Can The Bronze Age Collapse Teach Us About Us?

Nestled between Goliath’s, perhaps formed in part from the friction that proximity ignites, epiphanies born out of the wreckage of unsustainable ideas, with all the ingenuity that has carried Homo sapiens forward through the twisted turns of our evolution, our beliefs are changed, the society we know rocked off its axis, and one age turns into another.

And thus can be described the time after the collapse of many powerful kingdoms in the late Bronze Age.

Caught between eras, in the dark, comes a leviathan shift in philosophies, beliefs, ways of living, ways of being. Where necessity is the catalyst for designing better more efficient tools, creating aftershocks of revolution, maybe devolution.

The powerful evolution of grand encompassing empires dominates this ancient time, palace systems ruling huge swaths of land and its people, economies fuelled on the import/export of Tin, and with the same significance in their world as oil is to our world. The Bronze Age brought with it a kind of centralized administration, urban centres commanding vast lands and peoples, and for the first time in our history an elite class rises far above the hoi polloi, decked out with all those many advantages these urban centres brought to this nouveau wealthy class.

These urban centres brought a new idea – hierarchy.

Hierarchies were not a feature of the hunter-gatherers and pastoralists that had dominated the previous millenniums. Hierarchies were not of particular use to nomadic people, as they offered few advantages to people on the move. Neolithic attempts at these agri/urban societies were mostly abandoned, as agricultural based urbanization is more successful in unequal societies, with multitudes of worker bees fuelling the economies of trade across vast distances.

Over time these pastoralist peoples gained momentum, and gradually new tools and weapons of Bronze gained popularity, new ways of living brought with it new food, and new tools to cook the food with, new societies of farmers and metallurgy, and the urbanites all fuelling trade routes, Kings collected the taxes, and priests made offerings at the Temples.

Also is found at this time were the building of walled enclosures, and not to keep people out, but rather it would appear the purpose now was to protect the goods within.

No longer merely a people flowing with the migrating herds carrying only what they need, no longer foraging, and/or minding small herds of their own as they had for hundreds and thousands of years.

The Bronze Age brought with it a fundamental change throughout the Mediterranean in how people lived, how they ate, how they defended themselves, what they believed, and who ruled, and where everyone stood in society.

Yet, as well with the crafting of these new weapons magically through melted rock made molten, as well were formed new desires to use them against thy neighbours, sometimes far, far away neighbours, who you felt had threatened your land, or your goods, or just to throw your might around.

To which stories have been passed, and why this age was known as the time of heroes.

So, over time that inevitable absolute power corrupted absolutely, and so doth emerged that obsessive hoarding unique to empire builders, and all the power and wealth that mindset draws down through greed and self-serving motivation we all know so well.

The power that certain resources gifted the lucky few, these newly minted Lords of vast lands ensconced atop their hoard, such as wealth in grain to feed the many, and so this afforded… often a him… it gave all the hims a power never had before.

Be it gold, or silver, lead or copper, or of course the all and mighty TIN, all along the pathways of the ancient world these commodities were bought and sold. As marching men they learned would die for these new lofty hims in droves to take from other hims those things they would hoard, would all out drench your mudbrick walls with blood to take.

All because of a sword made of bronze, now cooled and pulled from the stone from whence it was formed.

This new age of bronze took over the Aegean from around 2000 BC to 1200 BC.

In this age of heroes, empires were created and fell, contracted, expanded, and it is at this time, and probably for the first time that ancient peoples lived more like us than ever before.

These newfangled explorers set out in the Victorian times to explore these far off places, and with them dragged with their luggage the myriad white male privileged prejudices common for the times. In truth, the goal to pilfer from the earth for themselves these rare and priceless antiquities to add to their collections back in London, Paris, or perhaps Berlin. So, many the curiosity seeking wealthy gentry made the long treks to these far off places to expose the riches that lay concealed under the earth. And so many dug haphazardly at best, and primarily only in areas that were familiar to their classical education, drawing conclusions born more from their prejudice than either science or fact.

So they went digging up Greece and her islands, into the sands of Egypt, and across the Levant for Biblical era trinkets to add to their hoards at home.

In Anatolia though nary a peep had been heard down through the centuries. Nothing at all was at that time thought to exist from the coast of the Aegean Sea, south of the Black Sea, all the way across the mountains of Anatolia, what is now Turkey, across the barren plains.

