Late Bronze Age collapse

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

The Late Bronze Age collapse was a Dark Age transition period in the Near East, Aegean Region, North Africa, Caucasus, Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, a transition historians believe was violent, sudden, and culturally disruptive. The palace economy of the Aegean Region and Anatolia that characterised the Late Bronze Age disintegrated, transforming into the small isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages.

The period between c. 1200 and 1150 BC saw the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms; the Kassite dynasty; the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and the Levant;[1] and the fragmentation of the New Kingdom of Egypt with the loss of its colonies in southern Canaan.[2] The deterioration of these governments interrupted trade routes and severely reduced literacy.[3] In the first phase of this period, almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was violently destroyed, and many abandoned: examples include Hattusa, Mycenae, and Ugarit.[4] 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."[5] A very few powerful states, particularly Assyria and Elam, survived the Bronze Age collapse – but by the end of the 12th century BCE Elam collapsed after its defeat by Nebuchadnezzar I and its history is obscure for the following three centuries; and upon the death of Ashur-bel-kala in 1056 BC, Assyria went into a comparative decline for the next 100 or so years, its empire shrinking significantly, and by 1020 BC Assyria appears to have controlled only areas close to Assyria itself.

Gradually, by the end of the ensuing Dark Age, the region was eventually settled by Neo-Hittite and Syro-Hittite states in Cilicia and the Levant. Beginning in the mid-10th century B.C., the Aramaean kingdoms settled in the Levant and the Philistines settled in southern Canaan. And between 911-605 B.C., there occurred the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the arrival of Phrygians, Cimmerians and Lydians in Asia Minor, Urartians and Colchians in the Caucasus and Iranian peoples such as the Persians, Medes and Parthians in Ancient Iran, and after the Orientalising period in the Aegean, of 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, and Hurrians. 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,[6] a people speaking a language that may have been of the North Caucasian group or a language isolate.

Every Anatolian site, apart from Assyrian regions in the south east, 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,[a] near the present day city of Ankara, was burned and the corpses left unburied.[7] Many other sites that were not destroyed were abandoned.[8] 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. (Trojan War)

The Phrygians had arrived (probably over the Bosphorus)[citation needed] in the 13th century BC, and laid waste to what remained of the weakened Hittite Empire (already weakened by defeat and annexation of much of its territory by the Middle Assyrian Empire, and further defeat at the hands of Kaska[9]), before being checked by the Assyrians in the Early Iron Age of the 11th century BC. Other groups of Indo-European warriors followed into the region, most prominently the Lydians, the Cimmerians, and Scythians. The Semitic Arameans, Kartvelian-speaking Colchians, and Hurro-Urartians 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.[11] During the reign of the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (reigned c. 1237–1209 BC), the island was briefly invaded by the Hittites,[12] 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.[13][who?][clarification needed]

Alashiya was plundered by the Sea Peoples and ceased to exist in 1085.

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

Ancient Syria had been initially dominated by a number of indigenous Semitic-speaking peoples. The East Semitic-speaking Eblaites, the Canaanite-speaking Amorites and the Ugaritic-speaking Ugarites were prominent among them. Syria during this time was known as "The land of the Amurru".

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 12th century BC, the Arameans came to prominence in Syria, and the region outside of the Canaanite-speaking Phoenician coastal areas eventually spoke Aramaic and the region came to be known as Aramea and Eber Nari.

Levantine 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.[14]

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. The Arameans, together with the Neo-Hittites came to dominate most of the region both politically and militarily from the late 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).[15]

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.[16]

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:


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, which lasted roughly 400 years and ended with the establishment of Archaic Greece. 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 (1392-1056 BC) had destroyed the Hurrian-Mitanni Empire, annexed much of the Hittite Empire and eclipsed the Egyptian Empire, and at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age collapse controlled an empire stretching from the Caucasus mountains in the north to the Arabian peninsula in the south, and from Ancient Iran in the east to Cyprus in the west. However, in the 12th century BC, Assyrian satrapies in Anatolia came under attack from the Mushki (Phrygians), and those in the Levant from Arameans, but Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1114–1076 BC) was able to defeat and repel these attacks. The Middle 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.[18]

