Late Bronze Age collapse

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Invasions, destruction and possible population movements during the collapse of the Bronze Age, c. 1200.
Bronze Age

Near East (c. 3300–1200 BC)

Anatolia, Caucasus, Elam, Egypt, Levant, Mesopotamia, Sistan, Canaan
Bronze Age collapse

South Asia (c. 3000– 1200 BC)

Ochre Coloured Pottery
Cemetery H

Europe (c. 3200–600 BC)

Aegean, Caucasus, Catacomb culture, Srubna culture, Beaker culture, Unetice culture, Tumulus culture, Urnfield culture, Hallstatt culture, Apennine culture, Canegrate culture, Golasecca culture,
Atlantic Bronze Age, Bronze Age Britain, Nordic Bronze Age

China (c. 2000–700 BC)

Erlitou, Erligang

arsenical bronze
writing, literature
sword, chariot

Iron Age

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 that characterised the Late Bronze Age was replaced, after a hiatus, by the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages.

Between c. 1200 and 1150 BC, the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria,[1] and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan[2] 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.[3] According to Robert Drews: "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."[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.

Regional evidence[edit]

Evidence of destruction[edit]


Before 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. Similarly, the Hittites absorbed the Hattians,[5] a people speaking a language that 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 and 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)[citation needed] in the 13th century BC, and laid waste to the Hittite Empire (already weakened by defeat at the hands of Kaska[6]), 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, the Cimmerians, and Scythians. The Semitic Arameans, Kartvelian-speaking Colchians, and Hurro-Urartuans also made an appearance in parts of the region. These sites in Anatolia show evidence of the collapse:


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.[8] During the reign of the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (reigned c. 1237–1209 BC), the island was briefly invaded by the Hittites,[9] 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 LCII. Whether or not this is really an indication of a Mycenean invasion is contested. Originally, two waves of destruction in c. 1230 BC by the Sea Peoples and c. 1190 BC by Aegean refugees have been proposed.[10][who?][clarification needed]

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 occurred only in the Early Iron Age with Phoenician and Greek settlement. These sites in Cyprus show evidence of the collapse:


A map of the Bronze Age collapse (Norwegian).
Byer som ble ødelagt = Cities that were destroyed; Byer som overlevde = Cities that survived; f. Kr. = B.C.

Ancient Syria had been initially dominated by a number of indigenous Semitic-speaking peoples. The Canaanites and Amorites and the cities of Ebla and Ugarit were prominent among them.

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 spoke Aramaic.

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.

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.[11]

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, 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 by 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 ethnically and 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. These sites in Syria show evidence of the collapse:

Southern Levant[edit]

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 a near defeat 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).[12]

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.[13]

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. The sites quickly achieved independence as the Tale of Wenamun shows. These sites in Southern Levant show evidence of the collapse:


Main article: Greek Dark Ages

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 Bronze Age collapse marked the start of what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, that 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. These sites in Greece show evidence of the collapse:

Areas that marginally survived[edit]


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.[15]

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[citation needed] 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.[16]

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 (c. 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 (c. 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."[17] 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 influenced Plato's story of Atlantis[18] in Timaeus and the Critias.

Possible causes[edit]

There are various theories put forward to explain the situation of collapse, many of them mutually compatible.


Climate change[edit]

Main article: Bond event

Changes in climate similar to the Younger Dryas period or the Little Ice Age punctuate human history. The local effects of these changes may cause crop failures in multiple consecutive years, leading to warfare as a last-ditch effort at survival. The triggers for climate change are still debated, but ancient peoples could not have predicted or coped with substantial climate changes.


The Hekla 3 eruption approximately coincides with this period, and while the exact date is under considerable dispute, one group calculated the date to be specifically 1159 BC, implicating the eruption in the collapse in Egypt.[19]


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.[20][21] Drought could have easily precipitated or hastened socioeconomic problems and led to wars.

More recently, it has been shown how the diversion of midwinter 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.[22]

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.[23][24]


Migrations and raids[edit]

Ekrem Akurgal, Gustav Lehmann and Fritz Schachermeyer, following the views of Gaston Maspero, have argued that raids were the cause.

Evidence includes the widespread findings of Naue II-type swords (coming from South-Eastern Europe) throughout the region and Egyptian records of invading "northerners from all the lands".

