1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed

[ These are my notes that I will eventually use to write a book review, disjointed information for anyone who hasn’t read the book recently.

You’d be better off reading Ugo Bardi’s “The fall of the Mediterranean society during the bronze age: why we still don’t understand civilization collapse” at his Cassandra’s Legacy blog site, http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com ]

Eric H. Cline. 2014. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed: Turning Points in Ancient History. Princeton University Press.

Summary: “In 1177 B.C., marauding groups known only as the “Sea Peoples” invaded Egypt. The pharaoh’s army and navy managed to defeat them, but the victory so weakened Egypt that it soon slid into decline, as did most of the surrounding civilizations. After centuries of brilliance, the civilized world of the Bronze Age came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end. Kingdoms fell like dominoes over the course of just a few decades. No more Minoans or Mycenaeans. No more Trojans, Hittites, or Babylonians. The thriving economy and cultures of the late second millennium B.C., which had stretched from Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia, suddenly ceased to exist, along with writing systems, technology, and monumental architecture. But the Sea Peoples alone could not have caused such widespread breakdown. How did it happen? In this major new account of the causes of this “First Dark Ages,” Eric Cline tells the gripping story of how the end was brought about by multiple interconnected failures, ranging from invasion and revolt to earthquakes, drought, and the cutting of international trade routes. Bringing to life the vibrant multicultural world of these great civilizations, he draws a sweeping panorama of the empires and globalized peoples of the Late Bronze Age and shows that it was their very interdependence that hastened their dramatic collapse and ushered in a dark age that lasted centuries.

The economy of Greece is in shambles. Internal rebellions have engulfed Libya, Syria, and Egypt, with outsiders and foreign warriors fanning the flames. Turkey fears it will become involved, as does Israel. Jordan is crowded with refugees. Iran is bellicose and threatening, while Iraq is in turmoil. AD 2013? Yes. But it was also the situation in 1177 BC, more than three thousand years ago, when the Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations collapsed one after the other, changing forever the course and the future of the Western world.

The Bronze Age in the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East lasted nearly two thousand years, from approximately 3000 BC to just after 1200 BC. When the end came, as it did after centuries of cultural and technological evolution, most of the civilized and international world of the Mediterranean regions came to a dramatic halt in a vast area stretching from Greece and Italy in the west to Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia in the east. Large empires and small kingdoms, which had taken centuries to evolve, collapsed rapidly. With their end came a period of transition, once regarded by scholars as the world’s first Dark Age. It was not until centuries later that a new cultural renaissance emerged in Greece and the other affected areas, setting the stage for the evolution of Western society as we know it today.

In the current global economy, and in a world recently wracked by earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and the “Arab Spring” democratic revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the fortunes and investments of the United States and Europe are inextricably intertwined within an international system that also involves East Asia and the oil-producing nations of the Middle East. Thus, there is potentially much to be gleaned from an examination of the shattered remains of similarly intertwined civilizations that collapsed more than three thousand years ago.

Edward Gibbon wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire. A more recent example is Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. 2 However, these authors were considering how a single empire or a single civilization came to an end—the Romans, the Maya, the Mongols, and so forth. Here, we are considering a globalized world system with multiple civilizations all interacting and at least partially dependent upon each other. There are only a few instances in history of such globalized world systems; the one in place during the Late Bronze Age and the one in place today are two of the most obvious examples,

“the strategic importance of tin in the LBA [Late Bronze Age] … was probably not far different from that of crude oil today.”  At that time, tin was available in quantity only from specific mines in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan and had to be brought overland all the way to sites in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and north Syria, from where it was distributed to points farther north, south, or west, including onward across the sea to the Aegean. Bell continues, “The availability of enough tin to produce … weapons grade bronze must have exercised the minds of the Great King in Hattusa and the Pharaoh in Thebes in the same way that supplying gasoline to the American SUV driver at reasonable cost preoccupies an American President today!

“genuinely useful analogies” between the world of 1200 BC and that of today, including an increase in political, social, and economic fragmentation, as well as the conducting of direct exchange at “unprecedented social levels and over unprecedented distances.” Most relevant is her observation that the situation at the end of the Late Bronze Age provides an analogy for our own “increasingly homogenous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture, in which … political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.

We are not certain where the Sea Peoples originated: perhaps in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy, according to one scenario, perhaps in the Aegean or western Anatolia, or possibly even Cyprus or the Eastern Mediterranean.

We think of them as moving relentlessly from site to site, overrunning countries and kingdoms as they went. According to the Egyptian texts, they set up camp in Syria before proceeding down the coast of Canaan (including parts of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel) and into the Nile delta of Egypt. The year was 1177 BC. It was the eighth year of Pharaoh Ramses III’s reign. 3 According to the ancient Egyptians, and to more recent archaeological evidence, some of the Sea Peoples came by land, others by sea. 4 There were no uniforms, no polished outfits. Ancient images portray one group with feathered headdresses, while another faction sported skull-caps; still others had horned helmets or went bareheaded. Some had short pointed beards and dressed in short kilts, either bare-chested or with a tunic; others had no facial hair and wore longer garments, almost like skirts. These observations suggest that the Sea Peoples comprised diverse groups from different geographies and different cultures. Armed with sharp bronze swords, wooden spears with gleaming metal tips, and bows and arrows, they came on boats, wagons, oxcarts, and chariots.

