A Seismic Collapse? The End of the Bronze Age

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In the 13th and 12th Centuries BC, most of the advanced civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean suddenly and inexplicably entered a period of sharp societal decline and, ultimately, collapse. The demise of these states heralded the start of a dark age in which writing systems disappeared and major urban centres were abandoned. Whilst the importance of these events is clear – slowing human development by centuries – the reasons for this collapse remain disputed and uncertain

The first civilisations sprang up in the Neolithic period (roughly 10,000 – 4,500 BC), but consisted typically of stateless societies centred around small towns and villages. Advancements in the smelting of copper from the mid-5th Millennium BC onwards led to the brief Chalcolithic or Copper Age, and further developments in creating bronze by alloying copper with tin marked the beginning of the Bronze Age in the mid-4th Millennium BC.

Bronze tools were far stronger than anything that had come before, and their ubiquity in everything from agriculture to warfare enabled societies to reach then unprecedented levels of sophistication. For instance, the Great Pyramids of Giza were built during this time, the wheel was invented, the first writing systems were developed and the first centralised states emerged, nucleated mainly around the Middle East.

In Anatolia (modern day Eastern Turkey), the Hittite Empire ruled, in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires reigned, in North Africa existed the Egyptian ‘New Kingdom’, in Cyprus, the Kingdom of Alashiya and in Greece the city of states of the Mycenaean civilisation. However, around the year 1200 BC, the prosperity and very existence of all these states ceased abruptly: the Hittites, Alashiyans and Mycenaeans collapsed, whilst those states that survived were desperately weakened.

Whilst the causes of this collapse are debated, archaeological evidence has demonstrated that it did occur in some form. Excavations of Bronze Age cities in the Eastern Mediterranean have uncovered ‘destruction layers’ – layers of soil containing loose weapons, mass graves, buried valuables and evidence of fire, all of which point to an attack.

These destruction layers suggest that hundreds of Eastern Mediterranean cities were ruined around 1200 BC. In certain cities, notably Thebes, damage is largely confined to palace structures, perhaps suggesting a popular uprising restricted to symbols of authority. Alternatively, in Cyprus, some cities appear to have been abandoned despite the lack of a significant destruction layer, suggesting that an attack did not serve as the impetus for the population fleeing the city.

The obvious question is what caused this mass depopulation of cities. One possible answer is found in the example of the ancient city of Ugarit in Northern Syria. The King of Ugarit during her collapse, Ammurapi, was a vassal of the Hittite Empire. When his city was sacked, he wrote a number of letters on clay tablets to other rulers of the region. His letters, many of which survive to this day, describe the destruction of the city.

In one letter to the King of Alashiya, he writes: “Behold, the enemy’s ships came; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country.” Meanwhile a letter to the King of Carchemish, a fellow Hittite vassal, reads “The army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed.”

Following the account of King of Ugarit leads to the conclusion that an unnamed foreign enemy appeared from over the sea and unleashed devastation upon the land. Archaeological evidence broadly supports this thesis as it suggests that hundreds of Mediterranean cities were attacked in the same manner as Ugarit around 1200 BC.

Historians believe that this ‘foreign enemy’ was the so-called ‘Sea Peoples’, a loose confederation of European tribes hailing from the Western Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Sicily to the Aegean coast and even the Balkans. It has been speculated that, in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., the ‘Sea Peoples’ embarked on a large-scale migration, moving first into Greece and Anatolia, then into Cyprus and the Levant, and finally approaching Egypt. As they emigrated they conquered the people already living there, using new strategies which they had developed, namely massed foot soldier units and aggressive infantry charges. The armies of the Eastern Mediterranean, heavily reliant upon poorly manoeuvrable chariots, were acutely vulnerable to their highly mobile adversaries.

However, the ‘Sea Peoples’ and their Eastern migration were ultimately stopped by Ramesses III. An inscription in a temple dedicated to the Pharaoh reads:

“Now the northern countries (‘Sea Peoples’), which were in their isles […] penetrated the channels of the Nile mouths […] His majesty is gone forth like a whirlwind against them, fighting, […] [they are] capsized and overwhelmed […] Their weapons are scattered in the sea.”

The traditional historical narrative has thus been that the Bronze Age Collapse was predominantly due to the migration of the ‘Sea Peoples’. This approach was favoured as it explained why certain states (the Mycenaeans, Hittites and Alashiyans) all collapsed, whilst others (namely Assyria and Babylonia) survived as they were further inland.

However, this narrative has been challenged in recent years. Indeed, the ‘Sea Peoples’ are increasingly viewed as a symptom of the collapse rather than a cause. A re-evaluation of the climatic and environmental conditions of the time has revealed that a cataclysm of natural disasters left the Eastern Mediterranean states vulnerable to attack.

Recent evidence suggests that between 1225 – 1175 BC the Eastern Mediterranean experienced an ‘earthquake storm’, a period of unusually high tectonic activity. In turn, this may explain why certain cities in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as those in Cyprus, were abandoned without signs of an attack, as the inhabitants fled to avoid natural disasters. Furthermore, it has been discovered that the Bronze Age Collapse coincided with a 300-year period of drought. Such a prolonged dry period would undoubtedly have led to famines and food shortages, probably leading to popular unrest and explaining the signs of rebellion in Thebes and similar cities.

Most historians therefore posit that, in normal times, the more developed Bronze Age kingdoms would have been able to defeat the ‘Sea Peoples’. However, natural disasters weakened them, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Ironically, it is likely that drought and famine were what drove the ‘Sea Peoples’ to migrate and invade in the first place as they themselves sought to escape failed harvests in their homelands and profit off the famed wealth of the Eastern Mediterranean. Instead, they would only sow disaster.

The collapse of all these states was deeply interlinked. The Kingdoms of the Eastern Mediterranean relied upon each other heavily for trade, particularly in exchanging tin and copper (the alloys for bronze). The fall of even a few states disrupted the international trade network and, without a reliable source of bronze, such nations could no longer exist, bringing an end to the Bronze Age itself.

Astour, M.C., 1965. New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit. American Journal of Archaeology.

Nur, A., Cline, E.H., 2000. Poseidon’s Horses: Plate Tectonics and Earthquake Storms in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Journal of Archaeological Science.

Kaniewski, D., et al., 2013. Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis. Public Library of Science.