Late Bronze Age collapse
Near East (c. 3300–1200 BC)
South Asia (c. 3000–1200 BC)
Europe (c. 2300–600 BC)
China (c. 2000–700 BC)
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, such as Amos Nur and Leonard R. Palmer, 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 BCE, 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.
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 BCE in the Levant, and the eventual rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
- 1 Regional evidence
- 2 Possible causes of collapse
- 3 Links to religious texts
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
Prior to the Bronze Age collapse, Anatolia (Asia Minor) was dominated by a number of Indo-European peoples: Luwians, Hittites, Mitanni, and Mycenaean Greeks, together with the Semitic Assyrians. From the 17th Century BCE, the Mitanni formed a ruling class over the Hurrians, an ancient indigenous Caucasian people who spoke a Hurro-Urartian language isolate. Similarly, the Hittites absorbed the Hattians, a people speaking a language which may have been of the North Caucasian group.
Every Anatolian site that was important during the preceding Late Bronze Age shows a destruction layer, and it appears that here civilization did not recover to the level of the Indo-European Hittites for another thousand years. Hattusas, the Hittite capital, was burned – probably by Kaskians, possibly aided by the Phrygians – abandoned, and never reoccupied. Karaoğlan was burned and the corpses left unburied. The Hittite Empire was destroyed by the Indo-European speaking Phrygians and by the Semitic speaking Aramaeans. The Trojan city of Troy was destroyed at least twice, before being abandoned until Roman times.
The Phrygians had arrived probably over the Bosphorus in the 13th Century BCE, and laid waste to the Hittite Empire (already weakened by defeat at the hands of Kaska), before being checked by the Assyrians in the Early Iron Age of the 9th century BCE. Other groups of Indo-European warriors followed into the region, most prominently the Armenians, and even later, by the Cimmerians, and Scythians. The Semitic Arameans, Kartvelian speaking Colchians, and Hurro-Urartuans also made an appearance in parts of the region.
The catastrophe separates Late Cypriot II (LCII) from the LCIII period, with the sacking and burning of the sites of Enkomi, Kition, and Sinda, which may have occurred twice, before being abandoned. During the reign of the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (reigned ca. 1237–1209 BCE), the island was briefly invaded by the Hittites, either to secure the copper resource or as a way of preventing piracy. Shortly afterwards, the island was reconquered by his son around 1200 BCE. Some towns (Enkomi, Kition, Palaeokastro and Sinda) show traces of destruction at the end of LC IIC. Whether or not this is really an indication of a Mycenean invasion is contested. Originally, two waves of destruction, ca. 1230 BCE by the Sea Peoples and ca. 1190 BCE by Aegean refugees have been proposed. The smaller settlements of Ayios Dhimitrios and Kokkinokremnos, as well as a number of other sites, were abandoned, but do not show traces of destruction. Kokkinokremos was a short-lived settlement, where various caches concealed by smiths have been found. That no one ever returned to reclaim the treasures suggests that they were killed or enslaved. Recovery only occurred in the Early Iron Age with Phoenician and Greek settlement.
Prior to and during the Bronze Age Collapse, Syria became a battle ground between the empires of the Hittites, Assyrians, Mitanni and Egyptians, and the coastal regions came under attack from the Sea Peoples. From the 13th Century BCE, the Arameans came to prominence in Syria, and the region outside of the Phoenician coastal areas eventually became Aramaic speaking.
Syrian sites previously showed evidence of trade links with Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylonia), Egypt and the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age. Evidence at Ugarit shows that the destruction there occurred after the reign of Merneptah (ruled 1213–1203 BCE) and even the fall of Chancellor Bay (died 1192 BCE). The last Bronze Age king of the Semitic state of Ugarit, Ammurapi, was a contemporary of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma II. The exact dates of his reign are unknown. However, a letter by the king is preserved on one of the clay tablets found baked in the conflagration of the destruction of the city. Ammurapi stresses the seriousness of the crisis faced by many Levantine states from invasion by the advancing Sea Peoples in a dramatic response to a plea for assistance from the king of Alasiya. Ammurapi highlights the desperate situation Ugarit faced in letter RS 18.147:
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.
