The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations

Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna...
Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna period (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I did a short post on the collapse of civilizations, noting that history pretty much shows that all civilizations, sooner or later, end.  (I also expressed skepticism that ours is necessarily anywhere near this point.)

The quintessential example of a civilization collapse is the fall of the Roman Empire.  But it is by far not the first or only collapse in history.  The fall of the Roman Empire was a major event in the history of western civilization, and there is an entire genre of theories on exactly why it declined and fell.  (Being the opinionated person I am, I naturally have my own theories, but I’ll save them for another post.)

1177CoverBut there was an earlier collapse that was just as consequential for world history, and that was the collapse of the Bronze Age kingdoms at the end of the Bronze Age, c. 1200-1100 BC.  I recently finished reading Eric Cline’s ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed‘, which covers this topic in some detail and which is the source of most of this post.

At the end of the Bronze Age, over three thousand years ago, there existed an international community of kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean.  The superpowers of this time were Egypt, which was already ancient by then, and Hattusa, the Hittite Empire.  There was also the Mycenaean civilization in Greece, along with Alashiya in Cyprus, Babylonia in Mesopotamia, and a range of other smaller kingdoms such as the Canaanite city states.  It was a time of extensive trade and international relations.

And then, starting around 1200 BC, these kingdoms all collapsed or suffered decline.  In Greece, this led to a dark age that lasted for centuries before giving rise to classical Greece.  It led to the decline of Egypt from the world power it had been for millennia.  Many of the Canaanite city states, vassals of Egypt, collapsed and were eventually replaced by the iron age kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Hattusa and many of the other kingdoms and empires disappeared.  (Although some of them later came back in “neo” phases such as the neo-Hittites and neo-Assyrians.)

Unlike in the later classical period, we don’t have much in the way of historical writings from this period.  In early modern times, history was thought to have effectively started with Herodotus and Thucydides in the fifth century BC.  Everything before that was largely based on legends and myths.  But the development of archaeology has allowed us to construct the history of earlier civilizations.  (And of prehistory for that matter.)

It’s mostly through archaeology that we know what we do about the Bronze Age.  By studying the remnants of cities, their pottery and other artifacts, and scrutinizing the few examples of letters we have from the period (mostly written in cuneiform on clay tablets), a picture of that world, and its collapse, can be constructed.  Using forensic techniques, archaeologists can tell when cities were destroyed, and often gain insight into whether the destruction was from a natural disaster like an earthquake, or from war.

The letters provide some of the most interesting pieces of information, such as the cache found at Amarna.  Often these were dispatches between kings about alliances, negotiations, and other state matters.  They were sometimes written in contemporary languages like Egyptian, but often in Akkadian, a language from an earlier empire that was to the period as Latin was to the middle ages.  Much of what we know about the politics of the times comes from these letters.

That being said, our information is limited.  The exact reason for the Bronze Age collapse remains a mystery.  For decades, the blame has fallen on the Sea Peoples, a confederation of invaders who attacked the various kingdoms, and are mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions.  But continued investigation is starting to show that the Sea Peoples were more of a symptom than a cause.

A number of things appear to have happened before the Sea Peoples attacked.  There were repeated earthquakes throughout the region in what is referred to as an earthquake storm.  For us today, an earthquake can be terrifying, but for most of us it is only a physical event.  For the ancients, each quake was probably seen as punishment from the gods.  We can only imagine what effect decades of repeated earthquakes might have had on people’s psychology and outlook at the time, on their confidence in the existing social orders.

Alongside the earthquakes are references in some of the letters of famine and requests for grain shipments.  Climate change, leading to generations of droughts, might also have been a hugely destabilizing influence.  Indeed, many historians and archaeologists theorize that such climate change might have been at the root of the decline of these civilizations.

These events lead to a decline in international trade, resulting in economic stagnation.  This would have had a powerfully negative effect on centers of trade like the city of Ugarit, the archaeological source of many letters from the period.

