The Ancient Mediterranean Bronze Age Collapse


The area of the Great Temple located in the Lower City of Hattusa (the capital of the Hittite Empire in the Late Bronze Age). The temple was built in the 14th century BCE and was dedicated to the supreme deities of the Hittites, Teshub, the god of sky and storm, and the Sun goddess of Arinna. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Creative Commons

When the collapse had run its course, the Mediterranean region entered a “dark age”.


By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
Marist College


Introduction

The Bronze Age Collapse (also known as Late Bronze Age Collapse) is a modern-day term referring to the decline and fall of major Mediterranean civilizations during the 13th-12th centuries BCE. The precise cause of the Bronze Age Collapse has been debated by scholars for over a century as well as the date it probably began and when it ended but no consensus has been reached. What is clearly known is that, between c. 1250 – c. 1150 BCE, major cities were destroyed, whole civilizations fell, diplomatic and trade relations were severed, writing systems vanished, and there was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before.

The primary causes advanced for the Bronze Age Collapse are:

  • Natural Catastrophes (earthquakes)
  • Climate Change (which caused drought and famine)
  • Internal Rebellions (class wars)
  • Invasions (primarily by the Sea Peoples)
  • Disruption of Trade Relations/Systems Collapse (political instability)

When the collapse had run its course, the Mediterranean region entered a “dark age” in which iron replaced bronze as the metal of choice, diplomatic and trade relations were nearly non-existent, and art, architecture, and general quality of life all suffered in comparison with the Bronze Age.

What followed the Bronze Age (c. 3300 – c. 1200 BCE) was the Iron Age (c. 1200-550 BCE) which was a period of transformation and development and, overall, not nearly as “dark” as 19th- and early 20th-century CE scholars believed. The Iron Age seems to only have appeared so to these writers when contrasted with the grandeur and prosperity of the Bronze Age, but, even so, while civilizations rebuilt and developed going forwards, much was lost which could not be replicated and the lessons of the Bronze Age Collapse for the present day are especially pertinent at the moment when the globally-linked world most closely resembles the intricate network of nations which characterized this era.  

The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age is so-called because of the popularity of the use of bronze in metallurgy and is a convenient designation for the period. This era saw the development of civilization in every region of the Mediterranean and in every aspect. The Bronze Age is the period best known for its advances in culture, language, technology, religion, art, architecture, politics, warfare, and trade.

The Bronze Age is what most people think of when they hear the term “ancient history” because it was during this time that the Pyramids of Giza were constructed (during the Old Kingdom of Egypt c. 2613-2181 BCE) and the Temple of Karnak was built (starting in the Middle Kingdom, 2040-1782 BCE, through the New Kingdom, c. 1570 – c. 1069 BCE). In Mesopotamia, The Uruk Period (c. 4000-3100 BCE) saw the invention of the wheel and writing, among other advances, and this era merges into the so-called Early Dynastic Period (c. 2900-2350 BCE) during which the first multicultural political entity in the world – the Akkadian Empire – was founded by Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BCE). Babylon was the great center of culture and learning in Mesopotamia and Elam was raising grand cities.

A map of the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean indicating the various invasions and migrations of the period / Alexkoua, Wikimedia Commons

The Hatti established themselves in Anatolia (c. 2700-2400 BCE) and built their great city of Hattusa (c. 2500 BCE). The Hittite Empire (1400-1200 BCE) flourished and the Kingdom of Mittani stretched from northern Iraq down to the region of Turkey. The Cypriot culture developed on Cyprus, The Phoenician city of Ugarit in the Levant, among others, prospered, and the Mycenaean Civilization of Greece (c. 1600 – c. 1100 BCE) was at its height.

As each political entity became more stable and centralized, trade flourished until, by around 1350 CE, Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, the Hittite Empire, and the Kingdom of Mittani were closely tied to one another in a network of trade and diplomacy referred to by modern-day scholars as the “Club of Great Powers” (Ancient Egypt, van de Mieroop, 188). This was a close-knit, international, web of relationships between the most powerful monarchs of the age and its existence is well-established through the Amarna Letters of the 14th century BCE, correspondence between the kings of Egypt and other nations.

