The Bronze Age Aegean and Its Collapse

Bronze Age Aegean Larnax / Royal Ontario Museum

By Dr. Nicholas K. Rauh
Professor of Classics
Purdue University

The Inception of Bronze Age Archaeology

Archaeological exploration of Bronze Age Greece has been profoundly influenced by Homeric traditions. A legendary bard who lived around 750 BC, Homer presumably traveled to the manor houses of early Iron Age Greek nobles to sing his version of the epic saga recounting the siege of Troy. The works attributed to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey, do not explain the entire story; rather they relate short episodes, presumably the parts sung by Homer himself, from a much larger story about a great war that ushered in the end to the Bronze Age. Elements of the story include the judgment of Paris, the kidnapping of Helen, the Greek assault on Troy, the slaying of Patrocles, Hector, and Achilles, the use of the Trojan horse to enter the city, and the tragic end that each and every surviving hero encountered when he returned to Greece. Despite its length, the Iliad actually records but a few days in the tenth year of the siege and focuses mainly on a personal dispute that erupted between Agamemnon, the chief Kings of the Greeks, and his preeminent warrior Achilles. The Odyssey, meanwhile, recounts the traumatic return from Troy of the Bronze Age hero Odysseus (Ulysses) of Ithaca. The inhabitants of early Iron Age (Archaic) Greece firmly believed that this epic story recorded the historical end to an era of heroes. Archaeologists have long asked to what degree the saga of the Trojan War preserves recollections of actual events, or short of that vestiges of Aegean Bronze Age civilization. When Classical sciences came into being in the 1800s, many European scholars openly dismissed the Homeric tradition as myth and focused their attention instead on well-established Classical sites such as Athens and Olympia. Few scholars critically investigated evidence of Bronze Age Aegean society.

Heinrich Schliemann / Purdue University

The person to change all this was an iconoclast named Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890). Schliemann was a wealthy businessman who made his fortunes in the Russian fur trade and the gold rush in California. A brilliant linguist who loved the works of Homer, Schliemann was utterly convinced that these preserved a record of genuine historical events. Schliemann excavated the mound of Hisarlik (Troy) in 1871; and followed this by excavating Mycenae in 1876. His excavations revealed the existence of rich prehistoric societies that clearly predated those of Classical Greece. At Troy his finds included exotic jewelry, a chariot ramp, and massive city walls; At Mycenae he found similarly massive defensive walls that enclosed a palace complex with a large grave circle where he uncovered several gold death masks. His discovery of these two Aegean sites set in motion the archaeological exploration of Bronze Age Aegean civilizations that continues today.

Sir Arthur Evans / Purdue University

In contradistinction to Schliemann’s work at Troy and Mycenae, a British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, pursued an alternative line of research on the south Aegean island of Crete. Trained in Egyptology Evans came to reject the Homeric tradition that prehistoric Greek peoples ruled the Aegean in favor of another tradition that the Aegean was initially ruled by kings from overseas. Instead of Homer he pointed to the myths recounting the feats of an earlier generation of Greek heroes, namely, Theseus of Athens. Theseus slew the Minotaur in the labyrinth at Knossos in order to liberate Athens and the rest of Greece from the tyrannical rule of King Minos of Crete. In 1900 Evans conducted an excavation at the identified site of Knossos and uncovered an elaborate palace complex that predated that of Mycenae by nearly a thousand years. Although similarities clearly existed and will be noted below, the architectural design of the palace at Knossos was decidedly Near Eastern (resembling plans of Mari in northern Mesopotamia), and its associated written script, Linear A (partially deciphered), is clearly non Indo-European (as opposed to Linear B tablets, also found at Knossos and now firmly identified as a form of proto-Greek). Evans himself described Linear A as the forerunner of the Phoenician alphabet; scholars now tend to identify it as a variant of Bronze Age Canaanite. Evans believed that advanced urban culture and bronze technology were imported to the Aegean by outsiders, perhaps refugees expelled from the Nile at the time of the formation of the Old Kingdom. According to his line of reasoning these migrants settled on Crete and quickly imposed their authority on the less sophisticated inhabitants of the Aegean. Minoan overlords do indeed appear to have colonized the region (as evidenced by the excavation of Minoan settlements at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini and elsewhere on the Greek mainland), so they conceivably dominated it by means of a naval empire. According to this scenario the Mycenaean Greeks were unsophisticated late comers who assimilated Minoan culture and later replaced Cretan hegemony with their own. In essence, everything the Greeks learned about civilization was taught to them by the Minoans, that is, by a non Indo-European people originating from the Near East.