But Cline in his book, points out that these factors had all happened individually in other periods without necessarily leading to a collapse.  Instead, Cline argues that it was the “perfect storm” of all of these factors that led to the collapse.  Perhaps it started with the drought, was intensified by the earthquakes, and the depredations of the Sea Peoples were the final straw that pushed many of the kingdoms over the brink.

Exactly who the Sea Peoples were is another mystery, although there appear to be good reasons to think they came from a variety of areas in the eastern Mediterranean, and were in fact, just as much victims of the drought and earthquakes as the kingdoms they attacked.  They may have been opportunistic raiders, or desperate but militaristic refugees.

The Philistines mentioned in the Bible are thought to have been one group of these Sea Peoples, probably originating from Crete.  And there are indications that the Philistines may have been settled in Canaan by the Egyptians after the Egyptians had defeated them, which almost sounds like a resolution for refugees rather than a defeated enemy.

There are two purported events that are hard to ignore when discussing this period: the Trojan War and the Exodus.  Cline addresses them in his book, although of course both subjects have extensively been covered elsewhere.

For a long time, historians thought that the city of Troy was mythical, until Heinrich Schliemann discovered its ruins in the late 19th century.  In turns out that Troy was part of the Assuwa league, an alliance of cities in western Turkey, who, aside from eventually giving their name to the continent of Asia, was a group of cities in periodic rebellion against the Hittite Empire.  Warfare was likely an ongoing reality.

In addition, it appears that Troy was attacked by the Sea Peoples, some of which might well have been Mycenaeans from Greece.  The fact that Mycenae was apparently also under attack during this period would seem to make this less likely, but it’s always possible that Mycenae was under attack because of the opportunity opened up by so many of the Mycenaeans being in Turkey.

So the possibility exists that the Trojan War was actually based on real events.  Of course, after centuries of evolving oral traditions before the composition of the Iliad and similar works, it’s impossible to know how closely the classical stories are to those historical events.

While there is some evidence for something like the Trojan War, the archaeological evidence for the Exodus is pretty much nonexistent.  The earliest archaeological evidence for Israel is its mention on the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, dated to 1208 BC.  Israel is mentioned as a people in Canaan who had been defeated by Egypt.  If the Exodus happened, it would need to have been before this, before the collapse began.  But there is no archaeological evidence of a large population wandering in any of the relevant desserts at the relevant times.

There is also the issue that the Canaanite city states at the time were vassals of Egypt and had been for centuries.  It’s unlikely that a large population of escaped Egyptian slaves would have gone back into Egyptian controlled territory, or been permitted to conquer Canaan, at least before Egypt’s decline.  Indeed, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, in his book, ‘The Bible Unearthed‘, argued that the Israelites arose from within Canaanite populations, with their population later growing from refugees from the collapsing city states.

Of course, it’s still possible that an Exodus of some type could have happened, but it would likely have been a much smaller scale event than what is described in the Bible, and most of the Israelites would likely not have been descended from this small group.  Or the Exodus story may actually be a distorted memory of the conflict, referenced on the Merneptah Stele, that early Israelites had with Egypt when it had a presence in Canaan.  The withdrawal of Egypt during the collapse might have been seen as the result of divine intervention, evolving into the story we know today.

The Bronze Age collapse set the stage for the development of many key civilizations.  From the remnants of the Mycenaean collapse, after a dark age of several centuries, classical Greek civilization arose, with all the influence its culture would have throughout the world.  Israel arose after the collapse of the Canaanite city states, eventually producing a religion that would affect most of the world’s current population.  Some of the Canaanite cities that did survive would eventually evolve into Phoenicia, which would go on to spread its alphabet writing system throughout the ancient world and found Carthage, a major rival to Rome in its early centuries.

How different the current world would be today if the Bronze Age collapse had not happened is impossible to say, except to note that it definitely would be different.  Like the later fall of the Roman Empire, it had a profound effect on history.  And like all collapses, it pays to study it.  Was the Bronze Age collapse anything that could have been avoided by the societies at that time?  Probably not, particularly if the root causes were climate change and earthquakes.  Still, understanding what happened might give us crucial insights into the health of our own civilization.