The Hittite Empire had been lost in the mists of time, a mere footnote mentioned in the bible, briefly, it vanished for 3000 years. Until… it was re-discovered…

 … “first by the Irish missionary William Wright in 1884 CE, and then by the German archaeologist Hugo Winckler in 1906 CE”.

Today Western Asia minor is still remote, retaining in many areas a wild desolate beauty. For my purpose the Hittite Kingdom, its rise and its demise, offers a kind of snapshot of this age.

The Hittite Kingdom lasted from around 2000 CE till its fall around 1200 BCE.

As many of their powerful neighbours at the time, they expanded, contracted, over many years, shrinking with a weak ruler followed by a strong one, and so forth. This expansion and contraction continued, and at its largest incarnation spanned from the Aegean, controlling the Dardanelles, across central Anatolia reaching down tendrils of influence as far as the Northern parts of Babylonia.

Yet, like many of their neighbours, the Hittites Empire collapsed in the closing decades of the 12th century BCE, and also like the others, they never recovered.

This time in question, from about 1250 BCE until the closing chapters of the late Bronze Age, is the time of the Trojan War, of the Battle of Qadesh, and the time of the Exodus.

In one sense, we can now with some confidence suggest, that the Trojan War for us offers a snapshot of one of the many events that precipitated this collapse, as a 10-year war would have to have weakened all the parties involved, regardless of the winner.

Just to be clear, Troy was at the time known to the Hittites as Wilusa, and to the Greek States Ilion or Ilios.

Located in what is now the farthest southeastern part of Turkey, known at the time as part of the LUWIAN territory, with its proximity to the Dardanelles, offered them an enviable location along these new trade routes that had begun to crisscross their known world.

The Luwian culture thrived in Bronze Age western Asia Minor. It has thus far been explored mainly by linguists, who learned about Luwian people through numerous documents from Hattuša, the capital of the Hittite civilization in central Asia Minor. Only a few excavations have thus far been conducted in formerly Luwian territories. Therefore, excavating archaeologists have not been taking Luwians into account in their reconstructions of the past. Once Aegean prehistory considers Western Asia Minor and its people, it becomes possible to develop a plausible explanation for the collapse of the Bronze Age cultures around the Eastern Mediterranean.

Basically, Troy was an important port, and was fought over by the Hittites and the Greek states who both wished control of the trade networks, and the quick access to the Black Sea that this location offered.

However, by approximately 1177 BCE, one final battle seems to have once and for all sealed the fate of the age, with Egypt driving back these hoards of Sea Peoples in one final battle they documented on one of their war stele. This battle would bring them to their knees, and never again would they wield the same power as they had enjoyed in that age of Heroes and legendary kings.

By Alexikoua – Own work, data taken from: Atlas of World History, Patrick Karl O’Brien, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 019521921X, 9780195219210, page 37., CC BY-SA 3.0

Now, for a long time scholars hypothesized that the Bronze Age collapse was caused by this nefarious group of marauders, often referred to in texts dating from the time as ‘The Sea Peoples’. It was believed it was this group of unknown raiders who were the ultimate cause for the collapse of all these powerful economies and trade networks.

Yet, were they just convenient fall guys?

With new archaeological techniques and tools, with new science bringing new facts to light, we may now look upon this time with fresh eyes. A more comprehensive understanding from a modern perspective is available, not to mention a new understanding of some dynamics at play, this theory of placing sole blame on some divergent group of foreigners for the plight of all these great empires, well, seems a weak scapegoat, at best.

By Seebeer at German Q52. – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons by Arcibel., Public Domain

Scholars, archaeologists and the like that focus primarily on this region of the near east, are now coming to understand that these ‘Sea People’ were in most cases in actual fact victims themselves of these crises that were rocking many areas across the Aegean, and that it was sanctuary they were seeking in most instances, and not war.

It would seem to be more likely the case that the collapse, in the end, was due to a perfect storm of events, then to any one event, or group, and the Sea Peoples themselves representing the multitudes of peoples that were displaced.

“But what factor, or combination of factors, may have caused the famine(s) in the Eastern Mediterranean during these decades remains uncertain. Elements that might be considered include war and plagues of insects, but climate change accompanied by drought is more likely to have turned a once-verdant land into an arid semidesert.”

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

So, by the middle decades of the 1100s BCE, all over the Aegean saw this influx of migrants from all over the Mediterranean, desperate for somewhere to live, might just have been one of many competing crisis to rock the region.