These cordial relationships meant prosperity for the people of the lands involved. Trade flourished, as evident in the grand building projects of the New Kingdom of Egypt among other evidence, and each nation prospered through the ties of trade and diplomacy. This entire way of life would drastically alter for the worse beginning in the mid-to-late 13th century BCE, and this is the so-called Bronze Age Collapse. When it was over, of the nations which made up the Club of Great Powers, only Egypt would remain intact and then in a greatly reduced form.

Causes of Collapse

From the time of the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero (l. 1846-1916 CE, who first coined the term “Sea Peoples” in reference to the invading forces of the 13th and 12th centuries BCE in 1881 CE), the causes of the Bronze Age Collapse have been presented by scholars as linear, happening in a set sequence: earthquakes brought down cities and poor harvests (climate change) caused famine which led to social and political instability resulting in internal rebellions while, at the same time, large populations uprooted from their own lands by the same difficulties migrated to the Mediterranean and, in their quest for a new home, disrupted existing populations, and all of these pressures finally resulted in the loss of diplomatic and trade relations and the fall of civilization in the Mediterranean.

The Sphinx Gate at Alacahöyük (the site of a Neolithic and Hittite settlement in central Turkey) was built in the 14th century BCE. It was the south entrance of the city and was fortified with towers. It was flanked by sphinx protomes sculpted in monolith stone. The sphinxes were the protectors of the city. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Flickr, Creative Commons

The problem with the linear concept of causes is not just that it is too simple – all of these civilizations had survived invasions and earthquakes and instability before – but because it always assumes a set date for when the collapse began and ended and then finds historical events which fit the narrative and support that date. It is far more probable, as advanced by scholars such as Eric H. Cline, A. Bernard Knapp and Stuart W. Manning, and Brandon L. Drake, among others, that all of these pressures were brought to bear on Mediterranean civilization in quick succession, perhaps almost simultaneously, so that they could not recover from one catastrophe before another was upon them. Cline refers to this phenomenon as “a perfect storm of calamities” and explains:  

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 others. (165)

This suggestion is most probable since, as noted, the Mediterranean civilizations had experienced most of these challenges in the past and survived. Cline avoids the pitfall of trying to date the precise year of the collapse by noting that his date of 1177 BCE is only a kind of “scholarly shorthand” for when the collapse began and should not be understood as a definitive date:

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 Gaiseric and the Vandals. There were also many other reasons why Rome fell, in addition to these attacks, and the story is much more complex, as any Roman historian will readily attest. However, it is convenient, and considered acceptable academic shorthand, to link the invasion of Odoacer and the Ostrogoths in AD 476 with the end of Rome’s glory days. (172).

With that in mind, the causes of the Bronze Age Collapse must be considered as suggestions of probabilities as far as dates go, but a general time span is accepted (roughly c. 1250 – c. 1150 BCE) and certain aspects of the collapse during this period, such as climate change, assert themselves more profoundly because there is no record of such events, to such a degree, prior to this period of the collapse.

Cuneiform tablet inscribed with a letter from Tushratta, king of Mitanni, to Amenhotep III of Egypt. It was found in Tell el-Amarna and dates from c. 1350 BC, when the city was known as Akhetaten. In this letter, the kings were negotiating a diplomatic mariage between Amenhotep III and a Mitanian princess. Tushratta asks for much gold as a bride-price. (The British Museum, London) / Photo by Priscila Scoville, Creative Commons

Natural Catastrophes: Knapp and Manning point out that earthquakes in the Mediterranean were commonplace this would have been no different in the 13th-12th centuries than previously. They cite scholar Robert Drews in their study who “presented a list of 47 sites in the region that had been destroyed over this 50-year period [of the collapse]” but maintain that it is hard to be certain which were destroyed by earthquakes and which by invasions or internal rebellion (113). Knapp and Manning also note the possibility of “earthquake storms” – a series of earthquakes in rapid succession – which might account for widespread destruction.

