Ancient History & Civilisation

image CHAPTER FIVE image



We are now finally in a position to attempt to solve our mystery, by pulling together all of the different strands of evidence and the clues that are available, so that we may determine why the stable international system of the Late Bronze Age suddenly collapsed after surviving for centuries. However, we must come to this with an open mind and employ “the scientific use of the imagination,” as the immortal Sherlock Holmes once said, for “we must balance probabilities and choose the most likely.”1

To begin with, it will be apparent by now that the Sea Peoples and the so-called Collapse or Catastrophe at the end of the Late Bronze Age are both topics that have been much discussed by scholars over the course of the past century, and that they are linked more often than not in such discussions. This was especially true during the 1980s and 1990s, when Nancy Sandars published the revised edition of her book, simply called The Sea Peoples, in 1985 and Robert Drews published his book The End of the Bronze Agein 1993. There were also at least two academic conferences or seminars specifically devoted to these topics, held in 1992 and 1997, and many other books, theses, and conferences were tangentially related.2 However, as noted at the beginning of this volume, a wealth of new data has become available in the past few decades, which need to be considered in our evolving understanding of both the Sea Peoples and the complex forces that brought to a close the era of magnificent civilizations that we have been discussing.3

We need to acknowledge first and foremost, as frequently noted in the preceding pages, that it is not always clear who, or what, caused the destruction of the Late Bronze Age cities, kingdoms, and empires of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. The destruction of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos, ca. 1180 BC, is an excellent example, as one scholar has recently acknowledged: “Some have suggested that the agents of this calamity were invaders from outside the kingdom; others that the people of Pylos themselves revolted against their king. The precise causes remain undetermined.”4

Second, we need to admit that there is currently no scholarly consensus as to the cause or causes of the collapse of these multiple interconnected societies just over three thousand years ago; culprits recently blamed by scholars include “attacks by foreign enemies, social uprising, natural catastrophes, systems collapse, and changes in warfare.”5 It is therefore worth our time to reconsider, as scholars have done for approximately the past eighty years, what the possible causes might be. In so doing, however, we should objectively consider the available evidence that supports or fails to support each of the hypothetical possibilities.


For instance, the idea that earthquakes caused, or might have contributed to, the destruction of some of the Late Bronze Age cities has been around since the days of Claude Schaeffer, the original excavator of Ugarit. He thought that an earthquake caused the final destruction of the city, for he found visible indications that an earthquake had rocked the city in the distant past. Photographs from Schaeffer’s excavations, for example, show long stone walls knocked off kilter, which is one of the hallmarks of earthquake damage.6

However, current thinking on the subject puts the date of this earthquake at Ugarit at 1250 BC or a bit thereafter. Moreover, because there are signs of restoration activities in the decades between the earthquake and the final demise of the city, it is now thought that the quake only damaged the city and did not completely destroy it.7

It is, admittedly, frequently difficult to distinguish between a city destroyed by an earthquake and a city destroyed by humans and warfare. However, there are several markers that characterize a destructive earthquake and which can be noted by archaeologists during excavations. These include collapsed, patched, or reinforced walls; crushed skeletons, or bodies found lying under fallen debris; toppled columns lying parallel to one another; slipped keystones in archways and doorways; and walls leaning at impossible angles or offset from their original position.8 In contrast, a city destroyed during warfare will usually have weapons of various sorts within the destruction debris. At the site of Aphek, in Israel, for example, which was destroyed toward the end of the thirteenth century BC, the excavators found arrowheads stuck in the walls of the buildings, just as there are in Troy VIIA.9

Thanks to recent research by archaeoseismologists, it is now clear that Greece, as well as much of the rest of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, was struck by a series of earthquakes, beginning about 1225 BC and lasting for as long as fifty years, until about 1175 BC. The earthquake at Ugarit identified and described by Schaeffer was not an isolated event; it was just one of many such quakes that occurred during this time period. Such a series of earthquakes in antiquity is now known as an “earthquake storm,” in which a seismic fault keeps “unzipping” by unleashing a series of earthquakes over years or decades until all the pressure along the fault line has been released.10

In the Aegean, earthquakes probably struck during this time period at Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea, Thebes, Pylos, Kynos, Lefkandi, the Menelaion, Kastanas in Thessaly, Korakou, Profitis Elias, and Gla. In the Eastern Mediterranean, earthquake damage dating to this period is also visible at numerous sites, including Troy, Karaoglun, and Hattusa in Anatolia; Ugarit, Megiddo, Ashdod, and Akko in the Levant; and Enkomi on Cyprus.11

And, just as people are killed during the collapse of buildings and are buried in the rubble when an earthquake hits a populated area today, so too at least nineteen bodies of people killed in these ancient earthquakes have been found during excavations at the devastated Late Bronze Age cities. At Mycenae, for example, the skeletons of three adults and a child were found in the basement of a house two hundred meters north of the citadel, where they had been crushed beneath fallen stones during an earthquake. Similarly, in a house built on the west slope of the ridge north of the Treasury of Atreus, the skeleton of a middle-aged woman whose skull had been crushed by a falling stone was found in the doorway between the main room and the front room. At Tiryns, the skeletons of a woman and a child were found buried by the collapsed walls of Building X inside the Acropolis; two other human skeletons were found near the fortification walls, where they had been killed and then covered by debris falling from the walls. Similarly, at nearby Midea, other skeletons were found, including one of a young girl in a room near the East Gate, whose skull and backbone were smashed under fallen stones.12

However, we must concede that although these earthquakes undoubtedly caused severe damage, it is unlikely that they alone were sufficient to cause a complete collapse of society, especially since some of the sites were clearly reoccupied and at least partially rebuilt afterward. Such was the case at Mycenae and Tiryns, for example, although they never again functioned at the level that they had achieved prior to the destruction.13 Thus, we must look elsewhere for a different, or perhaps complementary, explanation for the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.


One suggestion favored by scholars, especially those seeking to explain not only the end of the Late Bronze Age but also why the Sea Peoples may have begun their migrations, is climate change, particularly in the form of drought, resulting in famine. Although theories formulated by archaeologists frequently reflect the era, decade, or even the year in which they are publishing, such hypotheses regarding the effects of possible climate change at the end of the second millennium BC predate by several decades our current preoccupation with climate change.

For example, drought was long the favored explanation of earlier scholars for the movement of the Sea Peoples out of the regions of the Western Mediterranean and into the lands to the east. They postulated that a drought in northern Europe had pressured the population to migrate down into the Mediterranean region, where they displaced the inhabitants of Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy, and perhaps those in the Aegean as well. If this occurred, it might have initiated a chain reaction that culminated in the movement of peoples far away in the Eastern Mediterranean. For examples of droughts initiating large-scale human migrations, one need only look back to the United States of the 1930s and the drought that caused the infamous “Dust Bowl,” which led to a huge migration of families from Oklahoma and Texas to California.

