So what caused the Bronze Age Collapse?
- Greek gods threw a party and forgot to invite the goddess of Discord.
- Volcanic eruption => famines => migration.
- Chariots, iron, and swords that hack.
- Systemic collapse.
I. Love and War
We are all familiar, of course, with the Homeric (and Vergilian) version of the Greek assault on Troy. Though Homer does not actually detail the war’s initial causes, nor its end, these parts of the tale are famous enough in their own right.
[Oh goodness, I just realized that I am assuming that everyone knows the story of the Trojan War. Let me know in the comments how much of the story you’re familiar with. :)]
By the time Homer composed his epics, the assault on Troy had fallen into the realm of legend; for the next 3,000 years, myths of the “golden age” of the late Greek Bronze Age dominated European art and culture.
By the 1800s, scholars assumed the war had never happened–and then Heinrich Schliemann managed to actually find Troy. Wikipedia further notes:
In the twentieth century scholars have attempted to draw conclusions based on Hittite and Egyptian texts that date to the time of the Trojan War. … Hittite archives, like the Tawagalawa letter mention of a kingdom of Ahhiyawa (Achaea, or Greece) that lies beyond the sea (that would be the Aegean) and controls Milliwanda, which is identified with Miletus. Also mentioned in this and other letters is the Assuwa confederation made of 22 cities and countries which included the city of Wilusa (Ilios or Ilium). The Milawata letter implies this city lies on the north of the Assuwa confederation, beyond the Seha river. While the identification of Wilusa with Ilium (that is, Troy) is always controversial, in the 1990s it gained majority acceptance. In the Alaksandu treaty (ca. 1280 BC) the king of the city is named Alaksandu, and Paris’s name in the Iliad (among other works) is Alexander. The Tawagalawa letter (dated ca. 1250 BC) which is addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa actually says:
- Now as we have come to an agreement on Wilusa over which we went to war…
Formerly under the Hittites, the Assuwa confederation defected after the battle of Kadesh between Egypt and the Hittites (ca. 1274 BC). In 1230 BC Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (ca. 1240–1210 BC) campaigned against this federation. Under Arnuwanda III (ca. 1210–1205 BC) the Hittites were forced to abandon the lands they controlled in the coast of the Aegean. It is possible that the Trojan War was a conflict between the king of Ahhiyawa and the Assuwa confederation. This view has been supported in that the entire war includes the landing in Mysia (and Telephus’ wounding), Achilles’s campaigns in the North Aegean and Telamonian Ajax’s campaigns in Thrace and Phrygia. Most of these regions were part of Assuwa. It has also been noted that there is great similarity between the names of the Sea Peoples, which at that time were raiding Egypt, as they are listed by Ramesses III and Merneptah, and of the allies of the Trojans.
Now someone needs to find a reference to Helen.
That said, the historical sack of Troy was a much smaller even than Homer recounts, and is certainly inadequate to explain the large-scale collapse that consumed the entire region (and possibly a good chunk of northern Europe, as well.
For that matter, the Greeks themselves were invaded and their own cities were sacked. Historians attribute this to the Dorians, a Greek-speaking tribe that invaded from somewhere up north. As Carl Blegen wrote:
“the telltale track of the Dorians must be recognized in the fire-scarred ruins of all the great palaces and the more important towns which … were blotted out at the end of Mycenaean IIIB.”
But archaeology isn’t always easy, and it isn’t totally clear that the Dorians actually existed:
“It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist. That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark. Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator – or, some would say, inventor.” — Cartledge
Somebody burned a bunch of Greek cities. We’re just not exactly sure who (or why.)
II. Farewell, Atlantis
One of the largest volcanic explosions in the past few thousand years happened round about 1500 BC on the island of Thera (aka Santorini) in the Mediterranean (potentially ejecting 4 times more material than Krakatoa.)
Unfortunately, we’re not sure exactly when Thera blew its top:
Archaeologists have traditionally placed it at approximately 1500 BCE. Radiocarbon dates, including analysis of an olive branch buried beneath a lava flow from the volcano which gave a date between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE (95% confidence interval), suggest an eruption date more than a century earlier than suggested by archaeologists. …
In 2012 one of the proponents of an archaeological date, Felix Höflmayer, argued that archaeological evidence could be consistent with a date as early as 1590 BCE, reducing the discrepancy to around fifty years. …
At Tell el Dab’a in Egypt, pumice found at this location has been dated to 1540 BCE… . Tree-ring data has shown that a large event interfering with normal tree growth in North America occurred during 1629–1628 (+-65 years) BCE. Evidence of a climatic event around 1628 BCE has been found in studies of growth depression of European oaks in Ireland and of Scotch pines in Sweden. …
A volcanic winter from an eruption in the late 17th century BCE has been claimed by some researchers to correlate with entries in Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. According to the Bamboo Annals, the collapse of the dynasty and the rise of the Shang dynasty, approximately dated to 1618 BCE, were accompanied by “yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals”.