Climate Change: Archaeologist David Kaniewski cites climate change as the pivotal factor in the collapse, claiming “the abrupt climate change at the end of the Late Bronze Age caused region-wide crop failures, leading towards socio-economic crises and unsustainability” (Knapp & Manning, 103). This crisis, Kaniewski notes, would then have caused the mass migrations/invasions which were recorded by the people of Cyprus, Anatolia, and Egypt. The problem with this claim is chronology for the Bronze Age Collapse. There is, as noted, no set date for when it began or even how long it continued. Dates for the beginning of the Bronze Age Collapse range from 1250 to 1186 to 1177 BCE, among others, and so pinpointing a climatic change as a singular cause is not possible. Knapp and Manning make the point that “we lack any usefully defined climatic data from the eastern Mediterranean” for this period even though they acknowledge that climate change could have played a significant part in the collapse (117).

Scholar Brandon L. Drake, however, notes that “the Soreq cave in Israel contained a 150,000-year record of precipitation for the northern Levant” which shows an unprecedented and steady decline in rainfall ongoing through 1150 BCE by which time it was significant enough to have caused drought. Citing the work of Kaniewski and Harvey Weiss, Drake notes that a so-called mega-drought (Weiss’ term) struck the region between c. 1200-850 BCE and this is evidenced through the examination of pollen and alluvial records as well as letters between monarchs at the time (Drake, 1863). Drake concludes:

A decline in Mediterranean Sea surface temperatures before 1190 BCE decreased annual freshwater flux by lowering evaporation rates. Westerly winds took in less water vapor, resulting in declining precipitation. (1868)

Declining precipitation led to drought which affected harvests and resulted in famine. Famine would have then driven migration/invasion.

Soreq Cave, Israel – The stalactites and other cave formations help paleoclimate research for the northern Levant. / Photo by Dany Sternfeld, Flickr, Creative Commons

Internal Rebellions: Class wars – defined as the lower classes revolting against the privilege of the elite – is cited as another cause. During the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE), the first labor strike in history is recorded when payment to the tomb-builders at Deir-el-Medina was not delivered. Tomb robbing also became rampant at this time and scholar William H. Stiebing notes, “it is interesting that the item the thieves most often purchased with their loot was food” (227). Cline cites the destruction of the Canaanite city of Hazor as “caused by an internal rebellion of the city’s inhabitants” who may have lacked adequate food supplies (148). The obvious suggestion of the archaeological and literary evidence is a food shortage which encouraged the lower classes to revolt against those perceived to be holding back resources.

Invasions: The Bronze Age Collapse was once attributed solely to the invasion of the so-called Sea Peoples between c. 1276-1178 BCE. The identity of this coalition is still debated in the present day but, whoever they were and wherever they came from, they wreaked havoc on the civilizations of the Mediterranean. The names of the tribes include the Sherden, the Sheklesh, the Lukka, the Tursha, the Akawasha, and the Peleset among others. Egyptian inscriptions from the New Kingdom make clear they were fought off by Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great, r. 1279-1213 BCE), his son – and successor – Merenptah (r. 1213-1203 BCE), and Ramesses III who defeated them in 1178 BCE. Invasions elsewhere, by others, have also been cited as a major cause. Stiebing notes Drews’ theory for the invasions, especially of the Sea Peoples:

Robert Drews has proposed an interesting variation of the invasion explanation that sees changes in warfare as the reason for the end of the Bronze Age. According to this view, barbarians like the Sea Peoples who had long been employed as mercenaries by the Great Powers, abruptly turned on their masters. (229)

This theory is untenable, however, as it ignores the well-established records of the Egyptian monarchs – especially Ramesses III – which show the Sea Peoples arriving with their wives and children in carts; clearly indicating a migratory people following an invading force.