The Ugarit correspondence at the time mentions invasions by tribes of the mysterious Sea Peoples, who appear to have been a disparate mix of Luwians, Greeks and Canaanites, among others. Equally, the last Greek Linear B documents in the Aegean (dating to just before the collapse) reported a large rise in piracy, slave raiding and other attacks, particularly around Anatolia. Later fortresses along the Libyan coast, constructed and maintained by the Egyptians after the reign of Ramesses II, were built to reduce raiding.

The theory is strengthened by the fact that the collapse coincides with the appearance in the region of many new ethnic groups. They 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 the 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 Southeast.

The ultimate reasons for the migrations could include drought, developments in warfare/weaponry, earthquakes or other natural disasters so the migrations theory is possibly compatible with other theories.[citation needed]


The Bronze Age collapse may be seen in the context of a technological history that saw the slow, comparatively continuous spread of ironworking technology in the region, beginning with precocious iron-working in the present Bulgaria and Romania in the 13th and 12th centuries BC.[25]

Leonard R. Palmer suggested that iron, superior to bronze weapons, was in more plentiful supply and so allowed larger armies of iron users to overwhelm the smaller armies of maryannu chariotry, which used bronze.[26] The argument has now been weakened, with the recent finding that the shift to iron occurred after the collapse, not before it.[citation needed] 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 iron substitutes were used.

Changes in warfare[edit]

Robert Drews argues[27] for the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armor, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionising cut-and-thrust weapon,[28] and javelins. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests "that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean". For example, Homer uses "spears" as a virtual synonym for "warriors".

Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of "running skirmishers", who could swarm and cut down a chariot army, would destabilize states that were based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class. That would precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.[29][30][31]

General systems collapse[edit]

A general systems collapse has been put forward as an explanation for the reversals in culture that occurred between the Urnfield culture of the 12th and 13th centuries BC and the rise of the Celtic Hallstatt culture in the 9th and 10th centuries BC.[32] General systems collapse theory, pioneered by Joseph Tainter,[33] hypothesises how social declines in response to complexity may lead to a collapse resulting in simpler forms of society.

In the specific context of the Middle East, a variety of factors, 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, the combination of factors may have contributed to the collapse.

The growing complexity and specialization of the Late Bronze Age political, economic, and social organization in Carol Thomas and Craig Conant's phrase[34] together made the organization of civilization too intricate to reestablish piecewise when disrupted. That could explain why the collapse was so widespread and able to render the Bronze Age civilizations incapable of recovery. The critical flaws of the Late Bronze Age are its centralisation, specialisation, complexity, and top-heavy political structure. These flaws then were exposed by sociopolitical events (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 interruption of maritime trade by piracy by the Sea Peoples, as well as drought, crop failure, famine, or the Dorian migration or invasion.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ S. Richard, "Archaeological sources for the history of Palestine: The Early Bronze Age: The rise and collapse of urbanism", The Biblical Archaeologist (1987)
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Drews, 1993, p. 4
  5. ^ Gurnet, Otto, (1982), The Hittites (Penguin) pp. 119–130.
  6. ^ Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites. (Clarendon), p.379
  7. ^ Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites (Clarendon), p. 374.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites (Clarendon), p. 366.
  10. ^ Paul Aström has proposed dates of 1190 and 1179 BC (Aström).
  11. ^ Jean Nougaryol et al. (1968) Ugaritica V: 87–90 no. 24
  12. ^ Tubbs, Johnathan (1998), "Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
  13. ^ Tubbs, Johnathan (1998), "Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
  14. ^ Drews, Robert (1993), The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC (Princeton Uni Press)
  15. ^ Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq
  16. ^ Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq
  17. ^ 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)
  18. ^ Castledon, Rodney (1998), "Atlantis Destroyed" (Routledge)]
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ Wright, Karen: (1998) "Empires in the Dust" in Discover, March 1998.
  22. ^ Fagan, Brian M. (2003). The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization. Basic Books. 
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Palmer, Leonard R (1962) Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1962)
  27. ^ Drews 1993:192ff
  28. ^ Drews 1993:194
  29. ^ Drews, R. (1993). The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton 1993).
  30. ^ [1]
  31. ^ [2]
  32. ^ History of Castlemagner, on the web page of the local historical society.
  33. ^ Tainter, Joseph (1976). The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press).
  34. ^ Carol G. Thomas and Craig Conant, Citadel to City-state: The Transformation of Greece, 1200–700 B.C.E., 1999.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]