The hypothesis that advanced urban culture radiated outward from core civilizations in the Ancient Near East to peripheral regions such as the Aegean still dominates world-systems debate. More specifically, the argument that Greece, long heralded as the “cradle” of Western Civilization by Eurocentric intellectuals, was itself a product of Egyptian and Near Eastern cultural diffusion has been recently heralded by Martin Bernal in his influential work, Black Athena. Arthur Evans himself was so committed to the argument of Minoan cultural diffusion that he appears to have deliberately obscured the archaeological record of hundreds of Linear B tablets unearthed during the initial phase of his excavation at Knossos (for example, the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets). Determined to buttress the argument that all things “Mycenaean” were learned from the Minoans, he insisted that the both writing systems unearthed at Knossos and defined by himself as Linear A and Linear B were Minoan (and ultimately Near Eastern) in origin. The Indo-European basis of Linear B (a proto-form of ancient Greek) was suspected by many of Evans’ contemporaries and later demonstrated by Michael Ventris. Nonetheless, Evans found himself having to argue to the contrary in order to buttress his argument for a unidirectional cultural diffusion from Crete to Greece.

Outsiders may wonder at the intensity of the debate waged over the origins of  two small Aegean civilizations that existed thousands of years ago. Nonetheless, much of what we assume to know about the origins of modern “Western” civilization remains based on interpretations such as this. There is little external textual information to guide the way and even this, as the disputed contexts of the Linear A and B tablets at Knossos demonstrate, derives largely from archaeological discovery. Bronze Age Aegean archaeology remains one of the rare humanistic disciplines where archaeological exploration in and of itself holds the potential to shape what is known about its subject. In this chapter we will present brief summaries of what is reliably accepted about Bronze Age Aegean Civilizations. We will then discuss the limited available evidence indicating that the legendary Trojan War was a symptom of wider Bronze Age societal collapse.

Minoan Crete (c.3000-1500 BCE; High Period 2000-1500 BCE)

“Bull Leaping” fresco from Minoan palace at Knossos, c. 3000-1450 BC. Lyrical, free form Minoan art depicts an acrobatic dance performed with a live bull. Archaeologists believe this to have been a common form of popular entertainment. 

The inhabitants of Minoan Crete migrated to the island from the Near East. Their Language was not Indo-European; as noted above their Linear A Script has not been deciphered, but it appears to be a Near Eastern language. The Minoans otherwise brought Bronze Age technology to a Stone Age environment and established hegemony throughout the Aegean. This was referred to in ancient times as a “thalassocracy” (rule by sea). They settled colonies on neighboring islands as well as the Greek mainland. They constructed large Palace-complexes. Several large terrace-built palaces such as Knossos and Mallia have been excavated, revealing plans that resemble those in northern Mesopotamia. Their Palaces were non-fortified and surrounded by numerous storage areas. The Palace hierarchy (kings) clearly controlled trade surpluses of locally produced wine and olive oil, shipping them throughout the Aegean and beyond. This central control of production, storage, and maritime distribution is referred to as a palace-based economy. Frescoes reveal emphasis on scenes of nature, gaiety, hedonism, as well as Evidence of bull-sports and bull-sacrifices.

Some cataclysmic event, perhaps the eruption of the volcano at nearby Thera, led to the civilization’s decline. Unfortunately, the date for this is disputed (sometime between 1600-1450 BC with accumulating evidence for the earlier date). A layer of volcanic ash has been found in core sediments sampled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, demonstrating that the volcanic plume of this eruption extended as far as the coast of Egypt. Since Thera is situated 90 miles to the north, the eruption conceivably subjected Minoan settlements at Crete to tidal waves, hypocaustic clouds of poison gas, and earthquakes. The Minoan Colony at Thera itself was indeed destroyed. Vividly painted frescoes excavated at Akrotiri are on display in National Museum in Athens. The account in the Old Testament of  Moses summoning three days of darkness may also preserve some long-standing memory of this event. The final phase of habitation Mycenaeansappear to have seized control of the palace complex at Knossos. Finds include the discovery of a Mycenaean throne room and hundreds of Linear B tablets. In Homer’s Iliad, the “Catalogue of Ships” records a king of Knossos among the Greek leaders who contributed warships to to the armada that sailed against Troy.