A tomb painting depicting Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE) offering incense. 12th century BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Disruption of Trade Relations/Systems Collapse: The severing of commercial and diplomatic ties has also been cited as a cause for the collapse but this cannot be posited as primary as there was no reason why the Great Powers would have suddenly decided to end relations and allow their cultures to devolve or their actual civilizations to end. The disruption of trade would have to be the culmination of earlier stressors. The global nature (recognizing what “global” would have meant to the people of the ancient Mediterranean) of trade at that time linked each nation to each so closely that, if one fell, the others would follow. Stiebing comments:

[Scholars] have argued that the Bronze Age civilizations experienced a systems collapse. Their economies were too narrowly based and their trade networks depended on relatively peaceful conditions. Also there were major social problems (such as debt slavery, alienation of land, abuse of peasants by the aristocracy) that caused internal discontent. Then, at the end of the thirteenth century, piracy and military conflicts disrupted trade. The substantial decline in trade, in turn, led to economic collapse, revolts, and general breakdown of the economic, political, and social systems. (230)

None of these causes, on their own, can explain the Bronze Age Collapse. Most scholars agree with the conclusion succinctly articulated by Marc van de Mieroop: “no single cause can explain what happened in all regions and states” (Near East, 190). One scenario which might fit one region does not work in another and the linear explanation of one cause leading to another ignores previous epochs in history where there were similar challenges but no collapse.

The Dark Ages

The Hittite Empire fell, Ugarit was destroyed, the Mycenaean Civilization vanished, the cities of the Levant followed a similar pattern of decline, and the Cypriots suffered as well. The golden age of the Club of Great Powers and the resultant prosperity became a memory, and this memory was recorded in myth, most notably in Greece in the 8th century BCE by Homer and Hesiod, both of whom remind a reader of a great age in the past, now long gone, which was far superior to the present.

Cline ends his book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, on the optimistic note that, from the ashes of the Bronze Age Collapse, came the seeds of the civilizations which would produce the modern world. He suggests that “sometimes it takes a large-scale wildfire to help renew the ecosystem of an old-growth forest and allow it to thrive afresh” (176). This is no doubt true but, as he also notes, one is left to wonder what the modern world might be like if there had been no Bronze Age Collapse.

Enormous cultural gains were, obviously, made afterwards, and the “dark ages” which followed the collapse were nowhere near as dark as earlier scholars imagined. To cite only one example, Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE), was well-known for its craftsmanship in metallurgy which worked “in gold and silver but the major part in bronze” (Shaw, 361). Bronze-work survived the collapse, as did many other aspects of Bronze Age civilization.

This bronze and gilded head of an Ibex or a capricorn was part of sacred bark which might be carried on the shoulders of a procession of priests during rituals. Probably from Zagazig, Egypt. Third Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty, 1069-945 BCE. It is on display at the Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany. / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Creative Commons

Even though some writing systems vanished – notably the Mycenaean and Minoan – the Phoenician alphabet came to take their place. Gradually, the people of the Mediterranean who survived the collapse adapted to their new reality and rebuilt their lives. Those lives were obviously quite different from how they would have been if there had been no collapse but, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, the essence of life is change and all things, at all times, undergo transformation – willingly or unwillingly – and so it was with civilizations of the Bronze Age.

Even so, the parallel between the period of the collapse and the modern-day seems quite striking in that now, as then, the world is intimately linked through global trade and diplomacy and the downfall of one nation is certain to affect the fortunes of every other. As Cline notes, “in a complex system such as our world today, [a tipping point] is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to collapse” (176). That tipping point, modern science and empirical observation dictates, is climate change; the one factor among the causes of the Bronze Age Collapse which respected archaeologists and scholars feel was unprecedented at that time.

Interview: The Mysterious Bronze Age Collapse with Eric Cline

By James Blake Wiener
Founder and Former Communications Director
Ancient History Encyclopedia


The decline of the Late Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean and Near East has puzzled historians and archaeologists for centuries. While many have ascribed the collapse of several civilizations to the enigmatic Sea Peoples, Professor Eric H. Cline, former Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University, presents a more complicated and nuanced scenario in his book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed.

