Bronze Age collapse

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The Bronze Age collapse is so called by historians who study the end of the Bronze Age.

They see the transition in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, as violent, sudden and culturally disruptive.

The palace economies of the Aegean and Anatolia of the Late Bronze Age were replaced, eventually, by the village cultures of the Ancient Dark Age.

Between 1200 and 1150 BC, the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria,[1] and the Egyptian Empire in Syria and Canaan,[2] interrupted trade routes and extinguished literacy.

In the first phase of this period, almost every city between Troy and Gaza was violently destroyed, and often left unoccupied: examples include Hattusa, Mycenae, Ugarit.

The gradual end of the Dark Age saw the rise of settled Neo-Hittite Aramaean kingdoms of the mid-10th century BCE, and the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Regional evidence[change | edit source]

Anatolia[change | edit source]

Every important Anatolian site during the preceding Late Bronze Age shows a destruction layer.[3] It appears that civilization did not recover to the same level as that of the Hittites for another thousand years. Hattusa, the Hittite capital, was burned and abandoned, and never reoccupied. Troy was destroyed at least twice, before being abandoned until Roman times.

Cyprus[change | edit source]

The sacking and burning of the sites of Enkomi, Kition, and Sinda may have happened twice, before they were abandoned. Originally, two waves of destruction, ca. 1230 BC by the Sea Peoples and ca. 1190 BC by Aegean refugees have been proposed.[4]

Syria[change | edit source]

Syrian sites previously showed evidence of trade links with Egypt and the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age. Evidence at Ugarit shows that the destruction there occurred after the reign of Merenptah.

The last Bronze Age king of Ugarit, Ammurapi, was a contemporary of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma II. The exact dates of his reign are unknown. A letter by the king is preserved on one of the clay tablets found baked in the conflagration of the destruction of the city. Ammurapi stresses the seriousness of the crisis faced by many Near Eastern states from invasion by the advancing Sea Peoples in a dramatic response to a plea for assistance from the king of Alasiya (Cyprus):

My father, behold, the enemy's ships came (here); 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.[5]

Unfortunately for Ugarit, no help arrived and Ugarit was burned to the ground at the end of the Bronze Age. A cuneiform tablet found in 1986 shows that Ugarit was destroyed after the death of Merneptah, about 1178 BC.

Levant[change | edit source]

All centres along a coastal route from Gaza northward were destroyed, and not reoccupied for up to thirty years.

Greece[change | edit source]

None of the Mycenaean palaces of the Late Bronze Age survived, with destruction being heaviest at palaces and fortified sites. Up to 90% of small sites in the Peloponnese were abandoned, suggesting a major depopulation. The End Bronze Age collapse marked the start of what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted for more than 400 years. Other cities, like Athens, continued to be occupied, but with a more local sphere of influence, limited evidence of trade and an impoverished culture, from which it took centuries to recover.

Mesopotamia[change | edit source]

Several cities were destroyed, Assyria lost northwestern cities which were reconquered by Tiglath-Pileser I after his ascension to kingship. Control of the Babylonian and Assyrian regions extended barely beyond the city limits. Babylon was sacked by the Elamites.

Egypt[change | edit source]

After apparently surviving for a while, the Egyptian Empire collapsed in the mid twelfth century BCE (during the reign of Ramesses VI). This led to the Third Intermediate Period, that is, non-dynasty.

Conclusion[change | edit source]

Robert Drews describes the collapse as "the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire".[6] A number of people have spoken of the cultural memories of the disaster as stories of a "lost golden age". Hesiod for example spoke of Ages of Gold, Silver and Bronze, separated from the modern harsh cruel world of the Age of Iron by the Age of Heroes.

Possible causes of collapse[change | edit source]

It was a period associated with the collapse of central authority, a depopulation, particularly of urban areas, the loss of literacy in Anatolia and the Aegean, and its restriction elsewhere, the disappearance of established patterns of long-distance international trade, and increasingly vicious struggles for power.

There are various theories put forward to explain the situation of collapse, many of them compatible with each other.

Volcanos[change | edit source]

The Hekla 3 eruption was about this time, and is dated at 1159 BC by Egyptologists and British archeologists.[7][8]

Earthquakes[change | edit source]

Earthquakes tend to occur in sequences or 'storms', where a major earthquake above 6.5 on the Richter magnitude scale can set off later earthquakes along the weakened fault line. When a map of earthquake occurrence is superimposed on a map of the sites destroyed in the Late Bronze Age, there is a very close correspondence.[9]

Migrations and raids[change | edit source]

Evidence includes the widespread findings of Naue II-type swords (coming from South-Eastern Europe) throughout the region, and Egyptian records of invading "northerners from all the lands".[10] The Ugarit correspondence at the time mentions invasions by tribes of such as the mysterious Sea Peoples. Equally, the last Linear B documents in the Aegean (dating to just before the collapse) reported a large rise in piracy, slave raiding and other attacks, particularly around Anatolia. Later fortresses along the Libyan coast, constructed and maintained by the Egyptians after the reign of Ramesses II, were built to reduce raiding.

This theory is strengthened by the fact that the collapse coincides with the appearance in the region of many new ethnic groups. Indo-European tribes such as the Phrygians, Thracians, Macedonians and Dorian Greeks seem to have arrived at this time – possibly from the north. There also seems to have been widespread migration of the Aramaeans – possibly from the South-East.

Ultimate reasons for these migrations could include drought, developments in warfare/weaponry, earthquakes or other natural disasters. This means that the migrations theory is not incompatible with the other theories mentioned here.