We know that the invaders came in waves over a considerable period of time. Sometimes the warriors came alone, and sometimes their families accompanied them.

According to Ramses’s inscriptions, no country was able to oppose this invading mass of humanity. Resistance was futile. The great powers of the day— the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Canaanites, the Cypriots, and others—fell one by one. Some of the survivors fled the carnage; others huddled in the ruins of their once-proud cities; still others joined the invaders, swelling their ranks and adding to the apparent complexities of the mob of invaders. Each group of the Sea Peoples was on the move, each apparently motivated by individual reasons. Perhaps it was the desire for spoils or slaves that spurred some; others may have been compelled by population pressures to migrate eastward from their own lands in the West.

Of all the foreign groups active in this arena at this time, only one has been firmly identified. The Peleset of the Sea Peoples are generally accepted as none other than the Philistines, who are identified in the Bible as coming from Crete.

This was not the first time that the Egyptians fought against a collective force of “Sea Peoples.” Thirty years earlier, in 1207 BC, during the fifth year of Pharaoh Merneptah’s reign, a similar coalition of these shadowy groups had attacked Egypt.

The identification of the Shardana and the Shekelesh as “countries of the sea” reinforces the suggestion that they are to be linked with Sardinia and Sicily, respectively.

The general practice of the day was to cut off the hand of a dead enemy and bring it back as proof, in order to get credit and reward for the kill.

In 1177 BC, as previously in 1207 BC, the Egyptians were victorious. The Sea Peoples would not return to Egypt a third time.


However, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Although Egypt under Ramses III was the only major power to successfully resist the onslaught of the Sea Peoples, New Kingdom Egypt was never the same again afterward, most likely because of the other problems faced by the entire Mediterranean region during this period.

Beyond Egypt, almost all of the other countries and powers of the second millennium BC in the Aegean and Near East—those that had been present during the golden years of what we now call the Late Bronze Age—withered and disappeared, either immediately or within less than a century. In the end, it was as if civilization itself had been wiped away in much of this region. Many, if not all, of the advances of the previous centuries vanished across great swaths of territory, from Greece to Mesopotamia. A new transitional era began: an age that was to last for at least one century and perhaps as many as three in some areas. There seems little doubt that terror must have prevailed throughout the lands in the final days of these kingdoms.

There was a tendency on the part of earlier scholars to attribute any destruction from this period to the Sea Peoples. However, it may be presumptuous to lay the blame for the end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean entirely at their feet. It probably gives them too much credit, for we have no clear evidence, apart from the Egyptian texts and inscriptions, which give conflicting impressions. Did the Sea Peoples approach the Eastern Mediterranean as a relatively organized army, like one of the more disciplined Crusades intent on capturing the Holy Land during the Middle Ages? Were they a loosely or poorly organized group of marauders, like the Vikings of a later age? Or were they refugees fleeing a disaster and seeking new lands? For all we know, the truth could involve a combination of all or none of the above.

We are no longer certain that all of the sites with evidence of destruction were razed by the Sea Peoples. We can tell from the archaeological evidence that a site was destroyed, but not always by what or by whom. Moreover, the sites were not all destroyed simultaneously, or even necessarily within the same decade. As we shall see, their cumulative demise spans several decades and perhaps as much as a century. Moreover, while we do not know for certain the cause, or all the causes, of the collapse of the Bronze Age world in Greece, Egypt, and the Near East, the weight of contemporary evidence suggests that it was probably not the Sea Peoples alone who were to blame. It now seems likely that they were as much the victims as they were the aggressors in the collapse of civilizations. 28 One hypothesis suggests that they were forced out of their homes by a series of unfortunate events and migrated eastward where they encountered kingdoms and empires already in decline. It is also quite possible that they were able to attack and ultimately vanquish many of the kingdoms of the region precisely because those monarchies were already in decline and in a weakened state.

The Sea Peoples may well have been responsible for some of the destruction that occurred at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but it is much more likely that 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.

These serve as a good example of the internationalized world that began to coalesce in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean after the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt.

1477 BC, in the city of Peru-nefer in the Nile delta of Lower Egypt,

Pharaoh Thutmose III ordered the construction of a grand palace with elaborate frescoes. Minoan artists from distant Crete, located far to the west across the Great Green (as the Mediterranean Sea was known to the Egyptians), were hired to create these frescoes.

The Hyksos invasion of Egypt brought the Middle Kingdom period (ca. 2134–1720 BC) to an end. Their success was quite possibly the result of an advantage in weapons technology and first-strike capability, for they possessed composite bows that could shoot arrows much farther than a traditional bow of the time. They also had horse-drawn chariots, the likes of which had not previously been seen in Egypt. After their conquest, the Hyksos then ruled over Egypt, primarily from their capital city of Avaris in the Nile delta, during the so-called Second Intermediate period (Dynasties Fifteen–Seventeen) for nearly 200 years, from 1720 to 1550 BC.  It is one of the only times during the period from 3000 to 1200 BC when Egypt was ruled by foreigners.

