Late Bronze Age collapse
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Near East (c. 3300–1200 BC)
South Asia (c. 3000– 1200 BC)
Europe (c. 3200–600 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 believe was violent, sudden and culturally disruptive. The palace economy of the Aegean Region and Anatolia which characterised the Late Bronze Age was replaced, after a hiatus, by the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages.
Between 1206 and 1150 BC, the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria, and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan interrupted trade routes and severely reduced literacy. In the first phase of this period, almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was violently destroyed, and often left unoccupied thereafter: examples include Hattusa, Mycenae, and Ugarit. Drews writes "Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again" (p. 4).
The gradual end of the Dark Age that ensued saw the eventual rise of settled Syro-Hittite states in Cilicia and Syria, Aramaean kingdoms of the mid-10th century BC in the Levant, the eventual rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and after the Orientalising period of the Aegean, Classical Greece.
- 1 Regional evidence
- 2 Possible causes of collapse
- 3 Links to religious and historical texts
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
Evidence of destruction
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 BC, 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. Troy was destroyed at least twice, before being abandoned until Roman times.
The Phrygians had arrived probably over the Bosphorus in the 13th century BC, 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 BC. 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. Sites in Anatolia showing evidence of the collapse are:
The catastrophe separates Late Cypriot II (LCII) from the LCIII period, with the sacking and burning of Enkomi, Kition, and Sinda, which may have occurred twice before those sites were abandoned. During the reign of the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (reigned ca. 1237–1209 BC), 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 BC. 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 BC by the Sea Peoples and ca. 1190 BC 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. Sites in Cyprus showing evidence of the collapse are:
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 BC, 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 BC) and even the fall of Chancellor Bay (died 1192 BC). 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 BC 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 BC. 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 BC until the rise of the Neo Assyrian Empire in the late 10th century BC, after which the entire region fell to Assyria. Sites in Syria showing evidence of the collapse are:
Egyptian evidence shows that, from the reign of Horemheb (ruled either 1319 or 1306 to 1292 BC), wandering Shasu were more problematic than the earlier Apiru. Ramesses II (ruled 1279–1213 BC) 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 BC). The destroyed site of Lachish was briefly reoccupied by squatters and an Egyptian garrison, during the reign of Ramesses III (ruled 1186–1155 BC). 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, or more likely the people of Adana, also known as Danuna, part of the Hittite Empire) settled from Joppa to Acre, and Tjekker in Acre. These sites quickly achieved independence as the Tale of Wenamun shows. Sites in Southern Levant showing evidence of the collapse are:
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. Sites in Greece showing evidence of the collapse are:
- Teichos Dymaion
- The Menelaion
Areas which marginally survived
The Middle Assyrian Empire controlled colonies in Anatolia, which came under attack from the Mushki. Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1114–1076 BC) 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 BC, 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 BC, 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 BC), 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 BC (during the reign of Ramesses VI, 1145 to 1137 BC). Previously, the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1200 BC) 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 BC) 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. Rodney Castledon even suggests that memories of the Bronze Age collapse even coloured Plato´s story of Atlantis in the Timaeus and the Critias.
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 neither 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.
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 Iranian Sarmatians. The Pontic-speaking Colchians, and Non Indo-European Hurro-Urartuans also seem to have been on the move. Many of these groups settled or emerged in the Caucasus, Iran and Anatolia. Thracians, Macedonians and Dorian Greeks seem to have arrived at this time—possibly from the north, usurping the earlier Greeks of Mycenae and Achaea. There also seems to have been widespread migration of Semitic peoples, such as Aramaeans, Chaldeans and Suteans—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. Manuel Robbins for example writes "There is no doubt that people, 'barbarians' or otherwise, were on the move, and some were probably responsible for disruption and attacks on cities. But it is reasonable to believe that they were victims of circumstances themselves and not the initial cause or main agent of disruption."
The Bronze Age collapse may be seen in the context of a technological history that saw the slow, comparatively continuous spread of 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.
Links to religious and historical texts
The collapse occurred around the time many Jewish and Christian scholars place the character of Moses. The book of Exodus describes the building of "store cities of Raamses, (Pi Rameses) and Pithom (Pi-Atum), built between the reigns of Rameses II and Setnakhte, and a series of events similar to natural disasters and events in Egypt at this time, followed by a return migration of Semitic people from Egypt back into Canaan. In seeming contradiction, the Books of Kings states that construction began on Solomon’s temple 480 years after departure from Egypt. This would place the ten plagues and exodus, 300 years earlier, in the middle of the 15th century BC.
The Greek Iliad's historic accuracy is also still disputed, but it is currently accepted that its core events are related to Troy VII also around the time of the collapse. This could very well indicate that the events of the Iliad are a later fictionalization of the traumatic events of the Bronze Age collapse and how these events affected the Greeks of the time.
- Greek Dark Ages—period following the Bronze Age collapse
- Third Intermediate Period of Egypt—a similar period in Egypt
- 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.
- Gurnet, Otto, (1982), The Hittites (Penguin) pp. 119–130.
- Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites. (Clarendon), p.379
- Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites (Clarendon), p. 374.
- Robbins, Manuel (2001). Collapse of the Bronze Age: The Story of Greece, Troy, Israel and Egypt and the Peoples of the Sea. pp. 220–239
- Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites (Clarendon), p. 366.
- Paul Aström has proposed dates of 1190 and 1179 BC (Aström).
- Jean Nougaryol et al. (1968) Ugaritica V: 87–90 no. 24
- Tubbs, Johnathan (1998), "Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
- Drews, Robert (1993), The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC (Princeton Uni 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)
- Castledon, Rodney (1998), "Atlantis Distroyed" (Routledge)]
- 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, March 1998. 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". The New York Times. doi:10.1006/jasc.1999.0431.
- Langgut, Dafna; Finkelstein, Israel ; Litt, Thomas (October 2013) "Climate and the late Bronze Collapse: New evidence from the southern Levant", Journal of Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, 40 (2) : 149–175.
- Robbins, Manuel (2001), "Collapse of the Bronze Age: The Story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt and the Peples of the Sea" (Author´s Choice)
- 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.
- Robbins, Manuel (2001) op cit, pp240-244
- 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.