Late Bronze Age Collapse, Mycenaean Civilization Collapse — Collapse As Witnessed 3400-3000 Years Ago

February 11, 2015 in Humans

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The Late Bronze Age Collapse, often alternately referred to as the Mycenaean Palatial Civilization Collapse, was a period of time — roughly between the years of 1250-1000 BC (3250-3000 years ago) — that was violent, and catastrophically disruptive with regard to cultures, social systems/practices, government institutions, languages, ethnic identities, trade routes, literacy, and technologies.

During these years, all of the large urban centers and governing systems of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and most of Southwestern Asia, collapsed — leaving behind, after a period of turmoil and mass migration, the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages.

This period of time saw the end of the various Mycenaean kingdoms of the Mediterranean, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria, and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan.

Fall of Troy painting collapse

During what’s considered to be the first phase of the collapse (actual collapses of civilizations tend to occur in start-stop stair-step fashion — with periods of extreme crises, followed by stabilization, followed by crises, onwards down the staircase…) saw more or less every city between Pylos and Gaza violently destroyed.

Many of these destroyed cities were abandoned afterwords (Hattusa, Mycenae, Ugarit), but some stabilized and repopulated to some degree — until continued pressures brought them down or resulted in them walling themselves off.

As the noted historian Robert Drews put it: It was “the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire”.

“Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century BC almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again”.

This destruction and cultural discontinuity was well noted by historians of later ages, such as Hesiod — who made note of common diffused cultural memories of a “lost golden age”. It was Hesiod who categorized the “ages of man”, as he was aware of them, into the Ages of Gold, Silver and Bronze — which were separated from the harsh and cruel “modern” world of the Age of Iron by the Age of Heroes (the time period that Homers poems are set in).

It’s been suggested before that Plato’s story of Atlantis was in reference to this collapse — though others have suggested that Plato did indeed get his dates right, and that the Atlantis stories are in reference to a much earlier collapse. Or perhaps they were simply “stories”? Which are, as was once so famously said about “mythology”: “Things that never happend but are always true”.

A thought that, to my mind, calls up the “Australian” aboriginal concept of Dreamtime — amongst other beliefs common to various peoples around the world at various times.

Whatever the truth of earlier stories though, the evidence for, and of, the more recent Late Bronze Age Collapse is widespread, well-attested, and fascinating in many ways.

Mycenaean fresco boats

Altogether, after all was said and done, following a couple of centuries of extreme turmoil — the whole region was greatly depopulated, with whole languages/scripts/alphabets disappearing forever, long-range trade more or less ceasing, ethnic/cultural identities being shredded and new ones emerging, and the scale of living “relocalizing” so to speak.

“The End Bronze Age collapse marked the start of what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted for more than 400 years. Some 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.”

Causes of the Late Bronze Age Collapse — Over Complexity, Environmental Problems, Mass Migrations, & Disruptive Technologies

Late Bronze Age collapse

While the exacts of what led to the collapse are somewhat up to debate (history isn’t so easily simplified into human narrative, after all), there’s no doubt what many of the contributing factors were — and they were/are the same ones that almost almost always contribute. That is to say: diminishing agricultural productivity, over complexity of social and governmental forms, soil erosion/degradation, population growth, deforestation, drought/natural disasters, mass migration, and technological “breakthroughs”.

In other words — increasing fragility, complexity, and scarcity.

While young, “healthy” cultures and civilizations often (often enough anyways) have the social/psychological capital to deal effectively with challenges and difficulties, ones that have been around for some time tend to ossify into ineffective and hollowed-out, resource-deprived shells of what they had once been — a living culture with deeply held common beliefs and values.

The exacts are something that of course varied to great degree based on the specific region in question, in the portion of the collapse that concerned the Middle East for example, population growth, soil erosion and degradation, and agricultural difficulties, almost definitely played a significant factor.

These — when combined with over complexity of governing systems, and growing bureaucracy, as well as technological changes — appear to have proved challenges too difficult for the traditional warrior aristocracies of the region to meet.

In simple terms — the centralization, specialization, complexity, and top-heavy political structures, of the time, while allowing for dominance and stability for a long time (owing to technological advantages amongst others), were eventually gamed by those looking to do so.

In particular, these chinks in the armor were revealed “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”.

And also, through: growing levels of piracy damaging maritime trade networks (much of this is thought to have been caused by the Sea Peoples); drought; crop failures; famine; and mass migrations from other regions.