This type of migration is frequently referred to as “push-pull,” with negative conditions in the home area pushing the inhabitants out and positive conditions in the area of destination beckoning or pulling the new migrants in that direction. To these, as the British archaeologist Guy Middleton has pointed out, may be added the categories of “stay” and “ability”: the factors contributing to the desire to stay at home after all, and the factors regarding the ability to actually migrate, including knowledge of sailing, passable routes, and so on.14

Perhaps the most famous of the arguments in favor of a drought as an influential factor in the demise of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean was put forth fully fifty years ago, in the mid-1960s, by Rhys Carpenter, a professor of archaeology at Bryn Mawr College. He published a very short but extremely influential book in which he argued that the Mycenaean civilization had been brought down by a prolonged drought that had severely affected the Mediterranean and Aegean regions. He based his arguments on what appeared to be a rather dramatic drop in population on mainland Greece following the end of the Bronze Age.15

However, subsequent archaeological surveys and excavations have shown that the population decrease was not nearly as dramatic as Carpenter had thought. Instead, there was a shift in population to other areas of Greece during the Iron Age, which may have had little to do with a possible drought. And so Carpenter’s ingenious theory has now fallen by the wayside, although perhaps it should be resurrected in light of new data (see below).16

Leaving drought aside for the moment, and turning to famine, we may note that scholars have long pointed to the written texts that speak plainly of famines and the need for grain in the Hittite Empire and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age.17 They have also correctly noted that the occurrence of famine in this region was not unique to the final years of the Late Bronze Age.

For example, decades earlier, during the mid-thirteenth century BC, a Hittite queen wrote to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, stating, “I have no grain in my lands.” Soon thereafter, probably in a related move, the Hittites sent a trade embassy to Egypt in order to procure barley and wheat for shipment back to Anatolia.18 An inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, in which he states that he had “caused grain to be taken in ships, to keep alive this land of Hatti,” further confirms famine in the land of the Hittites toward the end of the thirteenth century BC.19 Additional correspondence sent from the Hittite capital city attests to the ongoing crisis during the following decades, including one letter in which the writer rhetorically asks, “Do you not know that there was a famine in the midst of my lands?”20

Some of the letters found at Ugarit are concerned with the immediate shipment of large quantities of grain to the Hittites. One missive sent from the Hittite king to the king of Ugarit is concerned specifically with a shipment of two thousand units of barley (or simply grain). The Hittite king ends his letter dramatically, stating, “It is a matter of life or death!”21 Another letter is similarly concerned with the shipment of grain, but it also requests that many boats be sent as well. This led the original excavators to hypothesize that it was a reaction to the incursions of the Sea Peoples, which it may or may not be.22 Even the last king of Ugarit, Ammurapi, received several letters from the Hittite king Suppiluliuma II in the early twelfth century BC, including one chastising him for being late in sending a much-needed shipment of food to the Hittite homeland sometime in the years just before the final destructions.23

Itamar Singer of Tel Aviv University was convinced that the extent of famine during the last years of the thirteenth and the early decades of the twelfth century BC was unprecedented, and that it affected far more areas than simply Anatolia. In his estimation, the evidence, both textual and archaeological, indicates that “climatological cataclysms affected the entire eastern Mediterranean region towards the end of the second millennium BCE.”24 He may well have been correct, for one of the letters found in the House of Urtenu at Ugarit in northern Syria refers to a famine ravaging the city of Emar in inland Syria at the time that it was destroyed in 1185 BC. The relevant lines in this letter, apparently sent by someone from Urtenu’s commercial firm stationed in that city, read: “There is famine in your [i.e., our] house; we will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.”25

Even Ugarit itself seems not to have been immune, for a letter from Merneptah found in the House of Urtenu specifically mentions “consignments of grain sent from Egypt to relieve the famine in Ugarit,”26 and one king of Ugarit wrote to an unidentified, but probably royal and senior, correspondent, saying, “(Here) with me, plenty (has become) famine.”27 There is also a text from the king of Tyre, located in the coastal area of what is now Lebanon, to the king of Ugarit. It informs the Ugaritic king that his ship, which was returning from Egypt loaded with grain, had been caught in a storm: “Your ship that you sent to Egypt, died [was wrecked] in a mighty storm close to Tyre. It was recovered and the salvage master [or captain] took all the grain from their jars. But I have taken all their grain, all their people, and all their belongings from the salvage master [or captain], and I have returned (it all) to them. And (now) your ship is being taken care of in Akko, stripped.” In other words, the ship had either sought refuge or been successfully salvaged. Either way, the crew and the grain it carried were safe and awaiting the command of the Ugaritic king.28The ship itself, it seems, was berthed in the port city of Akko, where today one can sit in a pleasant seaside restaurant and imagine the bustle of activities that took place there more than three thousand years ago.

But what factor, or combinations 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. However, until recently, the Ugaritic and other Eastern Mediterranean textual documents containing reports of famine provided the only potential evidence for climate change or drought, and even that was indirect. As a result, the issue has been debated on and off by scholars for decades.29

The topic has recently been given new impetus, though, as a result of findings published by an international team of scholars, including David Kaniewski and Elise Van Campo of the Université de Toulouse in France and Harvey Weiss of Yale University, who suggest that they may have direct scientific evidence for climate change and drought in the Mediterranean region at the end of the thirteenth and into the beginning of the twelfth century BC. Their research, which first suggested that the end of the Early Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, toward the end of the third millennium BC, might have been caused by climate change, has now expanded to propose that the same thing may have occurred at the end of the Late Bronze Age as well.30

Using data from the site of Tell Tweini (ancient Gibala) in north Syria, the team noted that there may have been “climate instability and a severe drought episode” in the region at the end of the second millennium BC.31 In particular, they studied pollen retrieved from alluvial deposits near the site, which suggest that “drier climatic conditions occurred in the Mediterranean belt of Syria from the late 13th/early 12th centuries BC to the 9th century BC.”32

Kaniewski’s team has now also published additional evidence of a probable drought on Cyprus at this same time, using pollen analysis from the lagoon system known as the Larnaca Salt Lake Complex, located by the site of Hala Sultan Tekke.33 Their data suggest that “major environmental changes” took place in this area during the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, that is, during the period from 1200 to 850 BC. At this time, the area around Hala Sultan Tekke, which had been a major Cypriot port earlier in the Late Bronze Age, “turned into a drier landscape [and] the precipitation and groundwater probably became insufficient to maintain sustainable agriculture in this place.”34

If Kaniewski and his colleagues are correct, they have retrieved the direct scientific evidence that scholars have been seeking for a drought that may have contributed to the end of the Late Bronze Age. In fact, they conclude that the data from both coastal Syria and coastal Cyprus strongly suggest “that the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event 3200 years ago. This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.”35

Working independently, Brandon Drake of the University of New Mexico has provided additional scientific data to add to those of Kaniewski and his team. Publishing in the Journal of Archaeological Science, he cites three additional lines of evidence that all support the view that the Early Iron Age was more arid than the preceding Bronze Age. First, oxygen-isotope data from mineral deposits (speleothems) within Soreq Cave in northern Israel indicate that there was a low annual precipitation during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Second, stable carbon isotope data in pollen cores from Lake Voulkaria in western Greece show that plants were adapting to arid environments at this time. Third, sediment cores from the Mediterranean reveal that there was a drop in the temperature of the surface of the sea, which in turn would have caused a reduction in precipitation on land (by reducing the temperature differential between land and sea).36 He notes that while it “is difficult to directly identify a point in time when the climate grew more arid,” the change most likely occurred before 1250–1197 BC,37 which is precisely the time period under discussion here.