“Among the roots, tectonic instability and earthquakes, demographic imbalance between social groups, internal collapses, and technological innovations are commonly evoked. However, recent studies have mainly hypothesized about an impact of a centuries-long drought behind the decline. Drought may have hastened the fall of the Old World by sparking famine, invasions, and conflicts, leading to the political, economic, and cultural chaos termed ‘Late Bronze Age collapse’. | Drought and societal collapse 3200years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean: A review | by David Kaniewski, Guiot Joel, Elise Van Campo

The Sea Peoples themselves came from various places, one group probably as far as Cyprus, another couple were thought to be from around Troy, as well as peoples from other areas of the southeastern parts of Anatolia, such as Lukka, and a couple groups from Mycenae off modern day Greece, and beyond.

Tens of thousands of peoples, whole families on the move, flooding the shores across the Mediterranean.

Scholars tend to believe that this socioeconomic collapse was violent and culturally disruptive. Most of the coastal cities between Pylos and Gaza were destroyed, burned, and often left unoccupied, thereafter, putting an end to the elaborate network of international trade that ensured prosperity in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. The rural settlements that emerged have mainly persisted through adapted agropastoral activities and limited long-distance trade. At the dusk of this event, regional cultures began to be poorly documented, leading historians to allude to a dark age that lasted for 300 years.


Now, in the words of my favourite historian, Yale Professor Timothy Snyder… “history does not repeat, but it does instruct”… and so, there may be quite a bit we may learn from this time.

Especially in light of many circumstances in the last number of decades, with the threats brought by the many wars being fought across the Middle East, displacing massive groups of people, changing climates globally causing flooding and precipitating droughts, our reliance on global trade networks built on non-renewable resources, the holy worship some have for the ups and downs of the stock markets, and with the giant rift from unfettered capitalism has wedged between the wealthy and the poor, we may be just as susceptible to a complete systems collapse as happened in the Late Bronze Age.

These collapses are of course not new, certainly, as another major collapse happened after the fall of the Roman Empire, as most of Europe closed in on itself. A time referred to as the Dark Ages, lasting for about 600 years, from the middle of the 400s AD until about the middle of the 1000s AD when the Normans went out on a conquering rampage and ushered in the Middle Ages.

Much the same as how the peoples 3000 years ago across the Aegean would have been, unmoored, with no ruling elite class, isolated states in much smaller groups began to form. Communities formed in the aftermath were by nature more simple societies with more rural economies, as the mighty city states and empires were now almost completely gone, burnt to the ground, their seed was no more.

And one such group that formed out of the ashes of this collapse, were the Hebrews.

Who I believe they actually were, and how they came to be in the Levant will be perhaps a topic for another post, however for now I’ll call them a diverse group with a rather unique worship of only one god, who formed their own Kingdom within this power vacuum created in the absence of their oppressors.

And, thus, the age of Iron was born… and where did this happen? Well, we can thank the Hittites for its rise, and the Sea People themselves facilitated the spread of this new technology.

The Iron Age in the Ancient Near East is believed to have begun with the discovery of iron smelting and smithing techniques in Anatolia or the Caucasus in the late 2nd millennium BC (circa 1300 BC). From here it spread rapidly throughout the Near East as iron weapons replaced bronze weapons by the early 1st millennium BC. The use of iron weapons by the Hittites is believed to have been a major factor in the rapid rise of the Hittite Empire. Because the area in which iron technology first developed was near the Aegean, the technology propagated equally early into both Asia and Europe, aided by Hittite expansion. The Sea Peoples and the related Philistines are often associated with the introduction of iron technology into Asia, as are the Dorians with respect to Greece. It ought also be noted that the Assyrian Empire had trade contacts with the area in which iron technology was first developed at the time that it was developing.

One definite take away from the late Bronze Age collapse, is certainly the ingenuity of humans. As well, that even after such a profound series of crisis, that humanity adapts, that even cataclysmic events can be overcome, and that we are, genuinely greater in numbers.

We learned that even if the elite and the ruling class fall, that these communities of humanity band together, spread knowledge and wisdom, and even in the darkest times, good things may be born from those ashes.

“It isn’t all over; everything has not been invented; the human adventure is just beginning.”

Gene Roddenberry

FEATURED IMAGE: Kudurru (stele) of King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC): the king presents his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the Shamash and the star the goddess Ishtar. Kassite period, taken to Susa in the 12th century BC as war booty.
* Louvre Museum / Public domain

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