New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 2/3)

1024px-Metallurgical_diffusionYesterday we were discussing Bronze Age European/Mediterranean trade networks and civilizations. 

(Go to Part 3)

My suspicion is that these societies were more advanced and complex than we generally give them credit for, (especially the northern European ones) simply because we don’t have any written records from them and the archaeological trail is scanty.

We have amber, traded from the Baltic Sea down to Italy, north Africa, the Levant, and beyond; tin, mined in Cornwall, Spain, Brittany, and southern Germany, then traded all across Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East; and of course copper, which was mined all over.

In Egypt the bronze age was clearly glorious, but Greece and Spain also saw the rise of cities, palaces, art, and even aqueducts and sewers. Greece and Egypt had writing and were beginning to develop math (I don’t know much about the Spanish cities.)

1024px-Bronsealderens_sammenbruddAnd then, around 1200 BC, it all collapsed.

Within 50 years, almost every major city in the eastern Mediterranean was sacked, destroyed, conquered, or abandoned. The kingdoms of Mycenaen Greece, the Hittites of Syria and Anatolia,  and the New Kingdom of Egypt (and Canaan) all collapsed. The written language of Greece (“Linear B”) was completely forgotten and disappeared. The Hittite capital was burned, abandoned, and never rebuilt; Anatolia didn’t return to its former level of complexity for a thousand years. Babylon and Troy were sacked; Egypt was invaded by the Libyans.

Bronze_Age_CollapseAnd no one knows why.

The most proximate cause is the “Sea Peoples,” a motley assortment of sea-faring folks who suddenly show up in the local records (especially Egyptian) and conquer everything in sight. As Ramesses III recorded:

The [sea Peoples] made a conspiracy in their islands, All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off [ie. destroyed] at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”[34]

Who were the Sea People? Where did they come from? According to Wikipedia, they were:

TofG 191The most famous Sea People were the Philistines, who appear to have hailed originally from the Aegean before being defeated by the Egyptians and settled in the southern Levant, where they came into conflict with the Israelites. There’s fairly decent evidence for the Philistine connection, because we have written accounts about them from the Egyptians and the Hebrews, plus the archaeological remains of their cities, which are full of Greek pottery.

Most of the other potential identifications are based on little more than linguistic similarity–in other words, we don’t really have any idea where a lot of them came from.

In Greece, the invaders appear to have come by land, migrating from the north, not the sea.

One of the things I’ve noticed about migrations is that once they start, (for whatever reason,) they keep going. Suppose a famine hits Group A, so they flee the area and displace Group B. Group B pushes out Group C, who take to the seas and end up destroying towns hundreds or thousands of miles away. Events in Mongolia can reverberate into Poland; a sudden abundance of food and medical care in Africa ends with migrants in Sweden.

And in exciting, potentially related news, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a massive battle that took place in 1250 BC in, of all places, northern Germany:

Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists … have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived.

“If our hypothesis is correct that all of the finds belong to the same event, we’re dealing with a conflict of a scale hitherto completely unknown north of the Alps,” says dig co-director Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hannover. “There’s nothing to compare it to.” It may even be the earliest direct evidence—with weapons and warriors together—of a battle this size anywhere in the ancient world. …

In one spot, 1478 bones, among them 20 skulls, were packed into an area of just 12 square meters. Archaeologists think the bodies landed or were dumped in shallow ponds, where the motion of the water mixed up bones from different individuals. By counting specific, singular bones—skulls and femurs, for example—UG forensic anthropologists Ute Brinker and Annemarie Schramm identified a minimum of 130 individuals, almost all of them men, most between the ages of 20 and 30.

Tollense battlefield
Tollense battlefield

The number suggests the scale of the battle. “We have 130 people, minimum, and five horses. And we’ve only opened 450 square meters. That’s 10% of the find layer, at most, maybe just 3% or 4%,” says Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologist at MVDHP. “If we excavated the whole area, we might have 750 people. That’s incredible for the Bronze Age.” In what they admit are back-of-the-envelope estimates, he and Terberger argue that if one in five of the battle’s participants was killed and left on the battlefield, that could mean almost 4000 warriors took part in the fighting.