He notes also not only that there was a sharp increase in Northern Hemisphere temperatures immediately before the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial centers, possibly causing droughts, but that there was a sharp decrease in temperature during the abandonment of these centers, meaning that it first got hotter and then suddenly colder, resulting in “cooler, more arid conditions during the Greek Dark Ages.” As Drake says, these climatic changes, including a decline in the surface temperature of the Mediterranean Sea before 1190 BC that resulted in less rainfall (or snow), could have dramatically affected the palatial centers, especially those that were dependent upon high levels of agricultural productivity, such as in Mycenaean Greece.38

Israel Finkelstein and Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University, in conjunction with Thomas Litt at the University of Bonn in Germany, have now added additional data to the picture. They note that fossil pollen particles from a twenty-meter-long core drilled through sediments at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee also indicate a period of severe drought beginning ca. 1250 BC in the southern Levant. A second core drilled on the western shore of the Dead Sea provided similar results, but the two cores also indicate that the drought in this region may have ended already by ca. 1100 BC, thereby allowing life to resume in the region, albeit perhaps with new peoples settling down.39

Nevertheless, exciting as these findings are, at this point we must also acknowledge that droughts have been frequent in this region throughout history, and that they have not always caused civilizations to collapse. Again it would seem that, on their own, climate change, drought, and famines, even if they “influenced social tensions, and eventually led to competition for limited resources,” are not enough to have caused the end of the Late Bronze Age without other mitigating factors having been involved, as Drake is careful to point out.40


Some scholars have suggested that internal rebellions may have contributed to the turmoil at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Such revolts could have been triggered by famine, whether caused by drought or otherwise, or earthquakes or other natural disasters, or even a cutting of the international trade routes, any and all of which could have dramatically impacted the economy in the affected areas and led dissatisfied peasants or lower classes to rebel against the ruling class, in a revolution akin to that in 1917 czarist Russia.41

Such a scenario might be invoked to explain the destruction seen, for instance, at Hazor in Canaan, where there is no evidence for an earthquake, nor is there specific evidence for warfare or invaders. Although Yadin and Ben-Tor, two of the primary excavators of the site, have both suggested a destruction by warfare, probably at the hands of the Israelites, the other codirector of the current excavations, Sharon Zuckerman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has recently suggested that the destruction of Hazor Stratum IA, dating somewhere between 1230 and the early decades of the twelfth century BC, was caused by an internal rebellion of the city’s inhabitants, rather than an invasion by external peoples. As she states simply, “there is no archaeological evidence of warfare, such as human victims or weapons, anywhere in the site … the view of the final destruction of the LBA city of Hazor as a sudden unexpected attack on a strong flourishing kingdom does not concur with the archaeological evidence.”42 She suggests instead that “mounting internal conflicts and gradual decline, culminating in the final assault on the major political and religious foci of the city’s elite, provides the most plausible alternative framework for the explanation of the destruction and abandonment of Hazor.”43

Although there is no doubting the destructions observable at the various Mycenaean palatial centers and Canaanite cities, there is, quite frankly, no way to tell whether revolting peasants were responsible. It thus remains a plausible, but unproven, hypothesis. And again, many civilizations have successfully survived internal rebellions, often even flourishing under a new regime. Thus, on its own, the hypothesis of internal rebellions is not enough to account for the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.


Among events that could have led to an internal rebellion, we have just glimpsed the specter of outside invaders cutting the international trade routes and upsetting fragile economies that might have been overly dependent upon foreign raw materials. Carol Bell’s comparison of the strategic importance of tin in the Bronze Age to that of crude oil in today’s world might be particularly apt in this hypothetical situation.44

However, even if an internal rebellion were not the outcome, the cutting of the trade routes could have had a severe, and immediate, impact upon Mycenaean kingdoms such as Pylos, Tiryns, and Mycenae, which needed to import both the copper and the tin needed to produce bronze, and which seem to have imported substantial quantities of additional raw materials as well, including gold, ivory, glass, ebony wood, and the terebinth resin used in making perfume. While natural disasters such as earthquakes could cause a temporary disruption in trade, potentially leading to higher prices and perhaps to what we today would call inflation, more permanent disruptions would more likely have been the result of outside invaders targeting the affected areas. However, who would these invaders have been? Or is this where we invoke the Sea Peoples?

Rather than the Sea Peoples, the ancient Greeks—ranging from historians like Herodotus and Thucydides in fifth-century BC Athens to the much-later traveler Pausanias—believed that a group known as the Dorians had invaded from the north at the end of the Bronze Age, thereby initiating the Iron Age.45 This concept was once much discussed by archaeologists and ancient historians of the Bronze Age Aegean; among their considerations was a new type of pottery called “Handmade Burnished Ware” or “Barbarian Ware.” However, in recent decades it has become clear that there was no such invasion from the north at this time and no reason to accept the idea of a “Dorian Invasion” bringing the Mycenaean civilization to an end. Despite the traditions of the later classical Greeks, it is clear that the Dorians had nothing to do with the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age and entered Greece only long after those events had transpired.46

Moreover, recent studies now indicate that even during the decline of the Mycenaean world and the early years of the succeeding Iron Age, mainland Greece may still have retained its trade connections to the Eastern Mediterranean. These connections, however, were probably no longer under the control of the elite classes who had dwelt in the Bronze Age palaces.47

In northern Syria, on the other hand, we have numerous documents attesting to the fact that maritime invaders attacked Ugarit during this time period. Although we have little firm evidence for the origins of these marauders, we cannot dismiss the possibility that they included the Sea Peoples. In addition, scholars have recently pointed out that many of the city-states in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Ugarit in particular, may have been hard-hit by the collapse of the international trade routes, which would have been vulnerable to depredations by maritime marauders.

Itamar Singer, for instance, has suggested that Ugarit’s downfall may have been due to “the sudden collapse of the traditional structures of international trade, which were the lifeblood of Ugarit’s booming economy in the Bronze Age.” Christopher Monroe of Cornell University has put this into a larger context, pointing out that the wealthiest city-states in the Eastern Mediterranean were the hardest-hit by the events taking place during the twelfth century BC, since they were not only the most attractive targets for the invaders but also the most dependent on the international trade network. He suggests that dependence, or perhaps overdependence, on capitalist enterprise, and specifically long-distance trade, may have contributed to the economic instability seen at the end of the Late Bronze Age.48

However, we should not overlook the fact that Ugarit would have been a tempting target for both external invaders and homegrown pirates, as well as other possible groups. In this regard, we should consider again the letter from the Southern Archive, found in Court V of the palace in Ugarit (but not within a kiln), which mentions seven enemy ships that had been causing havoc in the Ugaritic lands. Whether or not these particular ships had anything to do with the final destruction of Ugarit, such enemy ships would have disrupted the international trade upon which Ugarit was vitally dependent.