20 thoughts on “The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations

      1. It doesn’t have to come down if it has reached escape velocity.

        Perhaps modern civilisation has. For the first time, civilisation is basically global. There is no one government, no external threats from other civilisations. It’s going to end some day, sure, but it may take something like an asteroid impact to do it.


  1. We know also of powerfully nutritive elements of the Palasgians within the orbit of Hellenic culture, strong examples being the Olympian balance of Gender among divine archetypes, probably a concession of patriarchal vs matriarchal conflict to Peace, with Athene mediating the troubled sore of broken alliances between cultures for a ‘wisdom’ suitable for augury, purification of vision, redemption from blood-stain (think Herakles and minor arcana of Eleusis), and beautification of mortality through Aesthetic Intelligence. Ah, that the History of Castor and Pollux might have been read, which once Sybils described as the History of Man (Israel took for Cane and Able), with Medea tossing the sons of Jason from the parapets. Now but a “little book.”


  2. Interesting article. You bring up some good points but fail to mention overpopulation and strain on available resources, in particular food sources. As cities/settlements grow available agricultural land is pushed further and further from city centers. Poorer soil may need irrigation and if not regulated leads to salinization which results in finding other farming regions. Climate as you mention can also have an effect. In my understanding collapse often comes from resource loss followed by migration. I believe that is an issue we will see this century in many parts of the world.


    1. Good point. I don’t recall Cline mentioning it, although he might have and I might have missed it. Limitations of the period’s agricultural techniques might have been overwhelmed by excessive population. Although that doesn’t seem like something that would come on suddenly like a climate shift might. It might well have been a contributing factor though. Maybe societies not quite as near their production boundary could have weathered the climate shifts and earthquakes better.


  3. Very interesting, thanks ‘SAP’, I’ll add Cline’s book to my list should I find myself getting deeper into that period in our collective past. I did finally get around to reading Rebecca Costa’s ‘The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse’ 2010, previously subtitled ‘Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction’ and found it an interesting read.

    The basic premise is that just as organisms have physical limits so too do they have cognitive limits, and when the complexity of the problems posed by the environment(physical and/or social) exceed this “cognitive threshold” it’s a sign of impending trouble. Costa cites gridlock in dealing with the problem(s) as the first symptom followed by the substitution of unsubstantiated beliefs for fact and knowledge as the latter become increasingly more difficult to discern as complexity increases.

    It seems to fit our present circumstances all too well, though the proposed solution struck me as tentative at best, but then such is the state of our knowledge at present. That said, I might well be letting negativity bias overly color my perception.

    Then again, as John Z said above, “What goes up …” 🙂


    1. Thanks amanimal! Costa’s theory sounds interesting, but if I’m understanding correctly, it might be a bit too preoccupied with our current politics. It always seems like our current problems are in danger of leading to disaster. But I take some comfort that if legislative gridlock led to collapse, the US probably wouldn’t have made it out of the 18th century. (That’s not to say we don’t have problems; I just don’t think they’re necessarily existential ones, at least not yet 🙂 )


      1. You may be right on the “preoccupied with our current politics” as that’s the hard data she has to work with. She does propose that the symptoms can appear well in advance of the specific problem that becomes irreversible/unfixable and results in collapse. The book is definitely *not* alarmist in tone overall in spite of the title.


        1. Thanks, that’s good to know. I may take a look at it. I’m also thinking of reading Jared Diamond’s book on collapses. It seems like the problem with pondering collapse theories is that we don’t have careful data from any collapse. Given the nature of a collapse, (keeping detailed records would probably be one of the earliest things to go), we may never have it.


          1. One of the things I found compelling in Costa’s argument was that her starting point(that I left out of my initial description) is a take-off on evolutionary mismatch theory. Give the Amazon preview a read – I think you’d enjoy it.


          2. Ok, you hooked me. Just read the preview and bought it. I don’t know that I buy her thesis yet. It seems like it’s almost tautological: civilizations fail because they can’t solve…the cause of their failure. But I’m open to being convinced and interested to read her reasoning. Thanks for clueing me in to it!

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