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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Bronze Age Collapse: The End of an Era

Roughly 3,200 years ago, the Eastern Mediterranean was experiencing a glittering golden age. It was here that numerous interconnected civilizations, including the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Hittites had blossomed into some of the most sophisticated groups of the time. Sprawling cities, great palaces, early writing systems, thriving trade – it was quite simply a glorious era – but one that was followed by a spectacular, and still mysterious plunge in chaos in less than a century.

The Bronze Age Collapse has never fully been explained, but its results were close to a social armageddon – and I don’t use that phrase lightly. Between 1200 and 1150 BCE the Eastern Mediterranean experienced the kind of widespread civilization collapse that often takes centuries to occur.

Such was the devastation it has long been difficult for archaeologists to truly determine what occurred. Major cities in the area were reduced to ruin and the region saw a catastrophic population decline that sometimes took centuries to recover from.

Numerous theories have emerged over time, including economic collapse, climate change, vast wars, and the invasion of the still mysterious group known only as ‘the Sea People’. Whatever happened in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age Collapse, it was chaotic, violent, and cataclysmic.

The Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age

The period before this dramatic collapse had seen several kingdoms rise to power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Two of the most famous names that still resonate today were the Egyptians, whose land had spread well outside the constraints of modern-day Egypt, and the Babylonians whose territories straddled what is today Iraq and Iran at the time.

Assyria bordered Babylonian lands to the north and west with the Hittite Empire encompassing much of modern-day Turkey. Mycenaean Greece included most of the southern section of the modern country as well as many of its islands, while the smaller Minoan civilization could be found on Crete and other Aegean Islands. This was a complex group of kingdoms that jostled for power in an area that might not seem small on a map, but certainly was when you take into account these great major players of the age.

As I said, this was a glorious period that had seen the Bronze Age replace the Stone Age leading to great strides for humanity. The Bronze age saw nations and larger cities emerge, new forms of governance, new religions, as well as technological advancements that, of course, included the smelting of copper and alloying it with tin, arsenic, or other metals, to create bronze, that completely changed everything. This led to better tools and weapons allowing humans to hunt and farm much more sufficiently and homo sapiens began to blossom.

Wars were certainly fought between these groups but it appears that between 1500-1200 BC the area experienced relative stability and flourishing trade routes that even involved a loose set of laws that governed interactions between the groups.

It’s worth remembering that this was around 1500 years before the heyday of the Roman Empire and what had been created in this region was absolutely astonishing. However, this might also have played a key role in the region’s downfall. With such complex trading routes and with parts of the region very much dependent on others and vice versa, it’s not difficult to see how a domino effect could occur when key pieces were removed.

Even if we think on a much smaller scale it’s not difficult to see how a collapse could happen. This was well past the time of hunter-gatherers and civilizations at the time, a bit like we have today, relied on crop production and food distribution networks to feed the masses. You pull a few well-placed Jenga pieces out of the impressive, yet shaky, systems and the result can be catastrophic.

But none of that was likely on the minds of those living in the region as the Bronze Age reached its glorious crescendo. Shipwrecks found off the coast of Turkey have revealed a staggering level of trade at the time, that included copper, tin, gold, beads, ivory, Ostrich eggshells, Cypriot oil lamps, intricate jewellery, almonds, pine nuts, grapes, olives, and pomegranates.

This is certainly not to say that everybody could enjoy these relative delicacies, and life was always fragile due to the possibility of war, drought, and disease, but as the date neared 1200 BC, some of those living in the Eastern Mediterranean were enjoying a standard of life that placed them at the very pinnacle of human progress.

The Collapse Begins

Full armor includes helmet, cuirass, greaves, shield, spear. Carrying supplies hanging from spears. Mycenae acropolis, 12th century BC. Mycenaean Pictorial Style, from the “House of the Warrior Krater”. The Warrior Vase by Sharon Mollerus is licensed under CC-BY

This is one story where it’s difficult to give a clear narrative for the simple reason that we have very little idea what occurred in the fifty years between 1200 and 1150 BC. Archaeologists have argued bitterly over the major cause or causes of the Bronze Age Collapse for centuries now, but no clear answer has ever emerged and it’s probably much more likely that the area became the focal point for a perfect storm that shattered the region and set its people back centuries.

As we mentioned earlier, several theories have emerged, but all seem to have their drawbacks and some even contradict each other. One year that is sometimes highlighted as sparking the Bronze Age Collapse is 1177 BC. Now, we have precious little evidence about what appeared off the coast of Egypt that year, but according to the Second Pylon at Medinet Habu, which documented Year 8 of Ramesses III, it was earth-shaking and pushed the great Egyptian Empire to the very brink.