Late Bronze Age collapse migrations and invasions

On those fronts, here are a few things worth noting:

  • Widespread findings of Naue II-type swords (coming from South-Eastern Europe) throughout the region date to this period of time — and Egyptian records of invading “northerners from all the lands”, attest to mass migration as well.
  • 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 collapse coincides exactly with the appearance of many “new” ethnic groups in the region, most of which were 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 all came from, or emerged from, what is now the Caucasus, Iran, and Anatolia.
  • Thracians, Macedonians, and Dorian Greeks, also seem to have arrived in the region right around this time — likely coming from the north, avoiding mass migrations of other armed peoples up there. And, thereby usurping the Greeks of Mycenae and Achaea.
  • Semitic peoples — including Aramaeans, Chaldeans, and Suteans — also arrived in the region during this time, likely coming from the South East.
  • Mass migrations such as these are generally triggered by combinations of factors, including: general overpopulation, agricultural difficulties, mass migrations of other armed peoples into the regions in question, natural disasters, and social collapses/degradations caused by disruptive technologies.

Historian Manuel Robbins has noted: “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.”

Which is often the case, the Huns for example — a major cause of difficulties for the late-period Roman Empire — were thought to have formed originally as a result of various tribes moving westwards to avoid the westward migrations of tribes living in what’s now Mongolia. The westward migrations of the late-Roman period that saw Europe populated with Germanic peoples is thought to have been triggered by the westward migration of Mongolic tribes as well.

Mycenaean gold jewelry

Some other important things to note:

At the end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean region, the Mycenaean administration of the regional trade empire followed the decline of Minoan primacy. Several Minoan client states lost much of their population to famine and/or pestilence. This would indicate that the trade network may have failed, preventing the trade that would previously have relieved such famines and prevented illness caused by malnutrition. It is also known that in this era the breadbasket of the Minoan empire, the area north of the Black Sea, also suddenly lost much of its population, and thus probably some cultivation.

The Aegean Collapse has been attributed to the exhaustion (deforestation) of the Cyprus forests causing the end of the bronze trade. These forests are known to have existed into later times, and experiments have shown that charcoal production on the scale necessary for the bronze production of the late Bronze Age would have exhausted them in less than fifty years.

Disruption of long distance trade cut easy supplies of tin, making bronze impossible to make. Older implements were recycled and then iron substitutes were used.

Other technological changes are thought to have played a part as well — the sudden appearance of massed infantry, utilizing new “cheaper” “mass-produced” weapons and armor. Cast rather than forged swords and spears for example; the creation of the all-purpose long sword (cut and thrust); and the sudden appearance of large-scale bronze foundries. Which all combine to suggest that “mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean”.

These changes are thought to have allowed large numbers of armed infantry to swarm and cut down the technologically superior and dominant chariot armies of the time. With all (or nearly all) of the ruling civilizations of the time dependant upon these chariot armies for power, and the chink in the armor found, abrupt social collapses are thought to have occurred as “raiders began to conquer, loot, and burn the cities”.

In other words — the previously monolithically dominant means of waging war and enforcing rule in the region, based on relatively complex/expensive technologies as chariots, was supplanted by a cheaper means that simply took advantage of the inherent (but previously unexploited) weaknesses in that way of waging war.

There are lessons to be learned there with regard to our own highly expensive, complex way of waging war — what happens when the “back doors” to our technologically superior way of waging war are found?

A good example of this is/was the way that during the Millennium Challenge 2002 war games conducted by the US Armed Forces, the “opposition” commander — retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K Van Riper — despite being saddled with what was intended to be the losing side (approximately Iran’s military capabilities of the time), managed to sink two-thirds of the “US military’s” simulated war vessels (including an aircraft carrier) in the Persian Gulf using nothing but very low-tech tactics, swarming dirt cheap fishing boats, WWII era light-signalling (to avoid electronic surveillance), and cleverness.

All, somewhat amusingly, to the apparent anger of those in charge of the war game — who had intended the opposition to lose decisively and easily — which was then accomplished, by starting the whole thing over and forcing all parties to follow a script, rather than utilize actual strategy and tactics. (US$250 million was spent on this scripted “war game” it should be noted — demonstrating some of the above points about over complexity.)

High-technologies always have their weaknesses, and what history shows us, is that eventually people work out what said weaknesses are. And they take advantage of that.