When such dramatic situations occur today, it seems that everyone has a piece of advice to give. Things were no different back then, during the Late Bronze Age. One letter found at Ugarit, possibly sent by the Hittite viceroy of Carchemish, gives the Ugarit king advice on how to deal with such enemy ships. He begins, “You have written to me: ‘Ships of the enemy have been seen at sea!’ ” and then advises: “Well, you must remain firm. Indeed, for your part, where are your troops, your chariots stationed? Are they not stationed near you? … Surround your cities with walls. Bring (your) infantry and chariotry into (them). Be on the lookout for the enemy and make yourself very strong!”49

Another letter, found in the House of Rapanu and sent by a man named Eshuwara who was the senior governor of Cyprus, is undoubtedly related. In this letter, the governor says that he is not responsible for any damage done to Ugarit or its territory by the ships, especially since it is—he claims—Ugarit’s own ships and men who are committing the atrocities, and that Ugarit should be prepared to defend itself: “As for the matter concerning those enemies: (it was) the people from your country (and) your own ships (who) did this! And (it was) the people from your country (who) committed these transgressions(s) … I am writing to inform you and protect you. Be aware!” He then adds that there are twenty enemy ships, but that they have gone off in an unknown direction.50

Finally, a letter in the Urtenu archive from an official in Carchemish, located in inland northern Syria, states that the king of Carchemish was on his way from Hittite territory to Ugarit with reinforcements, and that the various people named in the letter, including Urtenu and the city elders, should try to hold out until they arrived.51 It is unlikely that they arrived in time. If they did, they were of little use, for an additional, private letter usually thought to be one of the last communications from Ugarit describes an alarming situation: “When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!”52

As noted above, the excavators of Ugarit report that the city was burned, with a destruction level reaching two meters high in some places, and that numerous arrowheads were found scattered throughout the ruins.53 There were also a number of hoards found buried in the city; some contained precious gold and bronze items, including figurines, weapons, and tools, some of them inscribed. All appear to have been items hidden just before the destruction took place; their owners never returned to retrieve them.54 However, even a severe and complete destruction of the city does not explain why the survivors did not rebuild, unless there were no survivors.

Rather than complete annihilation, it may be the cutting of the trade routes, and the collapse of the international trading system as a whole, that are the most logical and complete explanations as to why Ugarit was never reoccupied after its destruction. In the words of one scholar, “The fact that Ugarit never rose from its ashes, as did other LBA cities of the Levant which suffered a similar fate, must have more substantial grounds than the destruction inflicted upon the city.”55

However, there is a counterargument to this suggestion. Ugarit’s international connections apparently continued right up until the sudden end of the city, for there is a letter from the king of Beirut sent to an Ugaritic official (the prefect) that arrived after the king of Ugarit had already fled the city.56 In other words, Ugarit was destroyed by invaders and was never rebuilt, despite the fact that the international trade connections were at least partially if not still completely intact at the time of destruction.

In fact, what jumps out from the materials in the Rapanu and Urtenu archives is the tremendous amount of international interconnection that apparently still existed in the Eastern Mediterranean even at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Moreover, it is clear from the few texts published from the Urtenu archive that these international connections continued right up until almost the last moment before Ugarit’s destruction. This seems to be a clear indication that the end was probably sudden, rather than a gradual decline after trade routes had been cut or because of drought and famine, and that Ugarit specifically was destroyed by invaders, regardless of whether these forces had also cut the international trade routes.


There is one other point to be considered, which has been suggested relatively recently and may well be a reflection of current thinking about the role of decentralization in today’s world.

In an article published in 1998, Susan Sherratt, now at the University of Sheffield, concluded that the Sea Peoples represent the final step in the replacement of the old centralized politico-economic systems present in the Bronze Age with the new decentralized economic systems of the Iron Age—that is, the change from kingdoms and empires that controlled the international trade to smaller city-states and individual entrepreneurs who were in business for themselves. She suggested that the Sea Peoples can “usefully be seen as a structural phenomenon, a product of the natural evolution and expansion of international trade in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium, which carried within it the seeds of the subversion of the palace-based command economies which had initiated such trade in the first place.”57

Thus, while she concedes that the international trade routes might have collapsed, and that at least some of the Sea Peoples may have been migratory invaders, she ultimately concludes that it does not really matter where the Sea Peoples came from, or even who they were or what they did. Far more important is the sociopolitical and economic change that they represent, from a predominantly palatial-controlled economy to one in which private merchants and smaller entities had considerably more economic freedom.58

Although Sherratt’s argument is elegantly stated, other scholars had earlier made similar suggestions. For example, Klaus Kilian, excavator of Tiryns, once wrote: “After the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, when ‘private’ economy had been established in Greece, contacts continued with foreign countries. The well-organized palatial system was succeeded by smaller local reigns, certainly less powerful in their economic expansion.”59

Michal Artzy, of the University of Haifa, even gave a name to some of the private merchants envisioned by Sherratt, dubbing them “Nomads of the Sea.” She suggested that they had been active as intermediaries who carried out much of the maritime trade during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC.60

However, more recent studies have taken issue with the type of transitional worldview proposed by Sherratt. Carol Bell, for instance, respectfully disagrees, saying: “It is simplistic … to view the change between the LBA and the Iron Age as the replacement of palace administered exchange with entrepreneurial trade. A wholesale replacement of one paradigm for another is not a good explanation for this change and restructuring.”61

While there is no question that privatization may have begun as a by-product of palatial trade, it is not at all clear that this privatization then ultimately undermined the very economy from which it had come.62 At Ugarit, for example, scholars have pointed out that even though the city was clearly burned and abandoned, there is no evidence either in the texts found at the site or in the remains themselves that the destruction and collapse had been caused by decentralized entrepreneurs undermining the state and its control of international trade.63

In fact, combining textual observations with the fact that Ugarit was clearly destroyed by fire, and that there are weapons in the debris, we may safely reiterate that although there may have been the seeds of decentralization at Ugarit, warfare and fighting almost certainly caused the final destruction, with external invaders as the likely culprits. This is a far different scenario from that envisioned by Sherratt and her like-minded colleagues. Whether these invaders were the Sea Peoples is uncertain, however, although it is intriguing that one of the texts at Ugarit specifically mentions the Shikila/Shekelesh, known from the Sea Peoples inscriptions of Merneptah and Ramses III.

In any event, even if decentralization and private individual merchants were an issue, it seems unlikely that they caused the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, at least on their own. Instead of accepting the idea that private merchants and their enterprises undermined the Bronze Age economy, perhaps we should consider the alternative suggestion that they simply emerged out of the chaos of the collapse, as was suggested by James Muhly of the University of Pennsylvania twenty years ago. He saw the twelfth century BC not as a world dominated by “sea raiders, pirates, and freebooting mercenaries,” but rather as a world of “enterprising merchants and traders, exploiting new economic opportunities, new markets, and new sources of raw materials.”64 Out of chaos comes opportunity, at least for a lucky few, as always.


We come, finally, to a consideration of the Sea Peoples, who remain as enigmatic and elusive as ever. Whether they are seen as sea raiders or migrating populations, the archaeological and textual evidence both indicate that the Sea Peoples, despite their moniker, most likely traveled both by land and by sea—that is, by any means possible.

Those proceeding by sea would most likely have hugged the coastline, perhaps even putting in to a safe harbor every evening. However, questions remain as to whether the enemy ships mentioned in the Ugaritic texts belonged to the Sea Peoples or to renegade members of their own kingdom, as implied in the letter sent by Eshuwara, the governor of Alashiya.65 In this regard, we should take into account the letter just mentioned, from the House of Urtenu in Ugarit, that mentions the “Shikila people,” who, more likely than not, can be identified with the Shekelesh of the Egyptian records. The letter was sent by the Hittite king, probably Suppiluliuma II, to the governor of Ugarit, and refers to a young king of Ugarit, who “does not know anything.” Singer, among other scholars, sees this as a probable reference to Ammurapi, who was the new king of Ugarit at the time. In the letter, the Hittite king says that he wishes to interview a man named Ibnadushu, who had been captured by the Shikila people “who live on ships,” in order to find out more information about these Shikila/Shekelesh.66 However, we do not know whether the interview ever took place or what else might have been learned from Ibnadushu.