About 1550 BC the Egyptians expelled the Hyksos from the land. They fled back to Retenu (one of the ancient Egyptian names for modern-day Israel and Syria,

The Minoans of Crete had already been in contact with several areas in the ancient Near East long before their interactions with the New Kingdom Egyptian pharaohs. For example, we know of Minoan-manufactured objects that had been transported across the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean all the way to Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers—the Tigris and Euphrates—by the eighteenth century BC, nearly 4,000 years ago.

We do know that they established a civilization on Crete during the third millennium BC that lasted until ca. 1200 BC. Partway through this period, in about 1700 BC, the island was hit by a devastating earthquake that required the rebuilding of the palaces at Knossos and elsewhere on the island. However, the Minoans recovered quickly and flourished as an independent civilization until Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland invaded the island later in the second millennium, after which time the island continued under Mycenaean rule until everything collapsed ca. 1200 BC. Minoans seem to have been in both the import and the export business, industriously networking with a number of foreign areas in addition to Egypt.


stretched from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Cyprus to Syria and Iraq.

The goods mentioned above represent only a tiny portion of those that once crossed the Mediterranean Sea, for many of the goods traded during the Late Bronze Age were perishable and would be unlikely to leave much in the way of identifiable remains today. Grain, wine, spices, perfumes, wood, and textiles almost certainly have long since disappeared.

We shall consider why this is evidence of early “internationalism” and—potentially—evidence that the Trojan War was fought two hundred years earlier and for different reasons from those Homer adduced.

We should first note that the Hittites, despite ruling a large empire from their homelands in central Anatolia for much of the second millennium BC, were lost to history, at least geographically, until only about two hundred years ago.

We are told at one point that a Hittite king named Mursili I, grandson and successor of the above-named Hattusili I, marched his army all the way to Mesopotamia, a journey of over one thousand miles, and attacked the city of Babylon in 1595 BC, burning it to the ground and bringing to an end the two-hundred-year-old dynasty made famous by Hammurabi “the Law-Giver.” Then, instead of occupying the city, he simply turned the Hittite army around and headed for home, thus effectively conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history. As an unintended consequence of his action, a previously unknown group called the Kassites was able to occupy the city of Babylon and then ruled over it for the next several centuries.

The Hittite Empire flourished and rose to even greater heights during the Late Bronze Age—beginning in the 15nth century BC and lasting until the early decades of the 12th century BC.

In 1430 BC, when the Hittites and their king Tudhaliya I/II were dealing with a coalition of renegade states. These states were collectively known as Assuwa. They were located in northwestern Turkey, just inland from the Dardanelles where the battle of Gallipoli was fought during World War I.

He had a decidedly easier time finding Mycenae on mainland Greece than he had had in finding Troy in Anatolia, for portions of the ancient site of Mycenae were still protruding from the ground. We now know that the Mycenaean civilization essentially began in the seventeenth century BC, at approximately the same time as the Minoans on Crete were recovering from the dramatic earthquake. It is now clear that when the Mycenaeans took over Crete, they also took over the international trade routes to Egypt and the Near East. They (relatively) suddenly became players in the cosmopolitan world—a role that they would continue to exploit for the next several centuries, until the end of the Late Bronze Age.

We should probably understand that the trade between the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East during the Bronze Age took place on a scale many times larger than the picture that we currently see through the lens of archaeological excavation.

We may sum up this century as a period that saw the rise of international connections on a sustained basis throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, from the Aegean to Mesopotamia. By this time, the Minoans and Mycenaeans of the Bronze Age Aegean were well established, as were the Hittites in Anatolia. The Hyksos had been evicted from Egypt, and the Egyptians had begun what we now call the Eighteenth Dynasty and the New Kingdom period. However, as we shall see next, this was only the beginning of what would become a “Golden Age” of internationalism and globalization during the following fourteenth century BC.

Egypt established itself as one of the great powers for the rest of the Late Bronze Age, along with the Hittites, Assyrians, and Kassites/Babylonians, in addition to assorted other players such as the Mitannians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Cypriots,

Thus, the two last major players of the Late Bronze Age in the ancient Near East, Assyria and Cyprus, finally appear on stage. We now have a full cast of characters: Hittites, Egyptians, Mitannians, Kassites/Babylonians, Assyrians, Cypriots, Canaanites, Minoans, and Mycenaeans, all present and accounted for. They all interacted, both positively and negatively, during the coming centuries, though some, such as Mitanni, vanished from the stage long before the others.

But there was far more on board the ship than just the copper ingots. It turned out that the cargo carried in the Uluburun ship consisted of an incredible assortment of goods, truly an international manifest. In all, products from at least seven different countries, states, and empires were on board the ship. In addition to its primary cargo of ten tons of Cypriot copper, one ton of tin, and a ton of terebinth resin, 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

The tin probably came from the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan. There were also at least two Mycenaeans on board, even though this seems to have been a Canaanite ship. Clearly this ship does not belong to a world of isolated civilizations, kingdoms, and fiefdoms, but rather to an interconnected world of trade, migration, diplomacy, and, alas, war. This really was the first truly global age.