Unfortunately for Ugarit, no help arrived and Ugarit was burned to the ground at the end of the Bronze Age. Its destruction levels contained Late Helladic IIIB ware, but no LH IIIC (see Mycenaean period). Therefore, the date of the destruction is important for the dating of the LH IIIC phase. Since an Egyptian sword bearing the name of pharaoh Merneptah was found in the destruction levels, 1190 BCE was taken as the date for the beginning of the LH IIIC. A cuneiform tablet found in 1986 shows that Ugarit was destroyed after the death of Merneptah. It is generally agreed that Ugarit had already been destroyed by the 8th year of Ramesses III—i. e. 1178 BCE. These letters on clay tablets found baked in the conflagration of the destruction of the city speak of attack from the sea, and a letter from Alashiya (Cyprus) speaks of cities already being destroyed from attackers who came by sea. It also speaks of the Ugarit fleet being absent, patrolling the Lycian coast.
The West Semitic Arameans eventually superseded the earlier Amorites, Canaanites and people of Ugarit, to whom they were ethno-linguistically related. The Arameans came to dominate the region both politically and militarily from the mid 11th century BCE until the rise of the Neo Assyrian Empire in the late 10th Century BCE, after which the entire region fell to Assyria.
Egyptian evidence shows that, from the reign of Horemheb (ruled either 1319 or 1306 to 1292 BCE), wandering Shasu were more problematic than the earlier Apiru. Ramesses II (ruled 1279–1213 BCE) campaigned against them, pursuing them as far as Moab, where he established a fortress, after the near collapse at the Battle of Kadesh. During the reign of Merneptah, the Shasu threatened the "Way of Horus" north from Gaza. Evidence shows that Deir Alla (Succoth) was destroyed after the reign of Queen Twosret (ruled 1191–1189 BCE). The destroyed site of Lachish was briefly reoccupied by squatters and an Egyptian garrison, during the reign of Ramesses III (ruled 1186–1155 BCE). All centres along a coastal route from Gaza northward were destroyed, and evidence shows Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Akko, and Jaffa were burned and not reoccupied for up to thirty years. Inland Hazor, Bethel, Beit Shemesh, Eglon, Debir, and other sites were destroyed. Refugees escaping the collapse of coastal centres may have fused with incoming nomadic and Anatolian elements to begin the growth of terraced hillside hamlets in the highlands region that was associated with the later development of the Hebrews. During the reign of Rameses III Philistines were allowed to resettle the coastal strip from Gaza to Joppa, Denyen (possibly the tribe of Dan in the Bible) settled from Joppa to Acre, and Tjekker in Acre. These sites quickly achieved independence as the Tale of Wenamun shows.
None of the Mycenaean palaces of the Late Bronze Age survived (with the possible exception of the Cyclopean fortifications on the Acropolis of Athens) with destruction being heaviest at palaces and fortified sites. Up to 90% of small sites in the Peloponnese were abandoned, suggesting a major depopulation. The End Bronze Age collapse marked the start of what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted for more than 400 years. Other cities, like Athens, continued to be occupied, but with a more local sphere of influence, limited evidence of trade and an impoverished culture, from which it took centuries to recover.
The Middle Assyrian Empire controlled colonies in Anatolia, which came under attack from the Phrygians (Mushki). Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1114–1076 BCE) was able to defeat and repel these attacks. The Assyrian Empire survived intact throughout much of this period, with Assyria dominating and often ruling Babylonia directly, controlling south east and south western Anatolia, north western Iran and much of northern and central Syria and Canaan, as far as the Mediterranean and Cyprus. The Arameans and Phrygians were subjected, and Assyria and its colonies were not threatened by the Sea Peoples. However, after the death of Tiglath-Pileser I in 1076 BCE, Assyria withdrew to its natural borders in northern Mesopotamia. Assyria retained a stable monarchy, the best army in the world and an efficient civil administration, thus enabling it to survive the Bronze Age Collapse intact and, from the late 10th Century BCE, it once more began to assert itself internationally. However, the situation in Babylonia was very different: after the Assyrian withdrawal, new groups of Semites, such as the Aramaeans and later Chaldeans and Suteans, spread unchecked into Babylonia, and the control by its weak kings barely extended beyond the city limits of Babylon. Babylon was sacked by the Elamites under Shutruk-Nahhunte (ca. 1185–1155 BCE), and lost control of the Diyala River valley to Assyria.