It is generally agreed that this document contains the only specific mention by name of the Sea Peoples outside of Egyptian records, although it has also been suggested that there might be others. The “enemy from the land of Alashiya” who attacked the last Hittite king, Suppiluliuma II, on land after he had fought three sea battles against Alashiyan (i.e., Cypriot) forces is possibly a reference to the Sea Peoples. So too is an inscription found at Hattusa in 1988, which may contain an indication that Suppiluliuma II was already fighting the Sea Peoples who had landed on the southern coast of Anatolia and were advancing north.67 Most documents and inscriptions, other than the Egyptian records, simply contain the more general phrase “enemy ships,” though, and do not specifically name the Sea Peoples.

Those of the Sea Peoples who came by land possibly, and perhaps likely, proceeded along a predominantly coastal route, where the destruction of specific cities would have opened up entire new areas to them, in much the same way that Alexander the Great’s battles at the Granicus River, Issus, and Gaugamela opened up specific portions of the ancient Near East to his army almost a thousand years later. Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa has suggested that some of the Sea Peoples could have begun their journey in Greece and passed through the Dardanelles to western Turkey/Anatolia. Others—perhaps most of them, he says—would simply have begun their journey at this point, perhaps joining those coming from the Aegean, with the route continuing along the southern coast of Turkey to Cilicia at its eastern end, and then down to the southern Levant via a route running along the coast. If they followed this route, they would have encountered the city of Troy, the kingdoms of Arzawa and Tarhuntassa in Anatolia, and the cities of Tarsus and Ugarit in southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria, respectively. Some or all of these sites do show signs of destruction and/or subsequent abandonment that occurred about the time that the Sea Peoples are presumed to have been active, but it is unclear whether they were actually responsible.68

In fact, the archaeological evidence now seems to suggest that most of the sites in Anatolia were simply either completely or mostly abandoned at this time, rather than put to the torch by the Sea Peoples. We can speculate that if the international trade, transportation, and communication routes were disrupted by wars, famines, or other forces, the cities dependent upon these routes might have withered and died, with the result that their populations would have left gradually or fled rapidly, depending upon the speed of commercial and cultural decline. As one scholar has recently said, “while it is reasonable to assume that Cilicia and the Syrian coast were affected by the actions of the Sea Peoples, so far neither historical nor archaeological evidence for any kind of activity of the Sea Peoples in the Hittite homelands is attested … the real causes for the collapse of the Hittite state seem to be internal rather than external.”69

A prime example of assigning blame without proof is the recent claim related to the radiocarbon dating at Tell Tweini, the site of the Late Bronze Age harbor town of Gibala within the kingdom of Ugarit. Here, the laboratory results led the excavators and their colleagues to conclude that they have found evidence of destruction wreaked by the Sea Peoples, and to specifically date it to 1192–1190 BC.70 They state, without caveat: “The Sea Peoples were seaborne foes from different origins. They launched a combined land-sea invasion that destabilized the already weakened power base of empires and kingdoms of the old world, and attempted to enter or control the Egyptian territory. The Sea Peoples symbolize the last step of a long and complex spiral of decline in the ancient Mediterranean world.”71

Although there is little doubt that the city was destroyed at about the time identified by the excavators, as confirmed by the radiocarbon dates, the attribution to the Sea Peoples as the agents of the destruction is speculative, although it is certainly quite possible. The excavators have not offered any definitive proof regarding a role for the Sea Peoples; they simply point out that the material culture of the settlement that was established on the tell after the destruction includes “the appearance of Aegean-type architecture, locally-made Mycenaean IIIC Early pottery, hand-made burnished pottery, and Aegean-type loam-weights.”72 As they state, “these materials, also known from Philistine settlements, are cultural markers of foreign settlers, most probably the Sea Peoples.”73 While Tweini could be the best example yet of a site possibly destroyed and then resettled by the Sea Peoples, we cannot say so with absolute certainty. Moreover, as Annie Caubet has noted with regard to Ras Ibn Hani (above), one cannot always be sure that the people who resettled a site after its destruction are necessarily the same ones who destroyed it in the first place.

We can further speculate that in at least some cases groups designated as the Sea Peoples might have entered the vacuum created by the destruction and/or abandonment of the cities, whether caused by themselves or others, and settled down without moving on, eventually leaving their artifacts behind them, as may have been the case at Tweini. In such circumstances, these Sea Peoples are likely to have occupied primarily, although not exclusively, the coastal cities, including sites like Tarsin and Mersin on the coast of southeastern Anatolia. The same may be true for the region now on the border between southwestern Turkey and northern Syria, in the area of Tell Ta’yinat, which recent evidence suggests became known as the “Land of Palistin” during the Iron Age.74

In fact, there are traditions, especially literary traditions, which specifically state that the Sea Peoples settled Tel Dor, in the north of what is now modern Israel. For example, the Egyptian story called “The Report of Wenamun,” which dates to the first half of the eleventh century BC, refers to Dor as a town of the Tjekker or Sikils (Shekelesh). Another Egyptian text, the “Onomasticon of Amenemope,” which dates to ca. 1100 BC, lists the Shardana, the Tjekker, and the Peleset, and also mentions the sites of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza (three of the five sites considered to be part of the Philistine “pentapolis”). Sites along the Carmel Coast and in the Akko Valley, as well as perhaps Tel Dan, have also been suggested as having been settled by the Sea Peoples, such as the Shardana and the Danuna. At many of these sites, including those with occupation levels designated as “Philistine,” such as at Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and elsewhere, degenerate Aegean-style pottery and other cultural identifiers have been found.75 These may well be the only physical remains that we have of the elusive Sea Peoples, but the archaeological remains at many of these sites, and even farther north, seem to have more direct connections with Cyprus than with the Aegean. Nevertheless, there are clear links to non-Canaanite peoples in the twelfth century BC.76

Interestingly, there seem to be no such remains, nor any such destruction, in the area that came to be known as Phoenicia, in what is now modern Lebanon. Despite scholarly discussions, it is still unclear why this should be so, or whether it is simply an illusion caused by the relative lack of excavation here, compared to the other coastal regions of the Near East.77

Among the many scenarios suggested to explain the final days of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, the proposal made by Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University a decade ago still seems most likely. He argues that the migration of the Sea Peoples was not a single event but a long process involving several phases, with the first phase starting in the early years of Ramses III, ca. 1177 BC, and the last phase ending during the time of Ramses VI, ca. 1130 BC. He says specifically that

despite the description in the Egyptian texts of a single event, the migration of the Sea Peoples was at least a half-century-long process that had several phases…. It may have started with groups that spread destruction along the Levantine coast, including northern Philistia, in the beginning of the twelfth century and that were defeated by Ramesses III in his eighth year. Consequently, some of them were settled in Egyptian garrisons in the delta. Later groups of Sea Peoples, in the second half of the twelfth century, succeeded in terminating Egyptian rule in southern Canaan. After destroying the Egyptian strongholds … they settled in Philistia and established their major centers at Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Miqne, and other places. These people—the Philistines of the later biblical text—are easily identifiable by several Aegean-derived features in their material culture.78