The Arameans and Phrygians were subjected, and Assyria and its colonies were not threatened by the Sea Peoples who had ravaged Egypt and much of the East Mediterranean. However, after the death of Ashur-bel-kala in 1056 BC, Assyria withdrew to its natural borders, encompassing what is today northern Iraq, north east Syria, the fringes of north west Iran, and south eastern Turkey. Assyria retained a stable monarchy, the best army in the world, and an efficient civil administration, enabling it to survive the Bronze Age Collapse intact. From the late 10th century BC, it once more began to assert itself internationally.[19]

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 from the Levant, and the power of 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 Putrians (from modern Libya), 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 among 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."[20] Cultural memories of the disaster told of a "lost golden age": for example, Hesiod spoke of Ages of Gold, Silver, and Bronze, separated from the cruel modern Age of Iron by the Age of Heroes. Rodney Castledon suggests that memories of the Bronze Age collapse influenced Plato's story of Atlantis[21] in Timaeus and the Critias.

Possible causes[edit]

Various theories have been put forward as possible contributors to the collapse, many of them mutually compatible.


Climate change[edit]

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.[22]


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 AD 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.[23][24] 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.[25]

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.[26][27]



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.[28]

Leonard R. Palmer suggested that iron, superior to bronze for weapons manufacture, was in more plentiful supply and so allowed larger armies of iron users to overwhelm the smaller armies of maryannu chariotry, which used bronze.[29]

Changes in warfare[edit]

Robert Drews argues[30] 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,[31] 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.[32][33][34]

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.[35] General systems collapse theory, pioneered by Joseph Tainter,[36] 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[37] 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.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The name Karaoglan is Turkish, the original Hittite name is unknown. (Robbins, p.170


  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. ^ Russ Crawford (2006). "Chronology". In Stanton, Andrea; Ramsay, Edward; Seybolt, Peter J; Elliott, Carolyn. Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa: An Encyclopedia. Sage. p. xxix. ISBN 978-1412981767. 
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Drews, 1993, p. 4
  6. ^ Gurnet, Otto, (1982), The Hittites (Penguin) pp. 119–130.
  7. ^ Robert Drews (1995). The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-691-02591-6. 
  8. ^ Manuel Robbins (2001). Collapse of the Bronze Age: The Story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt, and the Peoples of the Sea. iUniverse. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-595-13664-3. 
  9. ^ Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites. (Clarendon), p.379
  10. ^ Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites (Clarendon), p. 374.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites (Clarendon), p. 366.
  13. ^ Paul Aström has proposed dates of 1190 and 1179 BC (Aström).
  14. ^ Jean Nougaryol et al. (1968) Ugaritica V: 87–90 no. 24
  15. ^ Tubbs, Johnathan (1998), "Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
  16. ^ Tubbs, Johnathan (1998), "Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
  17. ^ Drews, Robert (1993), The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC (Princeton Uni Press)
  18. ^ Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq
  19. ^ Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq
  20. ^ 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)
  21. ^ Castledon, Rodney (1998), "Atlantis Destroyed" (Routledge)
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ Wright, Karen: (1998) "Empires in the Dust" in Discover, March 1998.
  25. ^ Fagan, Brian M. (2003). The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization. Basic Books. 
  26. ^ 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. 
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Palmer, Leonard R (1962) Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1962)
  30. ^ Drews 1993:192ff
  31. ^ Drews 1993:194
  32. ^ Drews, R. (1993). The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton).
  33. ^ [1]
  34. ^ [2]
  35. ^ History of Castlemagner, on the web page of the local historical society.
  36. ^ Tainter, Joseph (1976). The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press).
  37. ^ Thomas, Carol G.; Conant, Craig. (1999) Citadel to City-state: The Transformation of Greece, 1200–700 B.C.E.,
  38. ^ Cline, Eric H. (2014). "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed" (Princeton University Press).

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]