The downside to the Thera Theory is that even if we use the latest dates, it’s still too early–by 2 or 300 years–to explain the Bronze Age Collapse. Widespread famines in some far-off place certainly could have triggered migrations that, three hundred years later, ended in the Mediterranean, but it seems more likely that widespread famines would have caused immediate collapse in the area right around the volcano.
Thera might have inspired Atlantis and certainly caused some destruction on Crete, but I think it’s a stretch to blame it for events some 2-400 years later. Unless someone comes up with a bunch of evidence for a more recent eruption, I think it’s an unlikely cause.
III. Faster, Cheaper, Better: a revolution in military technology
Three new military technologies “diffuse” through Europe right around the time of the Battle of Tollense and the Dorian Invasion: spoked-wheeled chariots, true swords, and cheap iron.
Chariots were invented out on the vast Eurasian plain around 2,000 BC, which sounds like a recipe for invasion if I ever heard one. They arrived in Anatolia and Egypt around 1500 BC, but didn’t make it to Greece and Germany until 1300 BC–just in time for an invading army to sweep through the Tollense valley or into Greece, driving a wave of displaced folks into the sea and across to Egypt.
According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Kadesh, fought by the Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II in 1274 BC, was “was probably the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving perhaps 5,000–6,000 chariots.” (Warfare on that scale between two of the biggest political entities in the region may have contributed on its own to general collapse.)
Were any chariots found in conjunction with the Tollense battlefield, or in local burials of the time?
Swords, I was amazed to discover, were invented around 1600 BC in the Aegean. Before the Bronze Age, people just didn’t have materials suitable for making long blades and had to content themselves with daggers or clubs. (Sometimes clubs studded with daggers.) A new variety of sword, the Naue II, appears around 1200 BC and quickly spreads around the Mediterranean–just in time for the collapse.
Early iron was, ironically, inferior to bronze. Steel will hold an excellent age, but primitive iron working did not, and early iron swords were inferior to bronze ones. But iron had several advantages over bronze: it was cheaper, required less fuel to work, and didn’t have to be mixed with tin imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
As a result of these technological developments:
Robert Drews argues that the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armor, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon, and javelins. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests “that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean”. For example, Homer uses “spears” as a virtual synonym for “warriors”.
Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of “running skirmishers” who could swarm and cut down a chariot army and would destabilize states based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.
I’m putting my money on this theory.
IV. Lean times
In the days of Atys, the son of Manes, there was a great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia … So the king determined to divide the nation in half … the one to stay, the other to leave the land. … the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader … they went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships … after sailing past many countries they came to Umbria … and called themselves … Tyrrhenians.
Connections to the Teresh of the Merneptah Stele, which also mentions shipments of grain to the Hittite Empire to relieve famine, are logically unavoidable. Many have made them, generally proposing a coalition of seagoing migrants from Anatolia and the islands seeking relief from scarcity. Tablet RS 18.38 from Ugarit also mentions grain to the Hittites, suggesting a long period of famine, connected further, in the full theory, to drought. Barry Weiss, using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern weather stations, showed that a drought of the kinds that persisted from January 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.
Anatolia appears to have been fairly hard-hit by the collapse, with many cities completely abandoned and some regions not regaining their former levels of complexity for a thousand years.
Alternatively, (or relatedly,) I’ve seen it suggested (though I don’t remember where) that deforestation caused by burning trees to make charcoal in order to forge bronze weapons had advanced to a point where the locals just ran out of trees. (See: Easter Island.) No trees=no cooking, no building, no ships, no chariots, no forging, pretty much nothing. (This, in turn, could have spurred the adoption of inferior but easier to make iron weapons.)
Famine in Anatolia or deforestation in parts of the Middle East would be unlikely, however, to have much effect on Tollense. (Of course, the Tollense battle may be no more than a coincidence.)
V. Diamondian Theory: General Systems Collapse
Systems collapse is what it sounds like: the theory that the systems just got too big, too unwieldy, and could no longer respond adequately to stresses like broken trade routes, famines, invasions, massive military spending, social unrest, deforestation, migration, etc., and so the system crumbled. I admit that this is a kind of “all of the above” (except for maybe the volcano.)
At any rate, whatever caused the collapse, it happened. The Dark Ages reigned, then the world recovered. The Greeks and then the Romans ruled; then Rome collapsed and the Dark Ages returned.
The Dark Ages will come again.