Most scholars agree with Finkelstein that the archaeological evidence seems to indicate that we should be looking primarily at the Aegean region, perhaps via the filter of western Anatolia and Cyprus as intermediate stops for some or most along the way,79 rather than Sicily, Sardinia, and the Western Mediterranean for the origin of many of the Sea Peoples. However, Yasur-Landau suggests that if they were Mycenaeans, they were not those fleeing the ruins of their palaces, at Mycenae and elsewhere, just after those places were destroyed. He points out that there is no evidence of Linear B writing or other aspects of the wealthy palatial period from the thirteenth century BC on the Greek mainland at these Anatolian and Canaanite sites. Rather, the material culture of these settlers indicates that they were from “the rather humbler culture that came [immediately] afterward” during the early twelfth century BC. He also notes that some may even have been farmers rather than raiding warriors, looking to improve their lives by moving to a new area. Regardless, they were “an entire population of families on the move to a new home.”80 In any event, he believes that these migrants were not the cause of the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations in this area but were instead “opportunists” who took advantage of the collapse to find themselves new homes.81

Yasur-Landau now takes issue with the traditional picture of a Philistine military takeover of Canaan. He says: “The circumstances of the settlement do not reflect a violent incursion. Recent discoveries at Ashkelon show that the migrants [actually] settled on a deserted site, on top of the unfinished remains of an Egyptian garrison…. There are no clear signs for any violent destruction at Ashdod … the signs of destruction described by the excavators [there] may be no more than evidence for cooking…. At Ekron, the small Canaanite village … was indeed destroyed by fire, but … [was] replaced by another Canaanite village … before the arrival of the migrants.”82

Rather than a hostile military-style takeover, Yasur-Landau sees instead intercultural marriages and intercultural families, maintaining both Canaanite and Aegean traditions, mostly in the domestic arena. As he puts it, “material remains from early Iron Age Philistia reveal intricate, and predominantly peaceful, interactions between migrants and locals…. I would therefore venture to suggest that the general lack of violence connected with the foundation of the Philistine cities … and the co-existence of both Aegean and local cultural traditions indicate that these were joint foundations of Aegean migrants and local populations, rather than colonial enterprises.”83

Other scholars agree, pointing out that, at most, the Philistines destroyed only the elite portions at some of the sites—the palace and its environs, for instance—and that the components that we now identify with the Philistines were “of a mixed nature and include features from the Aegean, Cyprus, Anatolia, Southeast Europe and beyond.”84 It does not appear that completely foreign elements simply replaced the previous Canaanite material culture lock, stock, and barrel (in terms of pottery, building practices, and so on); rather, what we now identify as Philistine culture may be the result of a hybridization and a mingling of different cultures, containing both the older local Canaanite and newer foreign intrusive elements.85

In other words, although there is no question that there were new peoples entering and settling down in Canaan at this time, in this reconstruction the bogeyman specter of the invading Sea Peoples/Philistines has been replaced by a somewhat more peaceful picture of a mixed group of migrants in search of a new start in a new land. Rather than militant invaders intent only on destruction, they were more likely to have been refugees who did not necessarily always attack and conquer the local peoples but frequently simply settled down among them. Either way, they are unlikely, all by themselves, to have ended civilization in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.86


In 1985, when Nancy Sandars published a revised edition of her classic book on the Sea Peoples, she wrote, “In the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, there have always been earthquakes, famines, droughts and floods, and in fact dark ages of a sort are recurrent.” Furthermore, she stated, “catastrophes punctuate human history but they are generally survived without too much loss. They are often followed by a much greater effort leading to greater success.”87 So what was different about this period, the end of the Late Bronze Age? Why didn’t the civilizations simply recover and carry on?

As Sandars mused, “many explanations have been tried and few have stood. Unparalleled series of earthquakes, widespread crop-failures and famine, massive invasion from the steppe, the Danube, the desert—all may have played some part; but they are not enough.”88 She was correct. We must now turn to the idea of a systems collapse, a systemic failure with both a domino and a multiplier effect, from which even such a globalized international, vibrant, intersocietal network as was present during the Late Bronze Age could not recover.

Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University, one of the most respected scholars ever to study the prehistoric Aegean region, had already suggested the idea of a systems collapse back in 1979. At the time, he framed it in terms of catastrophe theory, wherein “the failure of a minor element started a chain reaction that reverberated on a greater and greater scale, until finally the whole structure was brought to collapse.”89 A potentially useful metaphor that comes to mind is the so-called butterfly effect, whereby the initial flapping of a butterfly’s wings may eventually result in a tornado or hurricane some weeks later on the other side of the world.90 We might, for example, cite the attack by the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I on the vaunted Hittite forces. His defeat of their army, at the end of the thirteenth century BC during Tudhaliya IV’s reign, may in turn have emboldened the neighboring Kashka to subsequently attack and burn the Hittite capital city of Hattusa.

Renfrew noted the general features of systems collapse, itemizing them as follows: (1) the collapse of the central administrative organization; (2) the disappearance of the traditional elite class; (3) a collapse of the centralized economy; and (4) a settlement shift and population decline. It might take as much as a century for all aspects of the collapse to be completed, he said, and noted that there is no single, obvious cause for the collapse. Furthermore, in the aftermath of such a collapse, there would be a transition to a lower level of sociopolitical integration and the development of “romantic” Dark Age myths about the previous period. Not only does this fit the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean region ca. 1200 BC, but, as he pointed out, it also describes the collapse of the Maya, Old Kingdom Egypt, and the Indus Valley civilization at various points in time.91 As mentioned, such topics and discussions of “collapses” throughout history, and of the possibly cyclical rise and fall of empires, have subsequently been taken up by other scholars, most popularly and recently by Jared Diamond.92

Not surprisingly, not every scholar agrees with the idea of a systems collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Robert Drews of Vanderbilt University, for instance, dismisses it out of hand because he does not think that it explains why the palaces and cities were destroyed and burned.93

However, as we have seen, soon after 1200 BC, the Bronze Age civilizations collapsed in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and Near East, exhibiting all of the classic features outlined by Renfrew, from disappearance of the traditional elite class and a collapse of central administrations and centralized economies to settlement shifts, population decline, and a transition to a lower level of sociopolitical integration, not to mention the development of stories like those of the Trojan War eventually written down by Homer in the eighth century BC. More than the coming of the Sea Peoples in 1207 and 1177 BC, more than the series of earthquakes that rocked Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean during a fifty-year span from 1225 to 1175 BC, more than the drought and climate change that may have been ravaging these areas during this period, what we see are the results of a “perfect storm” that brought down the flourishing cultures and peoples of the Bronze Age—from the Mycenaeans and Minoans to the Hittites, Assyrians, Kassites, Cypriots, Mitannians, Canaanites, and even Egyptians.94

In my opinion, and Sandars’s before me, none of these individual factors would have been cataclysmic enough on their own to bring down even one of these civilizations, let alone all of them. However, they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a “multiplier effect.”95 The failure of one part of the system might also have had a domino effect, leading to failures elsewhere. The ensuing “systems collapse” could have led to the disintegration of one society after another, in part because of the fragmentation of the global economy and the breakdown of the interconnections upon which each civilization was dependent.

