What Caused the Collapse of the Legendary Bronze Age?

Written by Fleur O’Reilly


No one knows precisely why, but around 1200 BC all the Bronze Age civilisations around the Mediterranean collapsed over the course of only a few generations. The Mycenaeans, the Old Kingdom of Egypt and the Mesopotamians, to name but a few, were advanced civilisations that just seemingly collapsed in a span of a hundred years. Major cities were destroyed, whole civilisations fell, diplomatic and trade relations were severed, writing systems vanished and there was widespread devastation and large-scale death, leading to the ‘Dark Age’. The reasons behind the collapse remain a question that plagues scholars of antiquity. A multitude of theories have been suggested to explain the collapse, and they can be classified into three categories: invasions, internal disruptions, and climate change. A simple answer cannot be expected and with archaeological methodology improving every year, the answer is forever changing.  

Invasions

Invasions supposedly took place by the ‘sea people’: nomadic tribes who would have come to invade the cities which were mostly situated by the sea for easier trade. The term ‘sea people’ was coined in the late-nineteenth century by the French Egyptologist, Emmanuel de Rougé. Sea people are thought to originate from Southern Europe, Asia minor, or perhaps the Mediterranean islands. The reality is that scholars have very little evidence of their presence beyond seven contemporary Ancient Egyptian texts, merely proving that they did exist. The complex societal hierarchy of the Bronze Age meant each civilisation relied heavily on trade; the distinguishing trait of this Age was the development of bronze metal, which required copper and tin for production. For the Mycenaeans, tin would have been imported from England, Spain or Afghanistan, whilst copper came from Cyprus. This global trade network meant that if one place was invaded or collapsed then all other civilisations would follow in this route of demise. This was once thought to be the sole cause of the Dark Ages. Was the Mediterranean Sea, the thing that had once brought wealth to these empires, their very downfall? This theory has prevailed since its first publication in the 1800s.  

Internal disputes

This factor is a reference to the disruptions in trade and class wars. Disruptions in trade, partly caused by invasions (and the collapse of other civilisations who were each other’s trading partners) led to the demise of the life they knew, putting a strain on their society. Famines led to social and political instability which in turn may have led to class wars or internal rebellions. If a large population migrated all at one time due to some of these reasons, these new people would disrupt the way of life in the area they migrate to and potentially add to the strain of resources. If whole populations emigrated this may have left gaps in key towns on trade routes. As these civilisations advanced, their populations increased. This strained food resources and fractured societal hierarchy, which could have led to more internal wars or more migration. Tomb robbing became rampant during the reign of Ramesses III (BC 1186-1155); the main thing stolen was food, indicating that there was a food shortage during that period with people valuing food over the treasures of the graves.  

Climate change

Or was it good old-fashioned climate change – the plague of modernity – that defeated the once illustrious empires? This theory has recently rose to prominence – many archaeologists and historians argue that climate change played a vital role in the demise of the Bronze Age as abrupt temperature shifts led to crop failures on an unprecedented scale, leading to socio-economic crises. These civilisations had developed a complex way of life where everybody had a role however, this interwoven society meant that if one part failed, the system collapsed. Contemporary sources all indicate to rising levels of aridity; in a cave in Israel, a 150,000-year-old record of precipitation was found, which shows an unprecedented and steady decline of rainfall which would have led to a drought, which in turn would lead to a famine. Famine never meant anything good for society as people went hungry and grew angry at the political system, prompting civil unrest, and finally mass migration as food remained scarce. The increase in surface temperature may also have led to a spread of diseases. In addition, there were also the occurrence of a number of ‘earthquake storms’, a series of earthquakes in rapid succession which could account for widespread destruction or at least lead to a deterioration of trade and organisation of society. This also leads onto my favourite theory: these civilisations would have relied on candles as their main source of light, whilst also living in highly flammable wooden buildings. So many large-scale earthquakes would have easily knocked these candles over onto the wood, leading to widespread destruction, especially in palaces. The destruction of the palace in Mycenae, a place which represented the seat of government and the people, would have been of particular significance as its destruction brought down the framework of the whole civilisation.   

These factors: invasion, internal disruptions, and climate change, are extremely intertwined -no one factor can have caused destruction so quickly and on such a large scale, as one scholar, Bernard Knapp succinctly argues that ‘collapse results from multiple “cascading” stress factors… and the interrelationships among them’.  The change in climate is now theorised by many scholars to have been the overarching reason for the collapse of the Bronze Age Mediterranean societies, plummeting them into the ‘Dark Ages’.  In regards to climate change and disruptions in global trade leading the demise of a once almighty civilisation: are there lessons to be learnt? 


Bibliography

A. Bernard Knapp, and Sturt W. Manning. “Crisis in Context: The End of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean.” American Journal of Archaeology  120, no. 1 (2016): 99–149. https://doi.org/10.3764/aja.120.1.0099. 

“Who were the Sea People?”. Heritage Daily. https://www.heritagedaily.com/2020/10/who-were-the-sea-people/135782.


Featured image credit: Fire of Troy (second half of the sixteenth century), Kerstiaen de Keuninck. Oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum. Public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Keuninck_(Coninck)Kerstiaen_de-_Fire_of_Troy.jpeg.

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