About the same time as the run-up to the Battle of Qadesh, the Hittites were also busy on a second front, in western Anatolia, where they were trying to contain rebellious subjects whose activities were apparently being underwritten by the Mycenaeans. This may be one of the earliest examples that we have of one government deliberately engaging in activities designed to undermine another (think Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, thirty-two hundred years after the Battle of Qadesh).

Dörpfeld believed that the Mycenaeans had captured this city (Troy VI) and burned it to the ground, and that it was this event that formed the basis of Homer’s epic tales. Blegen, digging several decades later, disagreed, and published what he said was indisputable evidence for destruction not by humans, but by an earthquake. His argument included positive evidence, such as walls knocked out of line and collapsed towers, as well as negative evidence, for he found no arrows, no swords, no remnants of warfare. In fact, it is now clear that the type of damage that Blegen found was similar to that seen at many sites in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, including Mycenae and Tiryns on mainland Greece. It is also clear that these earthquakes did not all take place at the exact same time during the Late Bronze Age.

By the time of the first Sea Peoples attack on the Eastern Mediterranean in 1207 BC,

Assyria had been one of the major players on the international scene in the ancient Near East for nearly 200 years. It was a kingdom linked by marriage, politics, war, and trade over the centuries with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites, and Mitanni. It was, without question, one of the Great Powers during the Late Bronze Age.

Tudhaliya IV decided to attack the island of Cyprus. The island had been a major source of copper throughout the second millennium BC, and it is possible that the Hittites decided to try to control this precious metal, so essential to the creation of bronze.

We are not certain about his motivation for attacking Cyprus. It may instead have had something to do with the possible appearance of the Sea Peoples in the area or with the drought that is thought to have occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time.

International trade was ongoing at the end of the thirteenth century BC, even when things were beginning to fall apart in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean regions.


This is the moment for which we have been waiting: the climax of the play and the dramatic beginning of the end to three hundred and more years of the globalized economy that had been the hallmark of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. The twelfth century BC, as we will see in this final act, is marked more by tales of woe and destruction than by stories of trade and international relations.

The city and kingdom of Ugarit, located on the coast of north Syria, a functioning, busy, and prosperous commercial city and port, was suddenly destroyed and abandoned soon after the beginning of the twelfth century BC. Within the ruins, products from all over the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean have been found;

The textual evidence from the various archives and houses at Ugarit indicate that international trade and contact was going strong in the city right up until the last possible moment. In fact, one of the scholars publishing the letters from the House of Urtenu noted almost twenty years ago that there was very little indication of trouble, apart from the mention of enemy ships in one letter, and that the trade routes seemed to be open right up until the end. The same was true in Emar, on the Euphrates River far to the east in inland Syria, where it has been noted that “the scribes were conducting normal business until the end.” However, Ugarit was destroyed, apparently quite violently, during the reign of King Ammurapi, most likely between 1190 and 1185 BC. It was not reoccupied until the Persian period, approximately 650 years later. The excavators report “evidence of destruction and fire throughout the city,” including “collapsed walls, burnt pisé plaster, and heaps of ashes,” with a destruction level that reached two meters high in places. Marguerite Yon, the most recent director of the excavations, says that the ceilings and terraces in the residential quarters were found collapsed, and that elsewhere the walls were “reduced to a shapeless heap of rubble.” She believes that the destruction was caused by enemy attack rather than an earthquake, as had previously been suggested by Schaeffer, and that there was violent fighting in the city, including street fighting. This, she says, is indicated by “the presence of numerous arrowheads dispersed throughout the destroyed or abandoned ruins,” as well as the fact that the inhabitants—eight thousand, more or less—fled in haste and did not return, not even to collect the hoards of valuables that some had buried before leaving.

During this same period, in the twelfth century BC, a number of cities and towns were destroyed in southern Syria and Canaan. Just as in north Syria, it is not clear who destroyed them or when exactly they were destroyed,

In summary, as with Hazor and Megiddo, it is unclear who destroyed Lachish VI or the earlier city of Lachish VII. Both, or neither, could have been devastated by the Sea Peoples, or by someone—or something—else entirely.

Even as far to the east as Mesopotamia, evidence of destruction can be seen at multiple sites including Babylon, but these were clearly caused by forces other than the Sea Peoples.

In Anatolia at this time, a number of cities were also destroyed. Once again, though, the reason in each case is hard to discern; and once again the Sea Peoples have traditionally been credited for the devastation on the basis of little or no evidence.

The Kashka—longtime enemies of the Hittites—are more likely than the Sea Peoples to have been responsible for the actual destruction, though it may well have taken place only after the Hittite Empire had been severely weakened through other agencies, such as drought, famine, and interruption of the international trade routes.

The one site in the west that was destroyed by fire early in the twelfth century BC was Troy, specifically Troy VIIA, located on the western coast of Anatolia.

