Bronze Age Detective Work

What historians now view as the “Bronze Age” was a period of about two thousands years of civilization and human cultural and social development among a number of long-established kingdoms in the Middle East. With Egypt as the wealthy and ancient anchor, kingdoms with names that are familiar to those who have read the Old Testament of the Bible or Homeric poems–the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Trojans, the Philistines, the Canaanites, and a host of other “ites”–were thriving societies. Writing had been developed and was the accepted way to record events and send messages, cuneiform script was the lingua franca of the day, artisans plied their trades, commerce among different cultures spread different goods from different places across across the Fertile Crescent, and tin–along with copper, a key ingredient in smelting the bronze that was the principal metal used in making swords, chariots, and other key items–was a highly valued substance.

But at some point between 1200 B.C. and 1150 B.C., most of these ancient kingdoms that had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years suddenly crumbled, never to rise again. What happened?

I recently finished 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline, an interesting volume that tries to answer that question. And the ultimate answer is: we just don’t know for sure. Archaeological finds and digs give us lots of information about some of the Bronze Age civilizations. Clay tablets with cuneiform script tell us that kings of different kingdoms communicated with each other, provide information about commerce and issues like famines, and present the victors’ views of conflicts and invasions. The discovery of sunken Bronze Age ships in the Mediterranean Sea shows that trade was occurring between different kingdoms, and diggings that have uncovered objects that must have been imported from faraway places show us how extensive that interaction must have been. Telltale signs, such as tilted walls that indicate earthquakes, or layers of ash that show that a city has been burned to the ground, also provide clues. But the reality is that no one knows for sure.

Cline’s ultimate conclusion is that prior scholarship that blames “the Sea Peoples” for the widespread series of collapses is too simplistic. The “Sea Peoples” were a group identified by hieroglyphics on Egyptian artifacts that boasted of Pharaoh Ramses III’s victory over them, after the “Sea Peoples” had purportedly toppled other ancient kingdoms. The “Sea Peoples” are part of the mystery surrounding the collapses; no one knows who the “Sea Peoples” were, or precisely where they came from. They clearly played a role in the fall of civilizations, but Cline’s conclusion is that they were likely one of a series of cascading factors–that also included earthquakes, changing climate conditions that produced drought and famine, weak kings leading weakening kingdoms, and internal rebellions–that simply produced too much pressure for the ancient civilizations to bear. So they collapsed, and the Hittites, and the Assyrians, and other kingdoms fell into the historical dustbin forever.

What’s interesting about a book like this one is that much of it is speculation. Archaeologists are like historical detectives, finding clues and trying to piece together a coherent narrative, but with only fragments to draw upon, absolute certainty is impossible, and educated guesswork necessarily has to fill in the gaps. We’ll likely never know for sure what happened to bring the Bronze Age to an abrupt and deadly close, unless and until time travel is invented–but it’s fascinating to speculate about it.

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