Indo-European Migrations

As noted earlier, around 2200-2000 BC Indo-European migrations expanded into the Balkan region (as well as into Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iranian plateau, and Indus Valley). Indo-European Culture consisted of clan-based pastoral populations dominated by warrior bands. Warrior chieftains rode horses and were buried in earthen mounds known as tumuli, sometimes together with the remains of their horse and female dependents. For sake of argument one can compare Mycenaean culture to that of the Germanic tribes that migrated into the Roman world at the end of antiquity (3-5th centuries AD). Like the Early Germans Mycenaean nobles demonstrated their aristocratic status by recruiting warriors into feudally dependent bands (comitatus). In each Germanic tribe a particular noble family was recognized as the royal line. The Early German king possessed a warrior band that was ostensibly no larger than those of his nobles, and his power to assert genuine authority over his nobles was highly restricted. The situation in Mycenaean Civilization appears to have been similar. A Mycenaean king, such as Agamemnon, referred to in Linear B tablets as a wanax, was characterized by Homer as a “King among Kings,” As Agamemnon’s dispute with Achilles over a captured female prisoner indicates, rivalries between “kings” and “nobles” resulted in a highly unstable hierarchy. The nobles tended to defer to the royal line during times of emergency, such as periods of warfare or migration. The challenge for the Mycenaean wanax, much as it was for Early German kings, was to preserve his heightened status once the emergency had past.

Mycenaean Civilization (c.2000-1100 BCE; High Point, 1600-1100 BCE)

The Indo-Europeans that invaded the Greek mainland appear to have conquered the native population and to have reduced it to laboring status. They also came in contact with Minoan civilization and assimilated its superior technology. They adapted to the Minoan palace-based economic system, as the excavated palaces at Mycenae, Pylos, and Tiryns amply demonstrate. Given similarities in art and architectural design, not to mention, those of Linear A and B script, the Mycenaeans would appear to have relied on skilled Minoan artisans and scribes themselves to effect the transition. A palace-based bureaucracy appears to have supervised the administration of palace resources while the Mycenaean warrior elites concentrated on warfare, gradually extending their raids into Aegean and eastern Mediterranean sea lanes. Some Linear B tablets recovered at Mycenae preserve records of booty obtained from raids on coastal Anatolia, making reference to slave women captured at Miluwasa (Miletus). Since the Mycenaean hierarchy left no written legacy, no Gilgamesh epic, no law code, no prose of any kind, one suspects that members of the Mycenaean warrior elites were illiterate, including the kings themselves, and that they depended on educated servants to run the palaces.

Grave Circle A, Mycenae, c. 1600-1400 BC. Grave circle excavated by H. Schliemann and found to contain 13 cist graves bearing the remains and treasures of Mycenaean nobility (kings?). The Grave Circle A prodates Grave Circle B, found outside the walls of the citadel, yet predates the later Tholos Tombs, and seems to reflect the Homeric \tradition of the Mycenaean Atreid dynasty. Whoever the personnages of Grave Circle A were, the conservation of their tombs was deemed so important by the inhabitants of Mycenae in 1200-1100 BC, that they deliberately constructed the massive Cyclopean walls around the Grave Circle to include it within the defenses, even while abandoning Grave Circle B and the Tholos Tombs outside. / Purdue University

Dendra Panoply, Bronze panoply of armor found in Mycenaean warrior’s grave at Dendra, near Mycenae, c. 1200 BC. Panneled armor permitted Mycenaean warriors to engage in combat, as described by Homer. Moreover, boar’s-tusk helmet likewise confirms Homeric tradition for Mycenaean warriors constructing their helmets from hunting trophies. / Purdue University

