for drought and unprecedented famine during the last years of the thirteenth and the early decades of the twelfth century BCE that appears to have affected the entire region. We know that the Early Iron Age was definitely more arid that the preceding Bronze Age. Analysis of pollen from coastal regions of Syria and Cyprus, oxygen-isotope data from mineral deposits in Israel, stable carbon isotope data in pollen cores from Lake Voulkaria in western Greece, and sediment cores from the Mediterranean, show that there was a drop in surface temperature, all of which indicate the onset of a drought 3,200 years ago that may well have lasted about 300 years. This change in climate would obviously would have caused crop failures, famine, and human migrations. Scarcity of resources would have caused problems including violence at home and overseas. Texts and evidence suggest that Ugarit finally fell because of outside invaders, but it was obviously severely weakened by famine. Voices from last Ugaritic letters bare this out:  “There is famine in our house.  We will all die of hunger.”  “Our city is sacked.  May you know it!  May you know it!”

Internal Conflicts

The destruction of Mycenaean palatial centers or Canaanite cities for example, may well in part have been perpetrated by mutinous foot soldiers, and other local inhabitants as these top-down civilizations weakened. But it’s not likely that the conflict came entirely from people already living inside these states. In any case, as Cline points out “many civilizations have successfully survived internal rebellions, often even flourishing under a new regime.”

International Conflicts and Wars

Egyptian warrior killing a Philistine - stone relief

A Peleset (Philistine) killed by an Egyptian warrior in the Medinet Habu temple relief.

We know from the surviving writings, some of which we’ve mentioned already, that conflicts came and went, treaties were created and broken, economic embargoes enforced, and diplomatic relationships destroyed or created; that wars were fought, won and lost, causing continuous movement within the globalized economy of the Late Bronze Age. The Hittite Empire flourished and reached its apex during the Late Bronze Age—beginning in the fifteenth century and lasting until the early decades of the twelfth century BCE. The Mitannians were weakened by the Hittites and finally destroyed by the Assyrians, who by 1207 BCE had played an important role in the region for two hundred years. In the last quarter of the thirteenth century, the Assyrians extended their empire westward, annexing much of the Hittite empire, and initiating its decline.

The Sea Peoples and Pirates; Refugees and Other Migrating Communities

For a long time the demise of the Bronze Age civilizations was thought to have been the result of invasions by the “Sea Peoples,” a term coined by the French Egyptologist Emanuel de Rougé in 1885 to describe what is now thought to have been diverse groups of raiders, soldiers, mercenaries and refugees from different countries and cultures.

We know of them almost entirely from Egyptian records, they left no trace of their own. Egyptian texts refer to them by their various names. The Tjekker, Shardana, Shekelesh, Danuna, and Weshesh, the Peleset – thought to be the Philistines, later identified in the Bible as coming from Crete – are all mentioned on the mortuary temple walls at Medinet Habu dated 1177 BCE, the eighth year of Pharaoh Ramses III’s reign. Invaders are recorded as coming “in waves by sea and land.” Hittites, Myceneans, Cypriots and others were invaded as “They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being.”

These groups became larger as their piracy, raids, and waves of attacks included migrations from mainland Greece and the Aegean, modern Libya and Cyprus, Lebanon and Asia Minor. People were forced to uproot because of famine or the destruction of their own homeland; others may well have encountered chaos as they entered and took advantage of dominions already in decline; still others would already be resettled with their families and themselves have suffered from later invasions.

Although we learn from Medinet Habu that these “Sea People” were destroyed by the Egyptians, as they were in previous invasions, this time Egypt never quite recovered, probably because the entire Mediterranean region was floundering. For the rest of the second millennium BCE Egypt’s power was much reduced.

Sickness Epidemics

Recent DNA evidence from Bronze Age human skeletons show early signs of the bacterium that causes plague. Geneticists think a pandemic of pneumonic plague may well explain the sudden massive migration east and west of the Yamnaya peoples from the steppes into Europe and Central Asia. There are records of plague, traveling with prisoners of war from Egypt to the Hittite region in central Anatolia, and causing the death of Suppiluliuma I in the fourteenth century BCE. Ramses V may have died from smallpox in 1140 BCE.

The Perfect Storm

It seems more than likely that it took all the above causes to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations – and one more factor.

Cline cites the work of archeologist Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University who as early as 1979, in “Systems Collapse as Social Transformation” described a component of his catastrophe theory as “the failure of a minor element started a chain reaction that reverberated on a greater and greater scale, until finally the whole structure was brought to collapse.” He itemized events that cause such catastrophes as follows:

  1. The collapse of the central administrative organization
  2. The disappearance of the traditional elite class
  3. The collapse of the centralized economy
    4. A settlement shift and population decline

According to Cline, Renfrew understood that it might take as much as a century for all aspects of the collapse to be completed, and that there would be no one single obvious cause. Additionally, in the aftermath of such a collapse, “there would be a transition to a lower level of sociopolitical integration and the development of ‘romantic’ Dark Age myths about the previous period.”

From about 1500 BCE to 1200 BCE, Mycenaean Greece, Crete, Anatolia and the Hittite empire, Cyprus, Syria, the Southern Levant, and (to a lesser extent) Egypt relied on trade in the Mediterranean region. Many of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms had fragile economies dependent on imports from other lands, including, copper and tin for making bronze weapons. The Hittites, for example, were importing grain from Egypt which was critical for their survival. These nations had become so interdependent that a catastrophe in one area inevitably triggered a reaction in neighboring areas.

Cline posits that these empires failed because not one, but “a concatenation of events, both human and natural— including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and “systems collapse”— coalesced to create a “perfect storm” that brought this age to an end.” When multiple catastrophes took place almost simultaneously, as they did in this period, their effects were amplified and multiplied, and spiraled throughout the region.

Recall that this is “the Bronze Age.” Imagine a disruption along the route from Afghanistan, from which tin has to be imported, into to the Aegean. It would end the bronze industry. As Carol Bell, a British academician and colleague of Cline, observes “the strategic importance of tin in the LBA [Late Bronze Age] … was probably not far different from that of crude oil today.” The very internationalism that had ensured the success of the Bronze Age, triggered the apocalyptic disaster that eventually ended it. Just as it could in our globalized world today.

Cline reminds us, that there are times when we also wonder if our own civilization might be heading for a similar collapse. What, for example, would have happened in 2008 if the banking institutions had collapsed? What if our electrical grid, satellites, and of course, the GPS we have come so much to rely on are destroyed? We are no more immune than the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age.

He suggests that we might learn from this history. “If we see the same sort of things taking place now that happened back then, including drought and famine, earthquakes and tsunamis, and so on, then might it not be a good idea to look at the ancient world and see what happened to them? Adam Frank of NPR asked me, ‘If we don’t want to be repeating history, what lessons should we be learning from their mistakes?’ I replied, and I will say it here again, that we should be aware that no society is invulnerable and that every society in the history of the world has ultimately collapsed. The fact that similarly intertwined civilizations collapsed just after 1200 BC should be a warning to us; we are, in fact, more susceptible than we might wish to think. At the same time, we should also be thankful that we are actually advanced enough to understand what is happening and can take steps to fix things, rather than simply passively accept things as they occur.”

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