If the Mycenaeans were not involved in the destruction of Troy VIIA, it may have been because they were also under attack at approximately the same time. It is universally accepted by scholars that Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea, Pylos, Thebes, and many other Mycenaean sites on the Greek mainland suffered destructions at this same approximate time, at the end of the thirteenth century BC, and early in the twelfth.

It is clear that something tumultuous occurred, although some scholars see this as merely the final stages of a dissolution or collapse that had begun as early as 1250 BC. Jeremy Rutter of Dartmouth College, for example, believes that “the destruction of the palaces was anything but an unforeseen catastrophe which precipitated a century of crisis in the Aegean, but was instead the culmination of an extended period of unrest which afflicted the Mycenaean world from the mid-thirteenth century onwards.

It is unclear, according to Iakovidis, what caused the fires that destroyed large portions of Mycenae just after 1200 BC, but he eschews the notion of invasions or other dramatic events, preferring to attribute the gradual decline of the site during the following decades to the collapse of the palatial system and of long-distance trade. Recent research by other archaeologists may prove his thesis to be correct.

Thus, we are now faced with a situation in which our current knowledge is being reassessed and conventional historical paradigms are being overthrown, or at least called into question. While it is clear that there were destructions on Cyprus either just before or after 1200 BC, it is by no means clear who was responsible for this damage; possible culprits range from the Hittites to invaders from the Aegean to Sea Peoples and even earthquakes. It is also conceivable that what we see in the archaeological record is merely the material culture of those who took advantage of these destructions and settled into the now fully or partially abandoned cities and settlements, rather than the material culture of those who were actually responsible for the destructions.

Regardless, Cyprus seems to have survived these depredations essentially intact. There is now every indication that the island was flourishing during the remainder of the twelfth and into the eleventh century BC;

We need to acknowledge first and foremost, as frequently noted in the preceding pages, that it is not always clear who, or what, caused the destruction of the Late Bronze Age cities, kingdoms, and empires of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

Second, we need to admit that there is currently no scholarly consensus as to the cause or causes of the collapse of these multiple interconnected societies just over three thousand years ago; culprits recently blamed by scholars include “attacks by foreign enemies, social uprising, natural catastrophes, systems collapse, and changes in warfare.

Recent research by archaeoseismologists reveals that Greece, as well as much of the rest of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, was struck by a series of earthquakes, beginning about 1225 BC and lasting for as long as 50 years, until about 1175 BC.

We must concede that although these earthquakes undoubtedly caused severe damage, it is unlikely that they alone were sufficient to cause a complete collapse of society, especially since some of the sites were clearly reoccupied and at least partially rebuilt afterward.


One suggestion favored by scholars, especially those seeking to explain not only the end of the Late Bronze Age but also why the Sea Peoples may have begun their migrations, is climate change, particularly in the form of drought, resulting in famine.

Drought was long the favored explanation of earlier scholars for the movement of the Sea Peoples out of the regions of the Western Mediterranean and into the lands to the east. They postulated that a drought in northern Europe had pressured the population to migrate down into the Mediterranean region, where they displaced the inhabitants of Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy, and perhaps those in the Aegean as well. If this occurred, it might have initiated a chain reaction that culminated in the movement of peoples far away in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Using data from the site of Tell Tweini (ancient Gibala) in north Syria, the team noted that there may have been “climate instability and a severe drought episode” in the region at the end of the second millennium BC. 31 In particular, they studied pollen retrieved from alluvial deposits near the site, which suggest that “drier climatic conditions occurred in the Mediterranean belt of Syria from the late 13th/early 12th centuries BC to the 9th century BC.” 32 Kaniewski’s team has now also published additional evidence of a probable drought on Cyprus at this same time, using pollen analysis

Their data suggest that “major environmental changes” took place in this area during the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, that is, during the period from 1200 to 850 BC.

If Kaniewski and his colleagues are correct, they have retrieved the direct scientific evidence that scholars have been seeking for a drought that may have contributed to the end of the Late Bronze Age. In fact, they conclude that the data from both coastal Syria and coastal Cyprus strongly suggest “that the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event 3200 years ago. This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.

Working independently, Brandon Drake of the University of New Mexico has provided additional scientific data

Three additional lines of evidence that all support the view that the Early Iron Age was more arid than the preceding Bronze Age. First, oxygen-isotope data from mineral deposits

While it “is difficult to directly identify a point in time when the climate grew more arid,” the change most likely occurred before 1250–1197 BC, which is precisely the time period under discussion here.

There was a sharp increase in Northern Hemisphere temperatures immediately before the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial centers, possibly causing droughts,

Abandonment of these centers, meaning that it first got hotter and then suddenly colder, resulting in “cooler, more arid conditions during the Greek Dark Ages.

Exciting as these findings are, at this point we must also acknowledge that droughts have been frequent in this region throughout history, and that they have not always caused civilizations to collapse.

Climate change, drought, and famines, even if they “influenced social tensions, and eventually led to competition for limited resources,” are not enough to have caused the end of the Late Bronze Age without other mitigating factors having been involved, as Drake is careful to point out.