The article has some entertaining illustrations, so I urge you to take a look.

PeeneThe Tollense is a small river in north east Germany, near the Baltic Sea and fairly close to Poland. We have yet to find the remains of any bronze age cities, towns, or fortresses nearby, (the closest known settlement was 350 km away,) but somebody built a 120 meter wooden causeway across the valley.

Was the Tollense part of a major trade network the armies were fighting over? Or was this just the only road in the area? (Serbian Irish has a great post that lays out their position that the battle was actually an attack on a very large, heavily fortified trade caravan. Lots of interesting material in Serbian Irish’s post. [Their argument hinges on claims that there were women, children, and old people among the dead, which I have not seen reported elsewhere, but I also have not read the original papers the archaeologists published, so maybe Serbian Irish knows something I don’t.])

The Science article notes, hilariously, that prior to uncovering a bunch of skulls with arrowheads lodged in them and big, bashed-in holes, many archaeologists genuinely believed that real battles hadn’t occurred in the Bronze Age:

Before the 1990s, “for a long time we didn’t really believe in war in prehistory,” DAI’s Hansen says. The grave goods were explained as prestige objects or symbols of power rather than actual weapons. “Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Very few talked about warfare.”

Peaceful arrow inside of somebody's skull, Tollense
Peaceful arrow inside of somebody’s skull, Tollense

You know, those Bronze Age chieftains just collected swords for show, kind of like people who watch too much anime.

This line of thought got started, (as far as I can tell) after WWII, when archaeologists and anthropologists began promoting the idea that war and violence were modern, Western aberrations, and that primitive peoples were all peaceful, nature-loving paragons of gender equality. Much of the accumulated evidence for prehistoric human migrations was dismissed under the slogan, “pots, not people,” an exhortation to interpret the sudden diffusion of new pots and other cultural artifacts as just evidence of trade, not the movement of people. But as I noted before, it’s looking a lot more like “People, not pots.”

This was a pretty stupid line of thought, given that we can actually count the number of homicides committed by modern hunter-gatherers, and have abundant written records of extreme violence committed within the past few centuries by one tribe against the next, from cannibalism to attempted genocide. (Heck, within the last few decades.)

totally peaceful, non-violently bashed in with a hammer skull from Tollense battlefield
Skull non-violently bashed in with a hammer or bat

At any rate, the article discusses in some detail evidence that the soldiers who died in Tollense weren’t just some local brawlers, but were trained professionals, most likely part of a large army drawn from across Europe:

And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. … archaeologist Doug Price analyzed strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotopes in 20 teeth from Tollense. Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland. The other teeth came from farther afield, although Price can’t yet pin down exactly where.

Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe. … DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. …

(Now if only someone could test some Philistine DNA, so we can resolve this “Were they Greek or did they merely have Greek pots?” debate once and for all.)

Twenty-seven percent of the skeletons show signs of healed traumas from earlier fights, including three skulls with healed fractures. …

Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. … Body armor and shields emerged in northern Europe in the centuries just before the Tollense conflict … At Tollense, these bronze-wielding, mounted warriors might have been a sort of officer class, presiding over grunts bearing simpler weapons. …

And not long after Tollense, the scattered farmsteads of northern Europe gave way to concentrated, heavily fortified settlements, once seen only to the south.

This is basically a complete revolution in our understanding of the Bronze Age in northern Europe.

Late Bronze Age cultures of Europe: Lusatian (green), German Urnfield (Orange), and Nordic (Yellow.)
Late Bronze Age cultures of Europe: Lusatian (green), German Urnfield (Orange), and Nordic (Yellow.)

Tollense is located near the apex of three different cultures: the Lusatian (centered mainly on modern Poland;) the Urnfield Cultures throughout most of Germany, (these two were related, but Wikipedia says, “The central European Lusatian culture forms part of the Urnfield tradition, but continues into the Iron Age without a notable break;”) and the Nordic cultures of the northern coast.