Architectural features at Mycenae are representative of wider Mycenaean civilization and include the megaron (a royal reception hall with a round central hearth), Grave Circle A (c. 1600-1400 BC), Tholos tombs (1400-1100 BC), and Cyclopean fortification walls (1200-1100 BC). At Grave Circle A Schliemann unearthed gold death masks, amber seal stones originating from the Baltic, and ivory inlaid swords displaying hunting scenes. Nearby at the site of Dendra, the discovery of a panoply of bronze armor with boar’s tusk helmet   conforms with the descriptions of Mycenaean armor preserved in Homer. Linear B tablets themselves appear to have functioned as temporary archival records and survive only because they were fire hardened at the time of palace destruction. They record, therefore, the final days of the palace based communities (1200-1000 BC).

Purdue University

A crucial indicator of Mycenaean power arises in the form of colorfully painted “stirrup jars” used to export surplus commodities of wine and olive oil. Some 15 to 30 cm. tall, these squat jars have been discovered throughout the Near Eastern coastal region, including Egypt, and serve to demonstrate the extent of Mycenaean trade. Along with the discovery of Canaanite jars in the Aegean and the rich and varied cargo recovered from the Uluburun Shipwreck off the southwest coast of Turkey (and now on display at the Bodrum Museum), these point to the increasingly interdependent character of the economies of eastern Mediterranean societies at this time. Increasingly specialized production for export purposes are feasible only when other essential staple goods, such as grain, are made available by distant trading partners such as New Kingdom Egypt. Similar evidence of Mycenaean trading posts has been identified in Italy, Spain, and in Cornwall in England, where Mycenaean traders probably sailed in search of metals such as tin. Through maritime commerce the Mycenaeans were able to sustain large local populations. Mycenae alone possibly supported 180,000 people in plain below the site (the plain of Argos). This was unthinkable under subsistence modes of production.

The Peak era of Mycenaean Civilization was 1400-1200 BC, the period of the megaron and the Tholos tomb. External threats to Mycenaean palace complexes clearly arose around 1200 BC, necessitating the construction of the Cyclopean fortification walls that mark the last phase of monumental construction at these palaces. At Mycenae the inhabitants took great pain to incorporate Grave Circle A within the perimeter of its massive circuit wall some 40 ft. thick. Something about the status of the people interred there warranted this effort. Excavated levels of 1200-1000 BC exhibit fire damage at several Mycenean palace complexes, indicative of widespread societal collapse. Again, the Mycenaeans left no evidence of advanced literary culture, despite the relative sophistication of neighboring Ancient Near Eastern hierarchies at this time. Apart from their adaptation of Minoan-styled palace bureaucracies, the warrior elites of the Mycenaean Aegean adhered to the warrior ethos that had enabled them successfully to conquer the Aegean region in the first  place.

The Hittite Empire (c.2000-1200 BCE)

Other Indo-European tribal elements migrated to central Anatolia. These assimilated the native culture of the autochthonous Hatti, and established a royal hierarchy at Hattusas (Bogazkoy, excavated by the German Institute of Archaeology since 1906 AD) by 1700 BC. The Hittites adopted both a local hieroglyphic script and Near Eastern cuneiform as written languages. From Hattusas and other centrally located palaces, the Hittite warlords established supremacy over a variety of native Anatolian peoples. They controlled local mining production as well as the trade in metals from abroad. The Hittites’ focus on metallurgy possibly enabled them to perfect iron smelting prior to the close of the Bronze Age. Their empire grew in strength until c. 1595 BC, when its forces invaded Mesopotamia and sacked Babylon. Like the Mycenaeans the Hittite hierarchy consisted of an array of relatively independent local kings who deferred when necessary to the authority of a “Great King,” essentially a “King among Kings.” The inherent instability of this political system appears to have induced a century-long wave of political convulsions following the invasion of Mesopotamia.

By 1400 BC, order to the Hittite Empire was restored and the Great Kings extended their authority as far away as Northern Mesopotamia and Canaan. King Suppiluliumas I (c. 1344-1322 BC) conquered Syria, defeated the Mitanni, and sent his son, Zannzannza, to marry daughter of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Akhnaton. King Muwattallii II (1293-1271 BC) fought Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh (c. 1274).  At this battle in the hills of Syria, a combined host of 47000 Hittite warriors fought some 41000 Egyptian warriors to a standstill. After several days of fighting the two kings agreed to the Peace of Kadesh that recognized a line of demarcation between their respective empires.