Ironworking[change | edit source]

The Bronze Age collapse may be seen in the context of a technological history that saw the slow, comparatively continuous spread of iron-working technology in the region, beginning with precocious iron-working in what is now Bulgaria and Romania in the 13th and 12th centuries BCE.[11] Leonard R. Palmer suggested that iron, whilst inferior to bronze weapons, was in more plentiful supply and so allowed larger armies of iron users to overwhelm the smaller armies of bronze-using chariotry.[12]

It now seems that the disruption of long distance trade cut easy supplies of tin, making bronze impossible to make. Older implements were recycled and then iron substitutes were used.

Drought[change | edit source]

Drought could have easily precipitated or hastened socio-economic problems and led to wars.[13][14] More recently Brian Fagan has shown how the diversion of mid-winter storms, from the Atlantic to north of the Pyrenees and the Alps, bringing wetter conditions to Central Europe but drought to the Eastern Mediterranean, was associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.[15]

Changes in warfare[change | edit source]

Robert Drews argues that massed infantry used newly developed weapons and armor.[16]192ff Cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon,[17] and javelins were used. The appearance of bronze foundries suggest "that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean". For example, Homer uses "spears" as a virtual synonym for "warrior", suggesting the continued importance of the spear in combat.

Such new weaponry, used by a proto-hoplite model of infantry able to withstand attacks of massed chariotry, would destabilize states that were based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class. This precipitated an abrupt social collapse as raiders and/or infantry mercenaries began to conquer, loot, and burn the cities.[16][18][19]

General systems collapse[change | edit source]

A general systems collapse has been put forward as an explanation for the reversals in culture.[20][21] This theory raises the question of whether this collapse was the cause of, or the effect of, the Bronze Age collapse being discussed.

In the Middle East, a variety of factors — including population growth, soil degradation, drought, cast bronze weapon and iron production technologies — could have combined to push the relative price of weaponry (compared to arable land) to a level unsustainable for traditional warrior aristocracies. In complex societies which were increasingly fragile, this combination of factors may have contributed to the collapse.[22]

The critical flaws of the Late Bronze Age are its centralization, specialization, complexity and top-heavy political structure. These flaws then revealed themselves through revolts, defections, demographic crises (overpopulation), and wars between states. Other factors which could have placed increasing pressure on the fragile kingdoms. These include the aggression of the ‘Sea Peoples’, pirates on maritime trade, drought, crop failures, famine.

References[change | edit source]

  1. For Syria, see Liverani M. 1987. The collapse of the Near Eastern regional system at the end of the Bronze Age: the case of Syria. In Centre and periphery in the Ancient World, M. Rowlands, M.T. Larsen, K. Kristiansen, eds. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Richard S. 1987. Archaeological sources for the history of Palestine: The early Bronze Age: The rise and collapse of urbanism. The Biblical Archaeologist.
  3. evidence of destruction and burning
  4. Paul Aström has proposed dates of 1190 and 1179 BC (Aström).
  5. Jean Nougaryol et al. 1968. Ugaritica V: 87-90 no.24
  6. Drews R. 1993. The End of the Bronze Age: changes in warfare and the catastrophe c. 1200 B.C., quotes Fernand Braudel's assessment that the Eastern Mediterranean cultures returned almost to a starting-point ("plan zéro"), "L'Aube", in Braudel F. ed 1977. La Mediterranee: l'espace et l'histoire. Paris.
  7. Yurco, Frank J. 1999. "End of the Late Bronze Age and other crisis periods: a volcanic cause". in Teeter, Emily; Larson, John (eds) Gold of Praise: Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honor of Edward F. Wente. (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization #58) Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. 456–458. ISBN 1-885923-09-0
  8. Cunliffe, Barry 2005. Iron Age Communities in Britain 4th ed. Routledge, London. p256 ISBN 0-415-34779-3. Pg 68
  9. Nur, Amos and Cline, Eric; 2000. Poseidon's Horses: plate tectonics and earthquake storms in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Journal of Archaeological Science #27 43-63 http://srb.stanford.edu/nur/EndBronzeage.pdf on-line
  10. Robbins, Manuel 2001. Collapse of the Bronze Age: the story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt and peoples of the sea. Authors Choice Press.
  11. See A. Stoia and the other essays in M.L. Stig Sørensen and R. Thomas, eds., The Bronze Age—Iron Age Transition in Europe (Oxford) 1989, and T.H. Wertime and J.D. Muhly 1980. The Coming of the Age of Iron New Haven CT.
  12. Palmer, Leonard R 1962. Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean prehistory in the light of the Linear B tablets. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
  13. Weiss, Harvey 1982. The decline of Late Bronze Age civilization as a possible response to climatic change. Climatic Change 4 #2, 173 - 198
  14. Wright, Karen 1998. Empires in the Dust in Discover Magazine March 1998 issue. [1]
  15. Fagan, Brian M. 2003. The long Summer: how climate changed civilization Basic Books, N.Y.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Drews, R. 1993. The end of the Bronze Age: changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton.
  17. The Naue Type II sword, introduced from the eastern Alps and Carpathians ca 1200, quickly established itself and became the only sword in use during the eleventh century; iron was substituted for bronze without essential redesign
  18. McGoodwin
  19. Alan Litttle
  20. Tainter, Joseph: 1976. The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press,
  21. http://www.iol.ie/~edmo/linktoprehistory.html The history of Castlemagner, on the web page of the local historical society.
  22. Carol G. Thomas and Craig Conant 1999. Citadel to city-state: the transformation of Greece, 1200-700 B.C.E.
  • Oliver Dickinson 2007. The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age: continuity and change between the twelfth and eighth Centuries BC Routledge, London. ISBN 978-0-415-13590-0