In 2015 CE, Professor Eric H. Cline spoke to Ancient History Encyclopedia’s James Blake Wiener about the circumstances that lead to the collapse of the cosmopolitan world of the Late Bronze Age.

The Lion Gate at Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire. The gate, dated to the 13th century BCE, was flanked by two towers. The head of the lion on the left had already been broken away in antiquity. It has been reconstructed in 2011. The lions were put at the entrance of the city to ward off evil. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Flickr, Creative Commons

JBW: Professor Cline, welcome to Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE). I am pleased to speak to you about 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed as it has been on my reading list since its publication in 2014 CE. At last, I have read it!

In 1177 BC, you trace the social, economic, and cultural links between the civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East — Egypt, Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, the Hittite Empire, Mittani, Assyria, and Kassite Babylonia — and their cataclysmic demise during the late 2nd millennium BC. I suspect this was a book that you always wanted to write; however, I am keen to know what was it about the Bronze Age Collapse that intrigued you enough to write 1177 BC? Did it have anything to do with your prior archaeological work at Tel Kabri and Megiddo in Israel?

EHC: Actually, the impetus to write a book on this topic came from Mr. Rob Tempio at Princeton University Press. He came down to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2007 CE and asked me if I would write a book on the collapse. I told him that what I really wanted to write was a book about what collapsed because the Late Bronze Age and the cultures and civilizations that were thriving in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean between about 1700 and 1200 BCE have always fascinated me.

So, we agreed that I would write about both, which is why the book begins and ends with considerations about the collapse, but the middle part of the book backtracks a few centuries in order to give the reader a good idea about what was there before it all went down in ruin. I like this approach because it puts the collapse into complete and proper context, giving the reader a precise idea of just how much was lost when the end came. And, no, writing 1177 BC had nothing to do with my work at either  Kabri  or  Megiddo, but I am now at work on a book specifically about Megiddo that will be published by Princeton University Press. (I should add that a volume co-edited with Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau on our excavations at Kabri is also in preparation, which will be published by Brill Publishers in the near future.)

JBW: You argue that these empires failed due to a combination of natural catastrophes like earthquakes and prolonged droughts, migration and foreign invasions, internal rebellions, and a sharp decline in international trade. This led in turn to political fragmentation and disintegration, as well as significant cultural change.

Professor Cline, why were earlier generations of scholars so keen to find a single explanation for the decline of Bronze Age civilizations? In the past, many scholars blamed the Sea Peoples, whose identity remains shrouded in mystery, for the collapse of various Bronze Age cultures. This is especially curious when taking into consideration the decline of inland empires like those of Kassite Babylonia, Elam, or Assyria, which were untouched by the Sea Peoples.

EHC: The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible. Certainly, some of the members of the general public who have left reviews of my book on Amazon seem to want that still and are miffed that I even-handedly go through the evidence and then conclude that there is no simple solution. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multicausal explanation, because in this case Occam’s Razor (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it. Although I think it seemed very logical to early scholars like Gaston Maspero and others to blame the Sea Peoples, they originally formulated that hypothesis based on Ramesses III’s inscription at Medinet Habu and not much else. But, it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. As you point out, the mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that we cannot just blame the Sea Peoples for everything, much as one might want to do so.

Thus, my main thesis is that there must have been a ‘perfect storm’ of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BCE. There is both direct and circumstantial evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions, all at that approximate time. Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?

It would be difficult to survive if all, or most, of the above calamities came at the same time or nearly so, as they seem to have done especially between about 1225 BCE and 1175 BCE. And that, I think, is why the Late Bronze Age civilizations came crashing down — they were not able to weather the ‘perfect storm’ of nearly simultaneous catastrophes, with each amplifying and multiplying the effects of the previous ones, piling on misfortune after misfortune until the entire system broke down. And then what we see is a systems’ collapse, as empires and kingdoms that had flourished for centuries all came to an end, followed by the world’s first Dark Age stretching from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia.