Mycenaean Fresco Plants

Regardless of the exact mechanisms behind the collapse with regard to war and raiding, though, the primary drivers of the collapse seem to, without a doubt, be ecological/environmental ones (soil erosion/degradation, overpopulation, deforestation, and resource scarcity/trade disruption) and social/cultural ones (over complexity, disintegrating common beliefs, and an ossified ruling class).

General Systems Collapse Theory

As a bit of an aside, it’s probably worth mentioning here General Systems Collapse theory as pioneered by Joseph Tainter, amongst others. This theory puts forward the idea that social declines are inevitable with rising levels of complexity, and these social declines inevitably lead to collapse and disintegration of what had previously been a common culture/society — into simpler, separate, ones.

Certainly not really a new idea, but a simple clear way of wording what many people know intuitively about complex systems and hierarchies — disintegration of common function/identity occurs, and discontinuities/resentments tend to build up, until the whole thing fractures completely or ceases to “work”.

Also, resources — whether physical/material, cultural, or psychological — tend to get used up and/or overstretched as systems grow in complexity. Which leads to greater fragility, and decreased resilience and flexibility.

Mycenaean Fresco women

Collapse In Egypt, Anatolia, & Syria — Examples of Specific Regions

Here I’m going to be going over some of the specifics of the collapse, concerning various regions. In particular, the regions of Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt.

Late Bronze Age Collapse In Anatolia

The story of the “Fall of Troy” is in reference to destruction of a city in Anatolia during the Lage Bronze Age Collapse. The city that we currently refer to as “Troy” was actually destroyed at least twice during this general period of time — before finally being abandoned completely.

Before the Late Bronze Age collapse, Anatolia (Asia Minor) was mostly dominated by various Indo-European people’s — in particular, the Luwians, Hittites, Mitanni, and Mycenaean Greeks. The Semitic Assyrians were a powerful presence as well though.

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.

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.

Mycenaean Tomb

Late Bronze Age Collapse In Ancient Syria

Ancient Syria was dominated around this time mostly by a number of “indigenous” Semitic speaking peoples — specifically, the Canaanites and the Amorites. The largest urban centers of the time in the region were the cities of Ebla and Ugarit.

Just preceding the Late Bronze Age Collapse (and during), Syria turned into a battleground between some of the largest empires of the time — the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Mitanni, and the Egyptians. In addition, the coastal regions repeatedly came under attack by the Sea Peoples.

During the 13th Century BC, the Arameans rose to prominence in the area of Syria — leading to most of that region other than the Phoenician coastal areas becoming speakers of 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. 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.

The situation in Ugarit is explained pretty clearly by Ammurapi in this message/letter:

“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.”

Of course, no help arrived — and Ugarit was burned to the ground.

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 — ie 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.

Late Bronze Age Collapse In & Around Egypt

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.

This collapse happened right around the same time period that many Christian and Jewish scholars place the life of Moses.

The Book of Exodus references 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 back migration of Semitic people from Egypt back into Canaan”.

Owing to the fact that much of this story wasn’t put to paper until “immediately before, or during the Babylonian exile and captivity, some centuries after the Bronze Age collapse — memories and folklore of the collapse might have provided material which was then used in the story of the exodus without regards to timeline or geographical location”. Which means that the stories concerning “Moses” could also date back to the 1500-1600 BC as some biblical scholars posit — rather than to the time of the Late Bronze Age Collapse itself.

Worth noting here, though, is that the Harris Papyrus does make note of an expulsion of “Asiatics” by Setnakhte during the chaos at the end of the 19th Dynasty.

Onset of the Greek Dark Ages

“Beyond this speculation we can go no further. Somewhere in the shades of the centuries between the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and the end of the Greek Dark Ages, the original Mycenaean religion persisted and adapted until it finally emerged in the stories of human devotion, apostasy, and divine capriciousness, that exists in the two great epic poems of Homer. It was the beginning of the religion which later the Greeks considered Hellenic, and embodies a paradox. Though the world is dominated by a divine power that the gods bestow in different ways on men, nothing but ‘darkness’ lay ahead and life was sometimes frail and unsubstantial.”

Some Mycenaean frescos, artifacts, and sculptures:

Mycenaean Fresco woman

Mycenaean gold medallion

Mycenaean pottery

Mycenaean snake woman sculpture

Octopus jewelry

Mycenaean bronze dagger dolphin

Mycenaean fresco blue monkeys

Mycenaean pottery

gold deathmask

Image Credits: Public Domain; Screen Capture

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