The hypothesis of internal rebellions is not enough to account for the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

Among events that could have led to an internal rebellion, we have just glimpsed the specter of outside invaders cutting the international trade routes and upsetting fragile economies that might have been overly dependent upon foreign raw materials.

The cutting of the trade routes could have had a severe, and immediate, impact upon Mycenaean kingdoms such as Pylos, Tiryns, and Mycenae,

While natural disasters such as earthquakes could cause a temporary disruption in trade, potentially leading to higher prices and perhaps to what we today would call inflation, more permanent disruptions would more likely have been the result of outside invaders targeting the affected areas.

Rather than the Sea Peoples, the ancient Greeks—ranging from historians like Herodotus and Thucydides in fifth-century BC Athens to the much-later traveler Pausanias—believed that a group known as the Dorians had invaded from the north at the end of the Bronze Age, thereby initiating the Iron Age.

In recent decades it has become clear that there was no such invasion from the north at this time and no reason to accept the idea of a “Dorian Invasion” bringing the Mycenaean civilization to an end.

The wealthiest city-states in the Eastern Mediterranean were the hardest-hit by the events taking place during the twelfth century BC, since they were not only the most attractive targets for the invaders but also the most dependent on the international trade network. He suggests that dependence, or perhaps overdependence, on capitalist enterprise, and specifically long-distance trade, may have contributed to the economic instability seen at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

What jumps out from the materials in the Rapanu and Urtenu archives is the tremendous amount of international interconnection that apparently still existed in the Eastern Mediterranean even at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Moreover, it is clear from the few texts published from the Urtenu archive that these international connections continued right up until almost the last moment before Ugarit’s destruction. This seems to be a clear indication that the end was probably sudden, rather than a gradual decline after trade routes had been cut or because of drought and famine, and that Ugarit specifically was destroyed by invaders, regardless of whether these forces had also cut the international trade routes.

Even if decentralization and private individual merchants were an issue, it seems unlikely that they caused the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, at least on their own. Instead of accepting the idea that private merchants and their enterprises undermined the Bronze Age economy, perhaps we should consider the alternative suggestion that they simply emerged out of the chaos of the collapse,

Out of chaos comes opportunity, at least for a lucky few, as always.

The Sea Peoples, despite their moniker, most likely traveled both by land and by sea—that is, by any means possible. The Sea Peoples who came by land possibly, and perhaps likely, proceeded along a predominantly coastal route, where the destruction of specific cities would have opened up entire new areas to them,

In 1985, when Nancy Sandars published a revised edition of her classic book on the Sea Peoples, she wrote, “In the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, there have always been earthquakes, famines, droughts and floods, and in fact dark ages of a sort are recurrent.” Furthermore, she stated, “catastrophes punctuate human history but they are generally survived without too much loss. They are often followed by a much greater effort leading to greater success.” 87 So what was different about this period, the end of the Late Bronze Age? Why didn’t the civilizations simply recover and carry on? As Sandars mused, “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.” 88 She was correct. We must now turn to the idea of a systems collapse, a systemic failure with both a domino and a multiplier effect, from which even such a globalized international, vibrant, inter-societal network as was present during the Late Bronze Age could not recover.

Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University, one of the most respected scholars ever to study the prehistoric Aegean region, had already suggested the idea of a systems collapse back in 1979. At the time, he framed it in terms of catastrophe theory, wherein “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.

Renfrew noted the general features of systems collapse, itemizing them as follows: (1) the collapse of the central administrative organization; (2) the disappearance of the traditional elite class; (3) a collapse of the centralized economy; and (4) a settlement shift and population decline. It might take as much as a century for all aspects of the collapse to be completed, he said, and noted that there is no single, obvious cause for the collapse. Furthermore, 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. Not only does this fit the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean region ca. 1200 BC, but, as he pointed out, it also describes the collapse of the Maya, Old Kingdom Egypt, and the Indus Valley civilization at various points in time.

In my opinion, and Sandars’s before me, none of these individual factors would have been cataclysmic enough on their own to bring down even one of these civilizations, let alone all of them. However, they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a “multiplier effect.

The failure of one part of the system might also have had a domino effect, leading to failures elsewhere. The ensuing “systems collapse” could have led to the disintegration of one society after another, in part because of the fragmentation of the global economy and the breakdown of the interconnections upon which each civilization was dependent. In 1987, Mario Liverani, of the University of Rome, laid the blame upon the concentration of power and control in the palaces, so that when they collapsed, the extent of the disaster was magnified. As he wrote, “the particular concentration in the Palace of all the elements of organization, transformation, exchange, etc.—a concentration which seems to reach its maximum in the Late Bronze Age—has the effect of transforming the physical collapse of the Palace into a general disaster for the entire kingdom.” 96 In other words, to put it in modern investment terms, the Bronze Age rulers in the Aegean and the Near East should have diversified their portfolios, but they did not.

Liverani’s work and suggested that the economy of the Late Bronze Age became unstable because of its increasing dependency on bronze and other prestige goods. Specifically, he saw “capitalist enterprise”—in which he included long-distance trade, and which dominated the palatial system present in the Late Bronze Age—as having transformed traditional Bronze Age modes of exchange, production, and consumption to such an extent that when external invasions and natural catastrophes combined in a “multiplier effect,” the system was unable to survive.