Evidence of Mycenaean disturbances were likewise recorded in the Hittite Archive found at the palace at Bogazkoy. The texts make mention of repeated attacks by the “Ahhijawa.” This name sounds remarkably similar to Homer’s references to Achaioi or the Achaeans, that is, the Mycenaean tribe ruled by Agamemnon. In addition, an archival record of 1250 BC, refers specifically to a client king named “Aleksandros of Wilusa,” who urgently implored the Greak King for assistance against an assault by the Ahhijawa. Some scholars identify this person with the Homeric hero, Paris (Alexander ) of Troy, particularly since the city of Troy was known by the epiethetIlios or Ilium, during the Classical era. The epithet sounds remarkably similar to Wilusaparticularly when one allows for the loss of the digamma or the “wha” sound in spoken Classical Greek. The archival record of Alexander of Wilusa could be an actual reference to the siege of Troy, in other words. The Hittite empire experienced political collapse shortly after this time. Hattusas and other Hittite communities were destroyed or abandoned (date?), and the populations migrated to mountain retreats along the southern Mediterranean coast of Anatolia, resulting in the formation of a Neo-Hittite Empire in Cilicia around 1000 BC. Unlike the Mycenaeansthe Hittites largely assimilated Near Eastern culture, going so far as to adapt their spoken Indo-European language to Akkadian cuneiform. Their literary record exhibits considerable merit. The Hittites left a significant law code that recognized the role of human will in law making. They assimilated Near Eastern literary traditions such as the Gilgamesh Epic and helped to transfer these to Iron Age Aegean societies.

The Collapse of Bronze Age Mediterranean Civilizations (1200-1000 BCE)

Troy VIIA / Purdue University

A fragmentary array of ancient source material furnishes an outline for widespread urban collapse in the eastern Mediterranean region, c. 1250 – 1069 BC. As noted earlier in 1274 BC, the armies of the Hittites and new Kingdom Egypt fought a fierce battle to a standstill at Kadesh. In 1258 BC, they agreed to the Treaty of Kadesh (preserved in writing on tablets found at Tel el Amarna and Hattusas), marking the cessation of conflict between these two world powers. One scenario holds that this truce led to a demobilization  of large standing armies of mercenaries. The cost of maintaining such large military establishments (more than 40000 troops on each side) may have prompted the decision to make peace. There is also evidence to suggest a heightened awareness for growing internal threats to security. The Hittites confronted accelerating border attacks of the Mycenaeans and dissension from within, whereas, the Egyptians were faced with numerous disturbances in the vicinity of Canaan, including  the migration of the Hebrews. Around 1250-1220 BC, the destruction of Troy Level VIIA occurred. The assemblages of this layer at the site are clearly associated with a late Bronze Age settlement. Apparently at this time Troy was reduced to a meager garrison town with barracks and soup kitchens by the walls and bodies of warriors found lying in streets. As noted earlier, the Hittite Archive, c. 1250 BC, makes mentions of a client king named Alexander of Wilusa urgently summoning assistance against the Ahhijawa  from the Great King at Hattusas. Hittite Kings claim to have led several punitive expeditions against these Aegean marauders. Despite the Great King’s assurances of security the Hittite Empire itself collapsed shortly thereafter (abandonment of Hattusas ca. 1200BC).

In New Kingdom Egypt the reign of Ramses II is generally associated with the Exodus of  the Hebrews led by Moses. As noted earlier, in addition to the Treaty of Kadesh, Ramses constructed a large bastion, Pi-Ramsesses, at the western edge of the Sinai desert. To build so vast a complex in short order, Ramses’ administrators would have employed the traditional corvée system by conscripting laborers from the local population, quite possibly including Hebrews who migrated into this region centuries earlier. Compelled against their will to work on this project and unused to being conscripted in this manner (given little evidence of previous building projects in the region), the Hebrews possibly fled into the Sinai, as their tradition records.  According to the Old Testament Book of Exodus, they migrated for 40 years before invading the “promised land” of Canaan. Dated to 1220 BC, the Stele of Pharaoh Merneptah at Karnak records the first external reference to the Israelites. Merneptah claims to have defeated this population along with others during a punitive expedition in Canaan. An associated wall relief that appears to depict this campaign shows Merneptah’s army defeating a pastoral element comprised of warriors riding on camels and families dwelling in tents, precisely the lifestyle one could expect for the migrating  Hebrews. Allowing forty years from the time of Treaty of Kadesh (1259 BC), and the construction of Pi-Ramesses, the Stele of Merneptah appears to place the Israelites where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing, at precisely the moment they were supposed to be doing it (recall the tradition of Joshua’s conquest of  Jericho).