In 1987, Mario Liverani, of the University of Rome, laid the blame upon the concentration of power and control in the palaces, so that when they collapsed, the extent of the disaster was magnified. As he wrote, “the particular concentration in the Palace of all the elements of organization, transformation, exchange, etc.—a concentration which seems to reach its maximum in the Late Bronze Age—has the effect of transforming the physical collapse of the Palace into a general disaster for the entire kingdom.”96 In other words, to put it in modern investment terms, the Bronze Age rulers in the Aegean and the Near East should have diversified their portfolios, but they did not.

Two decades later, Christopher Monroe cited Liverani’s work and suggested that the economy of the Late Bronze Age became unstable because of its increasing dependency on bronze and other prestige goods. Specifically, he saw “capitalist enterprise”—in which he included long-distance trade, and which dominated the palatial system present in the Late Bronze Age—as having transformed traditional Bronze Age modes of exchange, production, and consumption to such an extent that when external invasions and natural catastrophes combined in a “multiplier effect,” the system was unable to survive.97

In writing about the situation at the end of the Late Bronze Age in his book Scales of Fate, Monroe describes the interactions of the various powers in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean as an “intersocietal network,” which agrees with the picture presented here. He points out, as I have, that this period is “exceptional in the treaties, laws, diplomacy, and exchange that created the first great international era in world history.”98

However, most interestingly, Monroe further notes that such networks have ways of postponing the inevitable collapse, which comes to all societies eventually. As he says, “revolts are quelled, raw materials are found, new markets are opened, price controls are put into effect, merchants’ properties are confiscated, embargoes [are] placed, and war is waged.”99 He also says, though, that “generally the rulers of the core power or powers treat the symptoms rather than the causes of instability,” and concludes that the “violent destruction of the Late Bronze palatial civilization, as attested in the textual and archaeological record, was, like many collapses, the inevitable result of limited foresight.”100

I am in agreement with Monroe up until this last point, for I do not think that we are justified in blaming the collapse simply on “limited foresight,” given the multiple probable factors explored above, which the ancient leaders could not possibly have completely predicted. An unanticipated systems collapse—quite possibly triggered by climate change, as hypothesized recently by Brandon Drake and the team led by David Kaniewski,101 or precipitated by earthquakes or invasion—seems much more likely, but Monroe’s words might serve as something of a warning for us today, for his description of the Late Bronze Age, especially in terms of its economy and interactions, could well apply to our current globalized society, which is also feeling the effects of climate change.


As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the so-called Collapse or Catastrophe at the end of the Late Bronze Age has been much discussed by scholars. Robert Drews tried to attack this problem systematically, devoting each chapter in his 1993 book to a discussion of a different potential cause. However, he may have misjudged and underestimated some of these; for instance, he dismissed out of hand the idea of a systems collapse, in favor of his own theory that changes in warfare were actually responsible—a hypothesis upon which not all scholars agree.102

Now, twenty years after the publication of Drews’s book, and even after all of the continuous debate and constant stream of academic publications on the topic, there is still no general consensus as to who, or what, caused the destruction or abandonment of each of the major sites within the civilizations that came to an end in the twilight of the Bronze Age. The problem can be concisely summarized as follows:

Major Observations

1. We have a number of separate civilizations that were flourishing during the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries BC in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, from the Mycenaeans and the Minoans to the Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Cypriots. These were independent but consistently interacted with each other, especially through international trade routes.

2. It is clear that many cities were destroyed and that the Late Bronze Age civilizations and life as the inhabitants knew it in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East came to an end ca. 1177 BC or soon thereafter.

3. No unequivocal proof has been offered as to who or what caused this disaster, which resulted in the collapse of these civilizations and the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Discussion of Possibilities

There are a number of possible causes that may have led, or contributed, to the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but none seems capable of having caused the calamity on its own.

A. Clearly there were earthquakes during this period, but usually societies can recover from these.

B. There is textual evidence for famine, and now scientific evidence for droughts and climate change, in both the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, but again societies have recovered from these time and time again.

C. There may be circumstantial evidence for internal rebellions in Greece and elsewhere, including the Levant, although this is not certain. Again, societies frequently survive such revolts. Moreover, it would be unusual (notwithstanding recent experience in the Middle East to the contrary) for rebellions to occur over such a wide area and for such a prolonged period of time.

D. There is archaeological evidence for invaders, or at least newcomers probably from the Aegean region, western Anatolia, Cyprus, or all of the above, found in the Levant from Ugarit in the north to Lachish in the south. Some of the cities were destroyed and then abandoned; others were reoccupied; and still others were unaffected.

E. It is clear that the international trade routes were affected, if not completely cut, for a period of time, but the extent to which this would have impacted the various individual civilizations is not altogether clear—even if some were overly dependent upon foreign goods for their survival, as has been suggested in the case of the Mycenaeans.

It is true that sometimes a civilization cannot recover from invaders or an earthquake, or survive a drought or a rebellion, but at the moment, for lack of a better explanation, it looks as though the best solution is to suggest that all of these factors together contributed to the collapse of what had been the dominant Late Bronze Age kingdoms and societies in these regions. Based on the evidence presently available, therefore, we may be seeing the result of a systems collapse that was caused by a series of events linked together via a “multiplier effect,” in which one factor affected the others, thereby magnifying the effects of each. Perhaps the inhabitants could have survived one disaster, such as an earthquake or a drought, but they could not survive the combined effects of earthquake, drought, and invaders all occurring in rapid succession. A “domino effect” then ensued, in which the disintegration of one civilization led to the fall of the others. Given the globalized nature of their world, the effect upon the international trade routes and economies of even one society’s collapse would have been sufficiently devastating that it could have led to the demise of the others. If such were the case, they were not too big to fail.

However, despite my comments above, systems collapse might be just too simplistic an explanation to accept as the entire reason for the ending of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and Near East.103 It is possible that we need to turn to what is called complexity science, or, perhaps more accurately, complexity theory, in order to get a grasp of what may have led to the collapse of these civilizations.

Complexity science or theory is the study of a complex system or systems, with the goal of explaining “the phenomena which emerge from a collection of interacting objects.” It has been used in attempts to explain, and sometimes solve, problems as diverse as traffic jams, stock market crashes, illnesses such as cancer, environmental change, and even wars, as Neil Johnson of Oxford University has recently written.104 While it has made its way from the realm of mathematics and computational science to international relations, business, and other fields over the past several decades, it has only rarely been applied in the field of archaeology. Intriguingly, and perhaps presciently, Carol Bell explored the topic briefly in her 2006 book on the evolution of, and changes in, long-distance trading relationships in the Levant from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age. She noted that it was a promising theoretical approach that might be of use as an explanatory model for the cause of the collapse and for the restructuring that followed.105

For a problem to be a potential candidate for a complexity theory approach, Johnson states that it has to involve a system that “contains a collection of many interacting objects or ‘agents’.”106 In our case, those would be the various civilizations active during the Late Bronze Age: the Mycenaeans, Minoans, Hittites, Egyptians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and so on. In one aspect of complexity theory, behavior of those objects is affected by their memories and “feedback” from what has happened in the past. They are able to adapt their strategies, partly on the basis of their knowledge of previous history. Automobile drivers, for example, are generally familiar with the traffic patterns in their home area and are able to predict the fastest route to take to work or back home again. If a traffic jam arises, they are able to take alternative routes to avoid the problem.107Similarly, toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, seafaring merchants from Ugarit or elsewhere might have taken steps to avoid enemy ships or areas in which such ships and marauders were frequently based, including the coastal portions of the Lukka lands (i.e., the region later known as Lycia, in southwestern Anatolia).