An unanticipated systems collapse—quite possibly triggered by climate change, as hypothesized recently by Brandon Drake and the team led by David Kaniewski, 101 or precipitated by earthquakes or invasion—seems much more likely, but Monroe’s words might serve as something of a warning for us today, for his description of the Late Bronze Age, especially in terms of its economy and interactions, could well apply to our current globalized society, which is also feeling the effects of climate change.

Major Observations

  1. We have a number of separate civilizations that were flourishing during the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries BC in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, from the Mycenaeans and the Minoans to the Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Cypriots. These were independent but consistently interacted with each other, especially through international trade routes.
  1. It is clear that many cities were destroyed and that the Late Bronze Age civilizations and life as the inhabitants knew it in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East came to an end ca. 1177 BC or soon thereafter.
  1. No unequivocal proof has been offered as to who or what caused this disaster, which resulted in the collapse of these civilizations and the end of the Late Bronze Age. Discussion of Possibilities There are a number of possible causes that may have led, or contributed, to the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but none seems capable of having caused the calamity on its own.
  1. Clearly there were earthquakes during this period, but usually societies can recover from these.
  2. There is textual evidence for famine, and now scientific evidence for droughts and climate change, in both the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, but again societies have recovered from these time and time again.
  3. There may be circumstantial evidence for internal rebellions in Greece and elsewhere, including the Levant, although this is not certain. Again, societies frequently survive such revolts. Moreover, it would be unusual (notwithstanding recent experience in the Middle East to the contrary) for rebellions to occur over such a wide area and for such a prolonged period of time.
  4. There is archaeological evidence for invaders, or at least newcomers probably from the Aegean region, western Anatolia, Cyprus, or all of the above, found in the Levant from Ugarit in the north to Lachish in the south. Some of the cities were destroyed and then abandoned; others were reoccupied; and still others were unaffected.
  5. It is clear that the international trade routes were affected, if not completely cut, for a period of time, but the extent to which this would have impacted the various individual civilizations is not altogether clear—even if some were overly dependent upon foreign goods for their survival, as has been suggested in the case of the Mycenaeans. It is true that sometimes a civilization cannot recover from invaders or an earthquake, or survive a drought or a rebellion, but at the moment, for lack of a better explanation, it looks as though the best solution is to suggest that all of these factors together contributed to the collapse of what had been the dominant Late Bronze Age kingdoms and societies in these regions. Based on the evidence presently available, therefore, we may be seeing the result of a systems collapse that was caused by a series of events linked together via a “multiplier effect,” in which one factor affected the others, thereby magnifying the effects of each. Perhaps the inhabitants could have survived one disaster, such as an earthquake or a drought, but they could not survive the combined effects of earthquake, drought, and invaders all occurring in rapid succession. A “domino effect” then ensued, in which the disintegration of one civilization led to the fall of the others. Given the globalized nature of their world, the effect upon the international trade routes and economies of even one society’s collapse would have been sufficiently devastating that it could have led to the demise of the others. If such were the case, they were not too big to fail.


Sherratt—in her analogy published a decade ago, and quoted above in the preface—described the similarities between the Late Bronze Age world and our own “increasingly homogenous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture, in which … political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.

The most important premise, we might argue, is that Johnson asserts that such a system exhibits phenomena that “are generally surprising, and may be extreme.” As he says, this “basically means that anything can happen—and if you wait long enough, it generally will.” For example, as he notes, all stock markets will eventually have some sort of crash, and all traffic systems will eventually have some kind of jam. These are generally unexpected when they arise, and could not have been specifically predicted in advance, even though one knew full well that they could and would occur.

Since there has never been a civilization in the history of the world that hasn’t collapsed eventually, and since the reasons are frequently the same, as Jared Diamond and a host of others have pointed out, the eventual collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations was predictable, but it is unlikely that we would have been able to predict when it would happen, or that they would all collapse at the same time, even with a full working knowledge of each civilization. As Johnson writes, “even a detailed knowledge of the specifications of a car’s engine, color and shape, is useless when trying to predict where and when traffic jams will arise in a new road system. Likewise, understanding individuals’ personalities in a crowded bar would give little indication as to what large-scale brawls might develop.