After apparently surviving for a while, the Egyptian Empire collapsed in the mid twelfth century BCE (during the reign of Ramesses VI, 1145 to 1137 BCE). Previously, the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1200 BCE) spoke of attacks from Libyans, with associated people of Ekwesh, Shekelesh, Lukka, Shardana and Tursha or Teresh possibly Troas, and a Canaanite revolt, in the cities of Ashkelon, Yenoam and the people of Israel. A second attack during the reign of Ramesses III (1186–1155 BCE) involved Peleset, Tjeker, Shardana and Denyen.
Robert Drews describes the collapse as "the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire". 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
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 nor 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 and implicated 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 socio-economic 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.
Amos Nur postulates that earthquakes tend to occur in "sequences" or "storms", where a major earthquake above 6.5 on the Richter magnitude scale can, in later months or years, set off second or subsequent earthquakes along the weakened fault line. He shows that 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.
Migrations and raids
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.
This 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 Pontic speaking Colchians, Hurro-Urartuans and Iranian Sarmatians. 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 – possibly from the South-East.
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.
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.
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. This 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, and the appearance of bronze foundries, suggest "that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean". (For example, Homer uses "spears" as a virtual synonym for "warriors".) Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of "running skirmishers" who could swarm and cut down a chariot army, would destabilize states that were based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot, and burn the 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 12–13th centuries BC and the rise of the Celtic Hallstatt culture in the 9th and 10th centuries BC. This 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, hypothesizes 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 — 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 that were increasingly fragile and less resilient, this 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 centralization, specialization, complexity and top-heavy political structure. These flaws then revealed themselves through socio-political 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.
A more speculative theory is Jaynes' bicameralism which claims that the complexity of society at this time called for a large-scale shift in human cognition, from instinctive and religious behaviour to logical reasoning. This is still a fringe theory, but has recently attracted the attention of several scholars and conferences.
Links to religious texts
The collapse occurred at around the time that Jewish and Christian scholars place the character of Moses. Their text (the book of Exodus) describe a series of events similar to natural disasters and events in Egypt at this time, followed by a back migration of Semitic people from Egypt back into Canaan. The Harris Papyrus tells of the expulsion of Asiatics by Setnakhte in the chaos at the end of the 19th Dynasty.
- Greek Dark Ages – period following the Bronze Age collapse
- First Intermediate Period of Egypt – a similar period in Egypt, some 1,400 years earlier
- For Syria, see M. Liverani, "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) 1987.
- S. Richard, "Archaeological sources for the history of Palestine: The Early Bronze Age: The rise and collapse of urbanism", The Biblical Archaeologist (1987)
- The physical destruction of palaces and cities is the subject of Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: changes in warfare and the catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C., 1993.
- Paul Aström has proposed dates of 1190 and 1179 BCE (Aström).
- Jean Nougaryol et al. (1968) Ugaritica V: 87–90 no.24
- Tubbs, Johnathan (1998), "Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
- Georges Roux – Ancient Iraq
- Drews 1993:1, 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)
- Yurco, Frank J.. "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. 1999:456–458. ISBN 1-885923-09-0.
- Weiss, Harvey (June 1982). "The decline of Late Bronze Age civilization as a possible response to climatic change". Climatic Change 4 (2): 173–198. doi:10.1007/BF00140587.
- Wright, Karen: (1998) "Empires in the Dust" in "Discover Magazine" March 1998 issue. http://discovermagazine.com/1998/mar/empiresinthedust1420
- Fagan, Brian M. (2003). The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization. Basic Books.
- Kershner, Isabel (22 October 2013). "Pollen Study Points to Drought as Culprit in Bronze Age Mystery". New York Times. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
- Nur, Amos; Cline, Eric (January 2000). "Poseidon's Horses: Plate Tectonics and Earthquake Storms in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean". Journal of Archaeological Science 27 (1): 43–63. doi:10.1006/jasc.1999.0431. [right-click to copy this link in your browser, then remove unneeded characters after the .pdf extension, then press enter. Sorry for the inconvenience.]
- 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, The Coming of the Age of Iron (New Haven) 1980.
- Palmer, Leonard R (1962) Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1962)
- Drews pp192ff.
- 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 (Drews 1993:194)
- Drews, R. (1993) The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton 1993).
- http://www.iol.ie/~edmo/linktoprehistory.html – a page about the history of Castlemagner, on the web page of the local historical society.
- Tainter, Joseph: (1976) "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (Cambridge University Press)
- Carol G. Thomas and Craig Conant, Citadel to city-state: the transformation of Greece, 1200–700 B.C.E, 1999.
- 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.