Johnson also states that the system is typically “alive,” meaning that it evolves in a nontrivial and often complicated way, and that it is also “open,” meaning that it can be influenced by its environment. As he puts it, this means that the complicated stock markets today, about which analysts often talk as if they were living, breathing organisms, can be influenced or driven by outside news about the earnings of a particular company or an event on the other side of the world. Just so, Sherratt—in her analogy published a decade ago, and quoted above in the preface—described the similarities between the Late Bronze Age world and our own “increasingly homogenous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture, in which … political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.”108 Such influences or stressors on the “system” in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age might well be the probable, possible, and conceivable earthquakes, famine, drought, climate change, internal rebellion, external invasion, and cutting of the trade routes discussed above.

The most important premise, we might argue, is that Johnson asserts that such a system exhibits phenomena that “are generally surprising, and may be extreme.” As he says, this “basically means that anything can happen—and if you wait long enough, it generally will.” For example, as he notes, all stock markets will eventually have some sort of crash, and all traffic systems will eventually have some kind of jam. These are generally unexpected when they arise, and could not have been specifically predicted in advance, even though one knew full well that they could and would occur.109

In our case, since there has never been a civilization in the history of the world that hasn’t collapsed eventually, and since the reasons are frequently the same, as Jared Diamond and a host of others have pointed out, the eventual collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations was predictable, but it is unlikely that we would have been able to predict when it would happen, or that they would all collapse at the same time, even with a full working knowledge of each civilization. As Johnson writes, “even a detailed knowledge of the specifications of a car’s engine, colour and shape, is useless when trying to predict where and when traffic jams will arise in a new road system. Likewise, understanding individuals’ personalities in a crowded bar would give little indication as to what large-scale brawls might develop.”110

So what use might complexity theory be in the effort to explain the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age, if it cannot help us predict when it would happen or why? Carol Bell pointed out that the trading networks of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean are examples of complex systems. She therefore cited the work of Ken Dark, of the University of Reading, who noted that “as such systems become more complex, and the degree of interdependence between their constituent parts grows, keeping the overall system stable becomes more difficult.”111 Known as “hyper-coherence,” this occurs, as Dark says, “when each part of the system becomes so dependent upon each other that change in any part produces instability in the system as a whole.”112 Thus, if the Late Bronze Age civilizations were truly globalized and dependent upon each other for goods and services, even just to a certain extent, then change to any one of the relevant kingdoms, such as the Mycenaeans or the Hittites, would potentially affect and destabilize them all.

Moreover, it is especially relevant that the kingdoms, empires, and societies of the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean can each be seen as an individual sociopolitical system. As Dark says, such “complex socio-political systems will exhibit an internal dynamic which leads them to increase in complexity…. [T]he more complex a system is, the more liable it is to collapse.”113

Thus, in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, we have individual sociopolitical systems, the various civilizations, that were growing more complex and thus apparently more liable to collapse. At the same time, we have complex systems, the trading networks, that were both interdependent and complicated in their relationships, and thus were open to instability the minute there was a change in one of the integral parts. Here is where one malfunctioning cog in an otherwise well-oiled machine might turn the entire apparatus into a pile of junk, just as a single thrown rod can wreck the engine of a car today.

Therefore, rather than envisioning an apocalyptic ending overall—although perhaps certain cities and kingdoms like Ugarit met a dramatic, blazing end—we might better imagine that the end of the Late Bronze Age was more a matter of a chaotic although gradual disintegration of areas and places that had once been major and in contact with each other, but were now diminished and isolated, like Mycenae, because of internal and/or external changes that affected one or more of the integral parts of the complex system. It is clear that such damage would have led to a disruption of the network. We might picture a modern power grid that has been disrupted, perhaps by a storm or an earthquake, wherein the electric company can still produce power but cannot get it out to the individual consumers; we see such events on an annual basis in the United States, caused by anything and everything from tornadoes in Oklahoma to snowstorms in Massachusetts. If the disruption is permanent, as might be the case in a major catastrophe, such as a nuclear explosion today, eventually even the production of the electricity will halt. The analogy may hold for the Late Bronze Age, albeit at a lower technological level.

Moreover, as Bell noted, the consequence of such instability is that when the complex system does collapse, it “decomposes into smaller entities,” which is exactly what we see in the Iron Age that follows the end of these Bronze Age civilizations.114 Thus, it seems that employing complexity theory, which allows us to take both catastrophe theory and systems collapse one step further, may be the best approach to explaining the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean in the years following 1200 BC. The real questions are not so much “Who did it?” or “What event caused it?”—for there seem to have been any number of elements and people involved—as “Why did it happen?” and “How did it happen?” Whether it could have been avoided is yet another question entirely.

However, in suggesting that complexity theory should be brought to bear on the analysis of the causes of the Late Bronze Age collapse, we may just be applying a scientific (or possibly pseudoscientific) term to a situation in which there is insufficient knowledge to draw firm conclusions. It sounds nice, but does it really advance our understanding? Is it more than just a fancy way to state a fairly obvious fact, namely, that complicated things can break down in a variety of ways?

There is little doubt that the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations was complex in its origins. We do know that many possible variables may have had a contributing role in the collapse, but we are not even certain that we know all of the variables and we undoubtedly do not know which ones were critical—or whether some were locally important but had little systemic effect. To carry our analogy of a modern traffic jam further: we do know most of the variables in a traffic jam. We know something about the number of cars and the roads they traveled along (whether wide or narrow) and we are certainly able to predict to a large extent the effect of some external variables, for example, a blizzard on a major thruway. But for the Late Bronze Age, we suspect, though we do not know for certain, that there were hundreds more variables than there are in a modern traffic system.

Moreover, the argument that the Bronze Age civilizations were increasing in complexity and were therefore prone to collapse does not really make all that much sense, especially when one considers their “complexity” relative to that of the Western European civilizations of the last three hundred years. Thus, while it is possible that complexity theory might be a useful way to approach the collapse of the Late Bronze Age once we have more information available as to the details of all the relevant civilizations, it may not be of much use at this stage, except as an interesting way to reframe our awareness that a multitude of factors were present at the end of the Late Bronze Age that could have helped destabilize, and ultimately led to the collapse of, the international system that had been in place, functioning quite well at various levels, for several previous centuries.

And yet, scholarly publications still continue to suggest a linear progression for the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, despite the fact that it is not accurate to simply state that a drought caused famine, which eventually caused the Sea Peoples to start moving and creating havoc, which caused the Collapse.115 The progression wasn’t that linear; the reality was much more messy. There probably was not a single driving force or trigger, but rather a number of different stressors, each of which forced the people to react in different ways to accommodate the changing situation(s). Complexity theory, especially in terms of visualizing a nonlinear progression and a series of stressors rather than a single driver, is therefore advantageous both in explaining the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age and in providing a way forward for continuing to study this catastrophe.

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