Text #9318"Late Bronze Age Collapse", in .
The Late Bronze Age collapse was a transition in the Aegean Region, Southwestern Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age that historians believe was violent, sudden and culturally disruptive. The palace economy of the Aegean Region and Anatolia which characterised the Late Bronze Age was replaced, after a hiatus, by the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages.
Between 1206 and 1150 BC, the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria, and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan interrupted trade routes and severely reduced literacy. In the first phase of this period, almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was violently destroyed, and often left unoccupied thereafter: examples include Hattusa, Mycenae, and Ugarit. Drews writes “Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again” (p. 4).1
The gradual end of the Dark Age that ensued saw the eventual rise of settled Syro-Hittite states in Cilicia and Syria, Aramaean kingdoms of the mid-10th century BC in the Levant, the eventual rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and after the Orientalising period of the Aegean, Classical Greece….
There are various theories put forward to explain the situation of collapse, many of them compatible with each other.
Changes in climate similar to the Younger Dryas period or the Little Ice Age punctuate human history. The local effects of these changes may cause crop failures in multiple consecutive years, leading to warfare as a last-ditch effort at survival. The triggers for climate change are still debated, but ancient peoples could not have predicted or coped with substantial climate changes.
The Hekla 3 eruption approximately coincides with this period and while the exact date is under considerable dispute, one group calculated the date specifically to be 1159 BC, implicating the eruption in the collapse in Egypt.
Using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern weather stations, it was shown that a drought of the kind that persisted from January 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse. Drought could have easily precipitated or hastened socioeconomic problems and led to wars.
More recently, it has been 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.
Pollen in sediment cores from the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee show that there was a period of severe drought at the start of the collapse.
Migrations and raids
Ekrem Akurgal, Gustav Lehmann and Fritz Schachermeyer, following the views of Gaston Maspero, have argued that raids were the cause.
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”.
The Ugarit correspondence at the time mentions invasions by tribes of the mysterious Sea Peoples, who appear to have been a disparate mix of Luwians, Greeks and Canaanites, among others. Equally, the last Greek 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.
The theory is strengthened by the fact that the collapse coincides with the appearance in the region of many new ethnic groups. These include Indo-European tribes such as the Phrygians, Proto-Armenians, Medes, Persians, Cimmerians, Lydians and Scythians as well as the Iranian Sarmatians. The Pontic-speaking Colchians, and non-Indo-European Hurro-Urartuans also seem to have been on the move. Many of these groups settled or emerged in the Caucasus, Iran and Anatolia. Thracians, Macedonians and Dorian Greeks seem to have arrived at this time, possibly from the north, usurping the earlier Greeks of Mycenae and Achaea. There also seems to have been widespread migration of Semitic peoples, such as Aramaeans, Chaldeans and Suteans, ossibly from the Southeast.
The ultimate reasons for these migrations could include drought, developments in warfare/weaponry, earthquakes, or other natural disasters, meaning that the Migrations theory is not necessarily incompatible with the other theories mentioned here. Manuel Robbins for example writes “There is no doubt that people, ‘barbarians’ or otherwise, were on the move, and some were probably responsible for disruption and attacks on cities. But it is reasonable to believe that they were victims of circumstances themselves and not the initial cause or main agent of disruption.”
The Bronze Age collapse may be seen in the context of a technological history that saw the slow, comparatively continuous spread of ironworking technology in the region, beginning with precocious iron-working in what is now Bulgaria and Romania in the 13th and 12th centuries BC.
Leonard R. Palmer suggested that iron, while 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 maryannu chariotry. The argument has been weakened of late, with the finding that the shift to iron occurred after the collapse, not before. It now seems that the disruption of long-distance trade, an aspect of “systems collapse,” cut easy supplies of tin, making bronze impossible to make. Older implements were recycled, and then iron substitutes were used.
Changes in warfare
Robert Drews argues that the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armor, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon, and javelins. 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 “warriors”.
Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of “running skirmishers” who could swarm and cut down a chariot army and would destabilize states based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.
General systems collapse
A general systems collapse has been put forward as an explanation for the reversals in culture that occurred between the Urnfield culture of the 12th and13th centuries BC and the rise of the Celtic Hallstatt culture in the 9th and 10th centuries BC. The theory may, however, simply raise the question of whether this collapse was the cause of or the effect of the Bronze Age collapse being discussed. General systems collapse theory, pioneered by Joseph Tainter, hypothesises how social declines in response to complexity may lead to a collapse resulting in simpler forms of society.
In the specific context of the Middle East, a variety of factors, iincluding 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 that were increasingly fragile and less resilient, the combination of factors may have contributed to the collapse.
The growing complexity and specialization of the Late Bronze Age political, economic, and social organization in Carol Thomas and Craig Conant’s phrase is a weakness that could explain such a widespread collapse that was able to render the Bronze Age civilizations incapable of recovery. The critical flaws of the Late Bronze Age are its centralisation, specialisation, complexity and top-heavy political structure. These flaws then revealed themselves through sociopolitical factors (revolt of peasantry and defection of mercenaries), fragility of all kingdoms (Mycenaean, Hittite, Ugaritic and Egyptian), demographic crises (overpopulation), and wars between states. Other factors that could have placed increasing pressure on the fragile kingdoms include piratical disturbances of maritime trade by the Sea Peoples, drought, crop failures, famine, Dorian migration or invasion.
Dickinson, Oliver (2007). The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age: Continuity and Change Between the Twelfth and Eighth Centuries BC. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-13590-0.
Cline, Eric H. (2014). 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-14089-6.
Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C., 1993. ↩