Interestingly, the Lusatian culture (and the Urnfield Cultures in general) arose around 1300 BC, or about 50 years before the battle. They replaced the earlier Tumulus Culture, which had interred its dead in big burial mounds (tumuli,) and disappeared right around 1200 BC. The Lusatian and Urnfield Cultures cremated their dead. (In this case, the pots are literally full of people.)

Wikipedia says of the Lusatians:

Recreation of the Biskupin fort, Lusatian Culture
Recreation of the Biskupin fort, Lusatian Culture

Metal grave gifts are sparse, but there are numerous hoards (e.g., Kopaniewo, Pomerania) that contain rich metalwork, both bronze and gold (hoard of Eberswalde, Brandenburg). Graves containing moulds, like at Bataune, Saxony or tuyeres attest to the production of bronze tools and weapons at the village level. The ‘royal’ tomb of Seddin, Brandenburg, Germany, covered by a large earthen barrow, contained Mediterranean imports like bronze-vessels and glass beads. Cemeteries can be quite large and contain thousands of graves.

Well known settlements include Biskupin in Poland, and Buch near Berlin. There are both open villages and fortified settlements (burgwall or grod) on hilltops or in swampy areas. The ramparts were constructed of wooden boxes filled with soil or stones.

Of the Urnfield:

Fortified hilltop settlements become common in the Urnfield period. Often a steep spur was used, where only part of the circumference had to be fortified. Depending on the locally available materials, dry-stone walls, gridded timbers filled with stones or soil or plank and palisade type pfostenschlitzmauer fortifications were used. Other fortified settlements used rivers-bends and swampy areas.

At the hill fort of Hořovice near Beroun (CR), 50 ha were surrounded by a stone wall. Most settlements are much smaller. Metal working is concentrated in the fortified settlements. On the Runder Berg near Urach, Germany, 25 stone moulds have been found.

Hillforts are interpreted as central places. Some scholars see the emergence of hill forts as a sign of increased warfare. Most hillforts were abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age.

And of the Bronze Age Nordic Culture:

Even though Scandinavians joined the European Bronze Age cultures fairly late through trade, Scandinavian sites presents a rich and well-preserved legacy of bronze and gold objects. These valuable metals were all imported, primarily from Central Europe, but they were often crafted locally and the craftsmanship and metallurgy of the Nordic Bronze Age was of a high standard. The archaeological legacy also comprise locally crafted wool and wooden objects and there are many tumuli and rock carving sites from this period, but no written language existed in the Nordic countries during the Bronze Age. The rock carvings have been dated through comparison with depicted artifacts, for example bronze axes and swords. There are also numerous Nordic Stone Age rock carvings, those of northern Scandinavia mostly portray elk.

Thousands of rock carvings from this period depict ships, and the large stone burial monuments known as stone ships, suggest that ships and seafaring played an important role in the culture at large. The depicted ships, most likely represents sewn plank built canoes used for warfare, fishing and trade. These ship types may have their origin as far back as the neolithic period and they continue into the Pre-Roman Iron Age, as exemplified by the Hjortspring boat.[2]

Of course, it is quite likely that the tumulus-urnfield transition had nothing to do with the Libyans invading Egypt and the fall of Troy. But the evidence so far points to the possibility of a much wider, more generalized catastrophe, that either began in one area and then prompted a cascade of peoples to invade and conquer their neighbors in multiple directions, or that affected several areas all at once.

On Thursday we’ll discuss possible reasons behind the collapse. (Go back to Part 1)


11 thoughts on “New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 2/3)

  1. WWII? Marxist anthropology was describing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as utopian as early as Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, published in 1884. For doctrinaire Marxists, the birth of civilisation, marked by the arrival of monogamous marriage and private ownership of land for farming, was when everything went wrong. It’s their equivalent of the Fall.


  2. […] Part Two looks at the sudden and not well-explained collapse of Bronze Age civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BC. The “Sea Peoples” were the culprits. But where did they come from? She delves into some recent archeological evidence from Northern Germany (Tollense) of a battle of potentially Biblical proportions around 1250 BC. Humorous anecdote: […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s