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Bronze Age collapse

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

The palace economies of the Aegean and Anatolia of the late Bronze Age were replaced, eventually, by the village cultures of the 'Greek Dark Ages'.

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 BC, and the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Regional evidence[change | change source]

Anatolia[change | change 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 | change 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 | change 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 extensive fires that brought about 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 | change source]

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

Greece[change | change source]

None of the Mycenaean palaces of the Late Bronze Age survived. Destruction was heaviest at palaces and fortified sites. Thebes was one of the earliest examples of this. Its palace was sacked repeatedly between 1300 and 1200 BC. Eventually it was destroyed by fire.[6]

At many other sites it is entirely unclear what happened. It is clear that Athens saw a significant decline during the Bronze Age Collapse. There is no evidence of any significant destruction at this site.[7] Fortification at this site suggests fear of the decline in Athens.[8] It is possible that the abandonment of Athens was not a violent affair and other causes have been suggested.[9]

The Peloponnese was the worst affected in Greece by far. Up to 90% of small sites in the region were abandoned, which suggests a major depopulation in the region. Again, as with many of the sites of destruction in Greece, it is unclear how this destruction came about. The city of Mycenae for example was initially destroyed in an earthquake in 1250 BC as evidenced by the presence of crushed bodies buried in collapsed buildings.[10] However, the site was rebuilt only to face destruction in 1190 BC as the result of a series of major fires. There is a suggestion by Robert Drews that the fires could have been the result of an attack on the site and its palace. This is denied by Eric Cline who points out the lack of archaeological evidence for an attack.[11][12]

We see a similar situation in Tiryns in 1200 BC when an earthquake destroyed much of the city including its palace. It is likely however that the city continued to be inhabited for some time following the earthquake. As a result there is a general agreement that earthquakes did not permanently destroy Mycenae or Tiryns because physical destruction cannot fully explain the collapse.[13][14] The cause of the continued decline of these sites could be environmental. In particular There was a lack of homegrown food. Palaces were important in managing and storing food imports. Their destruction made worse the more crucial factor of food shortage.[10] The importance of trade is further supported by the lack of any evidence for violent or sudden decline in Mycenae.[15]

The destruction on Pylos by fire around 1180 suggests a violent destruction to the city.[16] There is some evidence of Pylos expecting a seaborne attack with tablets at Pylos discussing "Watchers guarding the coast".[17] The tablets do not give any context as to what is being watched for and why.[18] Regardless of what the threat from the sea was, it likely played a role in the decline. It would have hindered trade and perhaps vital food imports.[19]

The end Bronze Age collapse marked the start of a period that has been called the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted for more than 400 years. The occupation of some cities, like Athens, did continue however their existence was of a much different nature. They had a more local sphere of influence, limited trade and an impoverished culture. It took centuries for Greece to recover.

Mesopotamia[change | change 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 | change source]

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

Conclusion[change | change source]

Robert Drews describes the collapse as "the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire".[20] 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 | change 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 | change source]

The Hekla 3 eruption was about this time, and is dated at 1159 BC by Egyptologists and British archeologists.[21][22]

Earthquakes[change | change 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.[23]

Migrations and raids[change | change 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".[24] 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 | change 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 BC.[25] 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.[26]

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 | change source]

Drought could have easily precipitated or hastened socio-economic problems and led to wars.[27][28] 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.[29]

Changes in warfare[change | change source]

Robert Drews argues that massed infantry used newly developed weapons and armor.[30]192ff Cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon,[31] and javelins were used. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests "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.[30][32][33]

General systems collapse[change | change source]

A general systems collapse has been put forward as an explanation for the reversals in culture.[34][35] 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.[36]

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 include the aggression of the ‘Sea Peoples’, the effect of pirates on maritime trade, drought, crop failures, and famine.

References[change | change 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, Robert. (1993). The end of the Bronze Age : changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 22. ISBN 0691048118. OCLC 27186178.
  7. Drews, Robert (1993). The End of the Bronze Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 25. ISBN 0-691-04811-8.
  8. Desborough, V.R.d'A. (1964). The last Mycenaeans and their successors; an archaeological survey, c. 1200-c. 1000 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 113. OCLC 403439.
  9. Demand, Nancy H. (2011). The Mediterranean context of early Greek history. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 198. ISBN 9781444342338. OCLC 823737347.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Demand, Nancy H. (2011). The Mediterranean context of early Greek history. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 198. ISBN 9781444342338. OCLC 823737347.
  11. Drews, Robert. (1993). The end of the Bronze Age : changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0691048118. OCLC 27186178.
  12. Cline, Eric H. (2014). 1177 B.C. : the year civilization collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 130. ISBN 9780691140896. OCLC 861542115.
  13. Middleton, Guy D. (2012). "Nothing Lasts Forever: Environmental Discourses on the Collapse of Past Societies". Journal of Archaeological Research. 20 (3): 257–307. doi:10.1007/s10814-011-9054-1. ISSN 1059-0161. S2CID 144866495.
  14. Drews, Robert. (1993). The end of the Bronze Age : changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 25. ISBN 0691048118. OCLC 27186178.
  15. Cline, Eric H. (2014). 1177 B.C. : the year civilization collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 131. ISBN 9780691140896. OCLC 861542115.
  16. Cline, Eric H. (2014). 1170 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 129. ISBN 978-0-691-14089-6.
  17. Ventris, Micheal., Chadwick, John (1956). Documents in Mycenaean Greek : three hundred selected tablets from Knossos, Plyos, and Mycenae with commentary and vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 189. OCLC 70408199.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. Cline, Eric H. (2014). 1177 B.C. : the year civilization collapsed. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. p. 129. ISBN 9780691140896. OCLC 861542115.
  19. Demand, Nancy H. (2011). The Mediterranean context of early Greek history. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 199. ISBN 9781444342338. OCLC 823737347.
  20. 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.
  21. 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
  22. Cunliffe, Barry 2005. Iron Age Communities in Britain 4th ed. Routledge, London. p256 ISBN 0-415-34779-3. Pg 68
  23. 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 Archived 2006-09-21 at the Wayback Machine
  24. Robbins, Manuel 2001. Collapse of the Bronze Age: the story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt and peoples of the sea. Authors Choice Press.
  25. 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.
  26. Palmer, Leonard R 1962. Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean prehistory in the light of the Linear B tablets. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
  27. Weiss, Harvey 1982. The decline of Late Bronze Age civilization as a possible response to climatic change. Climatic Change 4 #2, 173 - 198
  28. Wright, Karen 1998. Empires in the Dust in Discover Magazine March 1998 issue. [1]
  29. Fagan, Brian M. 2003. The long Summer: how climate changed civilization Basic Books, N.Y.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Drews, R. 1993. The end of the Bronze Age: changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton.
  31. 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
  32. McGoodwin
  33. Alan Litttle
  34. Tainter, Joseph: 1976. The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press,
  35. The history of Castlemagner, on the web page of the local historical society.
  36. Carol G. Thomas and Craig Conant 1999. Citadel to city-state: the transformation of Greece, 1200-700 B.C.E.

Further reading[change | change source]

  • 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