“As such systems become more complex, and the degree of interdependence between their constituent parts grows, keeping the overall system stable becomes more difficult.” 111 Known as “hyper-coherence,” this occurs, as Dark says, “when each part of the system becomes so dependent upon each other that change in any part produces instability in the system as a whole.” 112 Thus, if the Late Bronze Age civilizations were truly globalized and dependent upon each other for goods and services, even just to a certain extent, then change to any one of the relevant kingdoms, such as the Mycenaeans or the Hittites, would potentially affect and destabilize them all. Moreover, it is especially relevant that the kingdoms, empires, and societies of the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean can each be seen as an individual sociopolitical system. As Dark says, such “complex socio-political systems will exhibit an internal dynamic which leads them to increase in complexity…. [T]he more complex a system is, the more liable it is to collapse.” 113 Thus, in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, we have individual sociopolitical systems, the various civilizations, that were growing more complex and thus apparently more liable to collapse. At the same time, we have complex systems, the trading networks, that were both interdependent and complicated in their relationships, and thus were open to instability the minute there was a change in one of the integral parts. Here is where one malfunctioning cog in an otherwise well-oiled machine might turn the entire apparatus into a pile of junk, just as a single thrown rod can wreck the engine of a car today. Therefore, rather than envisioning an apocalyptic ending overall—although perhaps certain cities and kingdoms like Ugarit met a dramatic, blazing end—we might better imagine that the end of the Late Bronze Age was more a matter of a chaotic although gradual disintegration of areas and places that had once been major and in contact with each other, but were now diminished and isolated, like Mycenae, because of internal and/or external changes that affected one or more of the integral parts of the complex system.

It is clear that such damage would have led to a disruption of the network. We might picture a modern power grid that has been disrupted, perhaps by a storm or an earthquake, wherein the electric company can still produce power but cannot get it out to the individual consumers;

If the disruption is permanent, as might be the case in a major catastrophe, such as a nuclear explosion today, eventually even the production of the electricity will halt. The analogy may hold for the Late Bronze Age,

The consequence of such instability is that when the complex system does collapse, it “decomposes into smaller entities,” which is exactly what we see in the Iron Age that follows the end of these Bronze Age civilizations. 114 Thus, it seems that employing complexity theory, which allows us to take both catastrophe theory and systems collapse one step further, may be the best approach to explaining the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean in the years following 1200 BC.

The argument that the Bronze Age civilizations were increasing in complexity and were therefore prone to collapse does not really make all that much sense, especially when one considers their “complexity” relative to that of the Western European civilizations of the last 300 years. Thus, while it is possible that complexity theory might be a useful way to approach the collapse of the Late Bronze Age once we have more information available as to the details of all the relevant civilizations, it may not be of much use at this stage, except as an interesting way to reframe our awareness that a multitude of factors were present at the end of the Late Bronze Age that could have helped destabilize, and ultimately led to the collapse of, the international system

And yet, scholarly publications still continue to suggest a linear progression for the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, despite the fact that it is not accurate to simply state that a drought caused famine, which eventually caused the Sea Peoples to start moving and creating havoc, which caused the Collapse. 115 The progression wasn’t that linear; the reality was much more messy. There probably was not a single driving force or trigger, but rather a number of different stressors, each of which forced the people to react in different ways to accommodate the changing situation(s).

Rather than a single driver, is therefore advantageous both in explaining the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age and in providing a way forward for continuing to study this catastrophe.

A fluid event, taking place over the course of several decades and perhaps even up to a century, not an occurrence tied to a specific year.

Egyptologists—stands out and is the most representative of the entire collapse. For it was in that year, according to the Egyptian records, that the Sea Peoples came sweeping through the region, wreaking havoc for a second time. It was a year when great land and sea battles were fought in the Nile delta; a year when Egypt struggled for its very survival; a year by which time some of the high-flying civilizations of the Bronze Age had already come to a crashing halt. In fact, one might argue that 1177 BC is to the end of the Late Bronze Age as AD 476 is to the end of Rome and the western Roman Empire. That is to say, both are dates to which modern scholars can conveniently point as the end of a major era. Italy was invaded and Rome was sacked several times during the fifth century AD, including in AD 410 by Alaric and the Visigoths and in AD 455 by Geiseric and the Vandals.

The end of the Late Bronze Age and the transition to the Iron Age is a similar case, insofar as the collapse and transition was a rolling event, taking place between approximately 1225 and 1175 BC or, in some places, as late as 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. We have firm evidence that it took decades, and even centuries in some areas, for the people in these regions to rebuild and reclaim their societies, and to forge new lives that would bring them back up out of the darkness into which they had been plunged.

The area of the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos remained, as a whole in fact, severely depopulated for nearly a millennium.

it is clear that after the catastrophes were over, “there were no palaces, the use of writing as well as all administrative structures came to an end, and the concept of a supreme ruler, the wanax, disappeared from the range of political institutions of Ancient Greece.” 3 In terms of literacy and writing, the same holds true for Ugarit and the other entities that had flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, for with their end came also the end of cuneiform writing

Christopher Monroe has stated, “all civilizations eventually experience violent restructuring of material and ideological realities such as destruction or re-creation.” 9 We see this in the constant rise and fall of empires over time, including the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Neo-Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, and others, and we should not think that our current world is invulnerable, for we are in fact more susceptible than we might wish to think. While the 2008 collapse of Wall Street in the United States pales in comparison to the collapse of the entire Late Bronze Age Mediterranean world, there were those who warned that something similar could take place if the banking institutions with a global reach were not bailed out immediately. For instance, the Washington Post quoted Robert B. Zoellick, then the president of the World Bank, as saying that “the global financial system may have reached a ‘tipping point,’ ” which he defined as “the moment when a crisis cascades into a full-blown meltdown and becomes extremely difficult for governments to contain.” 10 In a complex system such as our world today, this is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to a collapse.

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