The Sea People

Source: Pinterest

It speaks of the complex mystery surrounding the Bronze Age Collapse that one of the principal theories is itself a complete enigma. The term Sea People is a relatively new phrase to describe a group that was said to have attacked Egypt at least twice during this period. The mighty Egyptian Empire just about fought off the would-be invaders, but it shook Egyptian notions of supremacy to their very core and many argue instigated the kingdom’s slow decline.

Much of what we assume about this group comes from Egyptian records at the time and in particular the Second Pylon, which depicts a vast seaborne invasion engaging in combat with the Egyptians. Records suggest this might not have been the first time the so-called Sea People arrived, but by all accounts, it was a seismic battle. The Egyptians were able to push back the invaders after a frantic and bloody engagement that probably took place in and around the Nile, but perhaps others in the Eastern Mediterranean weren’t so lucky.

So who were the Sea People? Well, that’s the problem because we have very little idea about this mysterious group who has been blamed by some for one of humanity’s greatest catastrophes were. Theories are wide-ranging but what makes the story even more complex is the depiction of women and children with carts seemingly accompanying the Sea People army.

Were these then refugees fleeing from drought and famine further north? Or possibly the Mycenaean Greeks, whose lands may have already been devastated by internal conflict. Maybe pirates or desperate landowners from Anatolia, members of the Sherden, who were probably from Sardinia and who had fought in a mercenary capacity within the Egyptian army before, or the Peleset, most likely the Philistine, an Aegon group who eventually settled in Palestine.

There is also the possibility that the Sea People were made up of a broad coalition of groups and because of this, they were able to amass significant numbers to take on the superpowers of the Eastern Mediterranean. This option seems to be supported by the fact that the Sea People are often portrayed in a variety of appearances in Egyptian engravings.

Devastation

Whether the Sea People were formed of several groups pulled from across the region, a single mysterious unity, or simply a label to conveniently explain what happened in the Eastern Mediterranean, we may never entirely know. But what is beyond doubt is that the level of destruction that rained down on the region came with ferocious savagery.

Archaeological research done in this area paints a quite traumatic tale of how these great civilizations came crashing down at roughly the same time. To give you a clear indication of the level and scope of destruction, the remains of almost every major ancient city in southern Greece, Anatolia, in what is modern Turkey, Cyprus, and in the area that is today Israel and Syria, carry the same gruesome hallmark.

If you go to these sites today, there isn’t much that remains. The once-great cities of Hattusa, Troy, and Ugarit are now long gone, but if you dig down into the earth, you don’t need to go far before you come to a thick layer of ash. And this is not simply in isolated areas, but a layer of blackened earth that stretches as far as the limits of these once mighty metropolises. The layer of ash represents the end for these great cities, the moment that they were not only sacked but burned to the ground and completely destroyed.

In some cases, this layer is accompanied by huge numbers of arrowheads and human remains lying out in what was once the streets, presumably of those either attempting to fight off the invaders or flee for their lives. Archaeologists have also found rare metals and valuables buried just beneath the ash which they believe were hidden just before the cities were overwhelmed and were never recovered.

Some of these cities, such as Aleppo in modern-day Syria, were eventually rebuilt and still stand today, but most were not. The destruction meted out across the region was so severe, so absolute, that many never recovered. Even to this day, you can walk through the quiet remains of these once magnificent cities almost completely oblivious to their ancient grandeur and the carnage that took place.

Perhaps the most harrowing piece of evidence we have about what happened in the region is also one of the only surviving accounts. The city of Ugarit once stood on the shores of what is today Northern Syria and its remains were only discovered by accident in 1928 – such was the devastation here that for over 3000 years the site remained almost entirely abandoned.

But quite astonishingly, a letter engraved in stone from the King of Ugarit at the time, Ammurapi, has been preserved, in which he pleads for assistance from the king of Alashiya – a state nearby. It reads,

‘My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.

It’s not clear whether a copy of the letter ever got out or whether it all came too late, but recent archaeologists findings have suggested that Ugarit was obliterated sometime between 1192 and 1190 BC

While it would be impossible to argue that the Bronze Age Collapse did not come about with a significant slice of human influence, there are other theories about events that may have at least contributed to the situation.

Environmental Factors

The fact that the Sea People were said to include women and children, along with carts filled with goods, might suggest a massive migration at the time. Recent high-resolution pollen analysis of a core taken from the Sea of Galilee has indicated that the years between 1250 B- 1100 BC were without question some of the driest seen during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Other evidence suggests an enormous 50 meter (164ft) drop in water levels in the Dead Sea region during this time, a change of such magnitude that only the most extreme weather patterns could have brought.