Mycenae, aerial view of the excavated city showing Grave Circle A, Cyclopean Walls, and the Palace at upper right. 1600-1100 BC. / Purdue University

Around 1200 BC, the construction of Cyclopean Walls marked the beginning of the end at Mycenae and Tiryns. They indicate that the inhabitants of Mycenaean palace complexes were confronting some undetermined military threat. The collapse of the Hittite Empire and the destruction of Hattusas are also dated to this time. In 1180 BC, Ramses III recorded his defeat of the “Sea Peoples,” a migrating horde of armed peoples that attacked cities along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Communities such as Ugarit, Carchemish, and Sidon on the Syrio-Phoenician coast experienced fired destruction at this time. Canaan was ravaged. Egyptian naval forces were able to repel these invaders at the delta of the Nile River. A second wave of invasions occurred slightly later (1069). Egyptian sources were so familiar with these marauders that they could  name the constituent tribal elements of each horde and depict them in accompanying temple reliefs.  One possible explanation for this was that various elements of the Sea Peoples had served in the Egyptian army as mercenaries. While caution is required when constructing lines of association based solely on the evidence of similar sounding names, examples of significant nomenclature include the Aqaiwasha, which to some sounds a lot like the Ahhijawa, or Achaeans, that is, the tribe ruled by Agamemnon of Mycenae. The Peleset (Pulisati) sounds to some like the Philistines, a Bronze Age people who settled on south coast of Canaan (and lent their name to the region Palestine). The Philistines later became the inveterate foes of the Hebrews. They used iron weapons and prohibited the Hebrews from manufacturing metal tools or weaponry. They organized their cities according to a “Greek” styled tetrapolis. Their pottery exhibit clear Mycenaean forms including stirrup jars. According to the Old Testament the Philistines originated from “Kaphtor“, the biblical word for Crete. The Peleset offer our most certain example that the Sea Peoples ultimately originated from the Bronze Age Aegean world. The Lukka people were most probably identical with the ancient Lycians, who dwelled along the south coast of Anatolia, and roved the waters of Cyprus as notorious pirates during the late Bronze Age. The Tursha people have been identified with the Tyrsenoi, the Greek name for the Etruscans, who were the inhabitants of northwest Italy in the early Iron Age (the Etruscan empire is dated c. 800-500 BC). This highly tenuous scenario requires that the Etruscans migrated at Fall of Bronze Age from the Aegean region to Egypt. Defeated there, they sailed on to western Italy where they ultimately settled, conveying Bronze Age technology to an otherwise Stone Age environment. The Etruscans later assumed a dominant position in the Italian peninsula, conquering neighboring urban settlements along the west coast including the city of Rome around 660 BC. Although the Etruscan script has not been deciphered, it is demonstrably a non Indo-European language. Disputed epigraphical evidence for a similar script has surfaced in the vicinity of Troy (at a nearby island). From the Etruscans the Romans inherited the legend of their national epic, the Aenead, which recounts the traditional founding of the Roman royal dynasty by Aeneas, the warrior prince from Troy. According to the Aenead, at the fall of Troy Aeneas took his aged father, his young son, and the urn bearing the ashes of his ancestors and searched for a new homeland. He voyaged to Carthage where he fell in love with Queen Dido, but his religious obligation to his family (‘Pius Aeneas’) compelled him to sail onward and find a new homeland. Ultimately he settled at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy where he married a native princess, Lavinia, and founded the line of Romulus and Remus. The association of the Tursha Sea Peoples with the Etruscans furnishes a tantalizing explanation for the emergence of Iron Age civilization in Italy, therefore. It is essential, nonetheless, to bear in mind that the association itself is based entirely on two similarly sounding names.