JBW: 1177 BCE is the date when Ramesses III of Egypt (r. 1186-1155 BCE) defeated the Sea Peoples for a second time at the Battle of the Delta. (The Battle of Djahy, which pitted the Egyptians against the Sea Peoples occurred a few years earlier.) You characterize this as a “pyrrhic victory,” which symbolically ends the Bronze Age networks of trade, power, and culture. After Egypt battled for its very existence and prevailed against the onslaught of the Sea Peoples, it too entered a period of marked decline.

Yet within 1177 BC, you claim that decline began as early as c. 1250 BCE and as late as c. 1130 BCE, depending on geographical location. How important then is the date 1177 BCE in our understanding of the Bronze Age’s termination? Why did you select this date as the title of your book?

EHC: It did indeed take about a century for everything to collapse, but 1177 BCE is a good reference point, for it is in that year that the Sea Peoples invaded Egypt for the second time, as you say, and by then many of the cities across Canaan, Asia Minor, and Greece were already in decline if not already destroyed. Therefore, I use ‘1177 BCE’ as shorthand for the entire Late Bronze Age Collapse, just as we commonly use ‘476 CE’ as shorthand for the fall of the Roman Empire; we know that neither took place entirely in exactly that year and yet we understand that those dates are representative. To my mind, as I say in the book, 1177 BCE “is a reasonable benchmark and allows us to put a finite date on a rather elusive pivotal moment and the end of an age.” Perhaps a better way to phrase it, as I say a sentence or two later in the book, is that “the world in 1200 BCE was quite different from that of 1100 BCE and completely different from that of 1000 BCE,” but that is not as snappy a title.

JBW: Aside from citing the latest archaeological research, you utilize some remarkable primary sources in 1177 BC, including meticulous diplomatic correspondence drawn from the Amarna Letters, the Pylos and Knossos Linear B tablets from Greece, and texts from Ugarit. Of these, I was fascinated by the texts from Ugarit. Might you offer a word or two about the texts from the city-state of Ugarit and how they were important to your research presented in 1177 BC, Professor Cline?

EHC: I, too, am fascinated by the texts from Ugarit. Throughout most of my career, I have mainly studied the royal texts from Mari in Syria, dated back to c. 1800 BCE, and the royal texts from Amarna in Egypt, dated to c. 1350 BCE. However, the texts from Ugarit, especially those which come from the 14th through 12th centuries BCE, shed light not just on royal activities, but also on the activities of private merchants and even private individuals. There are several archives that we know of from Ugarit, coming from the royal palace as well as private houses belonging to wealthy merchants named “Urtenu,” “Yabninu,” and “Rapanu.”

The tablets first began to be recovered in the 1950s CE, with the most recent coming to light from 1994-2002 CE. We find out all sorts of things from them, like the fact that a ship was sent from Ugarit to Crete in about 1260 BCE by a different merchant named “Sinaranu.” It was scheduled to bring back olive oil, grain, and beer to Ugarit. We are told specifically that it would be exempt from import taxes when it got back — I think it might be the first recorded case of a corporate tax break that we know of! The texts from Ugarit also shed light on the interconnections of the time, allowing us to construct diagrams and do social network analyses showing the relationships between individuals both in the city and in distant kingdoms.

This is the entrance to the excavated ruins of the royal palace at Ugarit / Photo by Disdero, Wikimedia Commons

Even more important from the standpoint of the collapse, though, is the fact that, first of all, the tablets and letters continue right up until the very end of the city, so that we get a picture of what must have been almost the final days, sometime between 1190 and 1185 BCE. Secondly, the tablets and letters describe enemy ships approaching, destruction of the fields, drought, and famine. This is written, textual evidence of a multitude of calamities, not just inference from archaeological remains! Unfortunately, we are not given any specifics as to who the invaders or the enemy ships might be, so we do not know if these are the Sea Peoples or not, though there is a good chance that they are.