This correlates with evidence from around the region in the run-up to the collapse that speaks of extraordinary famines sweeping the area brought on by sustained and devastating droughts. If this was the case, perhaps the Sea People were refugees fleeing from their own lands that had been utterly decimated.

Other theories point to volcanic eruptions and sustained earthquakes which may have at least contributed to the region’s spectacular demise. The Aegean Sea is where several tectonic plates meet, and while it’s difficult to prove that specific earthquakes occurred so long ago, this is no fanciful theory. Many of the destroyed cities had evidence of human presence in the final days, such as arrowheads, but others are far less conclusive.

A significant number of the Mycenaean Greece sites, including Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes, and Pylos showed signs of destruction more likely caused by massive earthquakes than by humans, such as cracks in buildings, toppled columns and human remains buried beneath the rubble.

Volcanoes might sound like a bit of a stretch but you need only go back to 1613 BC, roughly 400 years before the Bronze Age Collapse began, to see how catastrophic they could be in the region. The Minoan eruption, which devastated the island of Thera, remains one of the largest volcanic eruptions during human history. Its effects were dramatic, with tsunamis spreading out across the Mediterranean and a volcanic winter, where temperatures typically plummet, settling across the region.

There is no clear indication that it was a volcanic eruption within the Mediterranean itself, but some have argued that the Hekla 3 eruption in Iceland may have occurred around this time, setting off a chain of events that affected crop production around the region, while others suggest the eruption came just after the collapse and the two events cannot be linked.

Iron Emerges

Another event that may have been a cause or even a consequence, was the introduction of iron, particularly on the battlefield. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Bronze Age Collapse coincided almost perfectly with the emergence of Iron Age technology. We don’t really know who started this metal revolution, but there are suggestions it may have begun in Bulgaria and Romania in the 13th and 12th centuries BCE.

The introduction of iron weapons, which would have been significantly stronger than bronze, would have made a dramatic difference on the battlefield. Was the reason the Sea People saw such spectacular success against such mighty armies down to the fact they had much better weapons?

Some historians argue that such a rapid change could not have happened in such a small window of time, but going back to the Egyptian depictions of the Sea People, it is noticeable that they appeared to be armed differently than was the style of the age. Many carried slashing swords and wore what appears to be heavy armour, neither of which were common at the time.

Unexplained Devastation

Whether the ultimate cause of the Bronze Age Collapse was down to a single factor that we’ve mentioned, or maybe a combination of all of them, the effect was unquestionable. Of the great civilizations of the time, only the Egyptians and Assyrians emerged – and they were far from unscathed. The Assyrians retreated to their traditional heartland, abandoning territory gained over previous centuries, and Egypt itself regressed in terms of size and was never quite the same again.

The Minoan, Mycenaean Greek, and Hittite civilizations essentially vanished from existence, while the Kassites, who controlled much of what we would call Babaloynia, also collapsed and were quickly swallowed up by their warring neighbours.

One other theory that is often linked with this period is known as the ‘societal collapse’ theory, which technically tries to marry all of the other theories to explain how a perfect storm of events combined to bring this delicate house of cards crashing down.

As I mentioned earlier, this was an incredibly interconnected region where vital or luxury goods were constantly traded back and forth. This created a superb international trading system but the problem here is what happens when some pieces fall out of place. Food was, of course, the biggest dilemma, with so many people relying on a central source for grain and other staples, civilizations and their rulers consistently walked a fine line. When the food runs out, it’s not difficult to imagine mass uprisings, and perhaps the Sea People were a group pushed to the most extreme of actions to survive.

The Bronze Age Collapse remains one of humanity’s most dramatic periods of social demise that quite literally set the area back in terms of progress. Many early forms of writing were lost, as were techniques for large-scale monument building in Greece, where a period known as the Greek Dark ages settled over the region for roughly 350 years.

Some areas, that had once been the pinnacle of humanity, never again rose from the ashes of the Bronze Age Collapse. The secrets of their downfall remain buried, often below a layer of blackened earth, a mysterious symbolic carpet of death and destruction that for many, signalled the end of their world.

Untitled (colorado.edu)

Late Bronze Age collapse – Wikipedia

Ugarit – Wikipedia

What Caused the Bronze Age Collapse? – HISTORY

BBC Radio 4 – In Our Time, The Bronze Age Collapse

1177 BCE, the year a perfect storm destroyed civilization – Archaeology – Haaretz.com

What Caused The Bronze Age Collapse Of Civilization? (5 Theories) (thecollector.com)

Minoan eruption on Santorini much larger than originally believed | VolcanoDiscovery

Why Did Babylon Collapse in the Late Bronze Age – DailyHistory.org

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