Other associations remain equally tentative but suggestive. The Sheklesh people sounds like Sikeloi, the natives of Sicily encountered by Phoenicians and Greeks in the early Iron Age. The Sherden sounds like Sardinoi, the natives of Sardinia in the same era. In both instances Phoenician and Greek explorers encountered islands dominated by warrior elites using Bronze Age technology. By 1069 BC, the urban polities of the Mycenaean and Hittite realms experienced near total collapse. Cities along the Syrio-Phoenician coast experienced similar destruction, though their advantageous position along the trading routes would enable them to rebound quickly. The interior communities along this coast were subjected to invasions by the Hebrews, the Aramaeans, and the Philistines. Egypt alone survived another century because of its self-sufficient economy and its strategically defensive geography, but the cost of its defensive efforts left its population weakened and vulnerable. By 1000 BC, the New Kingdom Pharaohs (20th dynasty) were defeated by warriors invading from Libya and then from Kush.



Mycenaean stirrup jars / Purdue University

Given the limited information available to reconstruct the process of societal collapse in the Bronze Age Aegean and eastern Mediterranean basin, our conclusions remain brief and speculative. Even the true extent of societal collapse remains open to debate. In many parts of the basin local populations gradually surpassed the carrying capacity for subsistence agriculture in their immediate locations and adapted to specialized production of surplus commodities for overseas trade. This made them increasingly dependent on overseas sources of food and other raw materials. The ease of maritime trade made this feasible, but it also put Mediterranean societies increasingly dependent on trading partners separated by vast extents of water. The material remains of Mycenaean and Canaanite maritime trade – the Mycenaean stirrup jars and Canaanite jars – indicate that specialization had occurred in these regions by the Late Bronze Age. In exchange for these export commodities local populations probably relied on imports of Egyptian grain. Although the scale of specialized agricultural production cannot be estimated, in those areas where it took root it most likely occurred at the expense of a more diversified subsistence strategy. Specialization simplifies production systems and enhances efficiency, but it also renders producers less self reliant and less resilient to change. In addition, the integrated economies of the eastern Mediterranean basin depended on highly instable lines of communication. If the trade lines were disrupted (regardless of whether the source of disruption were Mycenaean raiders, Lukka piracy, or attacks by demobilized mercenaries), populations would have  confronted starvation, warfare, and migration. The evidence of chaos, fortress construction, fire damage, famine and destruction in Mycenae points to such a scenario. Since the evidence for Bronze Age societal collapse is limited, we will revisit the question at the end of the Classical era when the source material is much more abundant.


Canaanite jars / Purdue University

On a positive note, the preserved remains of Late Bronze Age civilization reveal evidence as well of  cultural integration between Aegean and Near Eastern (Indo-European and Semitic) populations. The Homeric tradition records the legendary movement of Bronze Age Greek heroes to the southern coast of Anatolia, Syria and beyond; Aeneas perhaps sailed as far as Italy. Similar movement is recorded of Near Eastern heroes into Aegean. Thebes in central Greece, for example, was supposedly founded by princes of Tyre, and Argos and Erythrae (Iron Age Greek cities) were allegedly settled by similar Phoenician adventurers. The strands to this tradition have recently been seized upon by M. Bernal’s controversial work, Black Athena. Regardless of where scholars stand regarding the direction of Mediterranean cultural diffusion, there can be no question that throughout their  history the Aegean and Phoenician coasts remained gateways to distant civilizations. Mixed populations such as those residing in Iron Age Cyprus or Phoenicia assumed importance as central axes in these cultural exchanges. Regardless of the causes of Bronze Age societal collapse, in other words, the evidence of westward migration by some Bronze Age peoples allowed for the diffusion of advanced culture and technology into untapped regions of the Mediterranean. Iron Age cultures would became more widely dispersed than those of the Bronze Age and extend from Spain and North Africa to Syria, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Black Sea. This would allow for greater diversity and redundancy within the trading system and help to insure a broader, more sustainable foundation to urban civilization in the period to follow.