JBW: Professor Cline, I hope that you will indulge me with my next question: who do you think were the Sea Peoples? Based on what we know, the Sea Peoples were a band of people, of mixed origins, who migrated, settled, and raided the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean. Do you have any additional thoughts? Will we ever unmask their true identity?

EHC: This is an excellent question, but we do not know the answer for certain. I think the origin for some of them was the region of Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Italy (some of the groups are called the Shekelesh and the Shardana, which sound similar), but others most likely joined in along the way, as they moved from west to east across the Mediterranean. Consequently, there may have been others from what is present-day Greece and Turkey among the Sea Peoples as well.

Overview of the ruins at Alacahöyük, the site of a Neolithic and Hittite settlement in central Turkey. Alacahöyük was the centre of the flourishing Hattian culture during the Bronze Age. It was later occupied by the Hittites who used the city as their first capital before moving over to Hattusa. The site is located in Alaca, northeast of Hattusa. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Creative Commons

We have yet to definitively identify a homeland for them, but I think that day will eventually come. It may be a matter of creating a check-list of criteria that we would need to look for, in order to figure out where to dig or otherwise look for a site or sites from which they could have come, but once we start looking seriously, I will not at all be surprised if evidence eventually turns up.

JBW: I wanted to ask you if any polities or groups benefited from the Late Bronze Age Collapse? The Phoenician city-states and the Aramaeans seem to have fared better than many others.

EHC: Well, the main legacy seems have been the Philistines and their culture, for the group among the Sea Peoples that the Egyptians called the Peleset are probably the group that we know as the Philistines from the Bible. They seem to have settled down in the region of Canaan and perhaps assimilated with the locals, just before the rise of Israel. But, other than them, yes, also the Aramaeans, but the Phoenicians and the Israelites seem to have benefited the most from the collapse of the Bronze Age.

As I see it, all of these groups were able to really ‘set up shop,’ as it were, in the regions of Canaan from which the Egyptians and Hittites had both just withdrawn — especially in what is now modern Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. To put it in modern terms, I think that the Israelites, Phoenicians, Aramaeans, and Philistines benefited from the ‘power vacuum’ that was created in this area when the Great Powers were laid low. There was no way that any of them could have established a foothold in this area if the Egyptians, Hittites, and Canaanites had still been as powerful as they were even in the 13th century BCE. The calamitous events at the beginning of the 12th century BCE made all the difference.

JBW: Professor Cline, I thank you for speaking with me about 1177 BC, and I wish you many happy adventures in research! Perhaps we shall speak in the future about your next book?

EHC: It would be my pleasure to do so, James! Thanks for inviting me to be interviewed about 1177 BC for Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Professor Eric H. Cline is Professor of Classics and Anthropology, the former Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and the current Director of the GWU Capitol Archaeological Institute. He is a National Geographic Explorer, a Fulbright scholar, and an award-winning teacher and author. He has also served as the advisor to the undergraduate archaeology majors at GW for the past decade and has overseen the graduation of 132 majors since 2001 CE, with nearly half going on to leading graduate schools in archaeology and related fields, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London. An archaeologist and ancient historian by training, Dr. Cline’s primary fields of study are biblical archaeology, the military history of the Mediterranean world from antiquity to present, and the international connections between Greece, Egypt, and the Near East during the Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BCE). Dr. Cline is an experienced and active field archaeologist, with 30 seasons of excavation and survey to his credit since 1980 CE in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus, Greece, Crete, and the United States; he currently co-directs the excavations at both Megiddo (Armageddon) and Tel Kabri in Israel. 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed has already been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch, with translations into six more languages soon to appear. It has won the 2014 CE “Award for the Best Popular Book” from the American Schools of Oriental Research; was named as one of the New York Post’s Best Books of 2014 CE; been on the national bestseller lists in both Canada and France; received Honorable Mention for the 2015 CE PROSE Award in Archaeology & Anthropology from the Association of American Publishers and was under consideration for the 2015 CE Pulitzer Prize.

Bibliography


Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 09.20.2019, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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