15 thoughts on “The Bronze Age Collapse (pt 3/3)”
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Here’s another theory:
I’ve just read an article which reminded me of your post (especially point IV). An excerpt: He, too, reports of famine deaths. “If it doesn’t rain soon, we are all going to leave.” But where will they go? “To the next kebele, to the city, across the sea to you in Europe. Someplace where there’s water and food.”
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“1177 BC” by Cline is a pretty great exploration of this topic. Been a few years, but IIRC, his thesis was essentially a combination of stressors (drought and earthquakes) and systems theory (the major civilizations’ elites were so co-dependent it created the possibility of a downward spiral).
This kind of feedback analysis strikes me as insightful. If an elite’s strategy is producing a surplus, they can reinvest that surplus into reinforcing their structures which can create more surplus, etc. If the context changes so that the same strategy yields losses, the elite either has to rapidly adjust their strategy or suddenly lose everything. Plus there’s a big “back the winner” psychological effect. Sorta like how it takes a while for the S&P to double but it can halve real quick.
Keep in mind that at Kadesh ~80% of the men were on foot, and chariotry was still an important arm centuries after the collapse (see Battle of Qarqar), so I don’t think anti-chariot skirmishers had much to do with it. Iron weapons could’ve been a big part of the context change just by reducing costs (therefore decentralizing violence) and hurting the tin-trade profits which fed the BA civs’ structure (even before the violence cut the networks).
Some questions that brings to mind:
-Do we know how the relative price of tin (in silver or gold, say) moved over this timeframe?
-Was the horse-trade also important?
I like your article. But I think it was the tin that was the catalyst.
Tin from Afghanistan had to be taken over the mountains, probably in carts or on the backs of humans or animals. While tin from Cornwall could be loaded onto ships and sent to countries around the Med, in much larger quantities and with much greater speed.
Tin was to the Bronze Age, as oil is to us today. It was a foundational economic resource that provided work, revenue and the means to enable a government to work and be productive. A sudden collapse of that market would have led to a loss of jobs, which would lead to migration, which would lead to decreased labor to farm, which would lead to hunger and famine, which would very naturally lead to civil unrest.
Add to that a prolonged cold snap (think Santorini’s volcano), you have the perfect climate (pun intended) for massive numbers of starving people migrating from Europe – south.
…just a thought.
Interesting thoughts! Thanks for the comment. :)
Swords do not give much of an advantage over other types of Bronze Age weapons. A spear is cheaper, easier to use and has better reach, which is why it had been the main infantry weapon until they were replaced by muskets (which also doubled as spears with the use of bayonets). Sword is more of a personal defense weapon, like a handgun.
Iron might have been cheaper than bronze, but it was still quite expensive, since it still required mining, purification and other processing. A sword is also one of the most expensive weapons you can make out of any given type of metal. Because it requires a bigger lump of it to begin with, and because swords have always been difficult to make. A good sword must combine 2 conflicting requirements: a hard edge and a flexible structure. Blacksmiths had to use a variety of methods and tricks to resolve these conflicting requirements. The laborious process of making a katana wasn’t something Japanese blacksmiths did for fun, their swords wouldn’t be any good without it. The western blacksmiths stopped doing these kinds of tricks when they started working with higher quality steel that could only be made by melting iron (the Japanese didn’t have iron ore, they only had iron sand, hence lower quality steel). Iron melts at 1600 degrees versus 1000 degrees for bronze, btw.
Swords are also very difficult to use in combat. They require years of training to be effective. Blade alignment is one thing to worry about. A blade will just bounce off if it doesn’t hit the target at the right angle. A sword is not good for hacking, it doesn’t have enough weight for that. It’s only good for slashing and sometimes thrusting. If you don’t have the right training, you are at risk of hurting yourself when trying to use a sword.
So it wasn’t at all the case that swords “democratized” violence, like kalashnikovs of Antiquity. On the contrary, you had to be a professional warrior to use one, and be of high status to be able to afford one. And I don’t think they changed anything in military tech. They were more of a sign of the rise of a new type of ruling elite: the professional military class (plunder-cracy, as I’d like to call it).
Another point. Regarding the “peaceful Bronze Age”. The way I got it is that the scientists thought of the Bronze Age as relatively peaceful because there is simply far far fewer historical and archeological signs of any carnage. So if large scale organized violence did happen in the Bronze Age, it still was of significantly lesser intensity and less common than in the Iron Age. Or at least it seems this way. The battle of 1250 BC wasn’t necessarily typical of the Bronze Age. It could be more of a taste of things to come.
Interesting points. Thank you. Yes, I agree that the relatively small point on the tip of a wooden stick (spear) is easier and cheaper to make. Good swords were luxury items, like the expensive samurai swords still made in Japan.
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