I like a good mystery, and I’m a voracious history buff. One of the historical events that has me and virtually every other buff, scholar and historian in the world stumped is what’s called “The Bronze Age collapse.”
The Bronze Age era of ancient history, particularly the Near East or eastern Mediterranean part we’re going to ponder today, was based around bronze technology and ran roughly from 3,300 BCE to 1,200 BCE. That end date in particular is important, as that’s where the archeological evidence shows a sudden, violent collapse of almost all the major civilizations in the area in question that occurred over about one generation, say 50 years.
As archeologists dug more deeply while studying the Near East, including Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Crete, a layer of ash and destruction was found that dated to between 1,200 and 1,150 BCE, exactly when the collapse occurred. Almost every major city in the region showed evidence of being violently destroyed, especially capital cities. Some cities, including Troy layer six, were destroyed twice. The Hittite empire was destroyed, Mycenae was leveled, Crete was destroyed, major centers in the Levant like the city of Ugarit were burned to the ground and Egypt was wounded so deeply it was never the same again.
In fact, in the ancient world, the only other disaster that compares to the Bronze Age Collapse is the fall of the Western Roman Empire in about 475 CE that left western Europe in chaos.
So what happened at the end of the Bronze Age? That’s the question archeologists and historians have been trying to answer since the 19th century or earlier.
Scientific evidence in Greece, Turkey, Israel and other areas proves a massive drought attacked the area just before 1,200 BCE. Couple this drought with what’s referred to as “palace culture” at that time, centrally-planned economies mated with heavily populated cities that relied greatly on high farm yields and you have a recipe for disaster. There’s also scientific evidence to strongly suggest that a series of earthquakes struck the entire area in question just before 1,200 BCE. Icing on the cake for those coping with years of crippling drought.
Then the “Sea Peoples” appeared, and these are the culprits who’re generally blamed for the Bronze Age Collapse. Egypt was the only kingdom to survive their attacks; Egyptian writings described them as savage armies that came from the sea, burning, killing and destroying everything they came across. Egyptian carvings illustrate “Sea People” armies as well; the armies included wagon trains of women and children, so the “Sea Peoples” weren’t just roving bandits. Early archeologists didn’t seem interested in trying to identify the “Sea Peoples;” later historians stated the “Sea Peoples” may have been European tribes fleeing drought and earthquakes. Some also suspect that a period of peace before 1,200 BCE left mercenary armies without work, and these mercenaries became the “Sea People.” But as for who they really were, and why they destroyed at will…your guess is as good as mine.
What can we in the modern world take from the Bronze Age Collapse? Books have been written on that subject, and with limited space I have to be brief.
I would say that, just as with the Bronze Age cultures that didn’t see a calamity coming, maybe we need to look at things in our lives, like taking agriculture for granted, self-indulgence, waste or bad financial decisions all of us make, such as going too deeply in debt simply to show off to our neighbours, and be a bit more cautious about the future.
Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.