The Magazine

Mediterranean Mystery

A sudden, and inscrutable, Bronze Age catastrophe.

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By SUSAN KRISTOL
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Okay, history buffs, let’s do a brief test, a free-association game about the Bronze Age. I say Mycenae, you instantly shout out, “Agamemnon.” I say Minoans, you say, “palace of Knossos.” Troy—“Schliemann, Priam, Hecuba, Trojan horse.” Egypt—“Ramses.” This is easy, right? On to the next level. I say Hittites, you say—“Suppiluliuma?” 

An Ugarit letter from King Ini-Teshup of Karkemish, 13th-12th century b.c.

An Ugarit letter from King Ini-Teshup of Karkemish, 13th-12th century b.c.

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In this enjoyable new book, Eric H. Cline has set himself an ambitious task: Not only must he educate a popular audience about the wealth and power of the eastern Mediterranean civilizations of the Bronze Age, he must then make his readers care that, some time around the year 1200 b.c., these empires, kingdoms, and cities suffered a series of cataclysms from which they never recovered.

Alashiya and its forgotten King Kushmeshusha; Mitanni and its lost capital of Washukanni; wealthy Ugarit; the Kassites and the Elamites; the renegade states of Assuwa: If several mighty kingdoms that you’ve never heard of have disappeared, does it make a difference? And Cline makes connecting with the Late Bronze Age even more difficult for us when he maintains, with considerable vigor, that the two Late Bronze Age “events” that still resonate most powerfully today, the Trojan War and the Exodus from Egypt, are merely legends told by a later generation craving a heroic past, with little or no archaeological evidence that they occurred.

The Bronze Age did recently make a surprise appearance in the Washington Post Food section. Last summer, excavators in northern Israel, under Cline’s direction, uncovered a wine cellar in a Canaanite palace dating to 1700 b.c. So far, they have unearthed 40 large jars, which would have held the equivalent of 3,000 bottles of wine, possibly destined for export to Egypt and Crete. This clearly was an era of wealth and global trade. What caused it to come to a crashing halt?

1177 is the year in which the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III described an invasion of his kingdom from the north: “No land could stand before their arms, from Khatte, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on. .  .  . They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting.” Though Ramses was victorious—“Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and soul are finished forever and ever”—Egyptian power was never quite the same afterwards. 

At roughly the same time in other parts of the Late Bronze Age world of the eastern Mediterranean, many flourishing kingdoms, city-states, and empires saw the sudden dwindling of international trade; destruction caused by battles, earthquakes, and fire; the disappearance of urban populations; and the collapse of palace-dominated economies. Cuneiform writing came to an end, perhaps because it was a skill practiced only by a specialized class of scribes. The region entered the first Dark Age. 

Why civilizations collapsed within a span of a half-century in so many locations has long been a mystery. And despite the best archaeological tools (including fossil pollen analysis, oxygen-isotope data, stable carbon isotope data, and sediment cores from the Mediterranean to detect sea surface temperatures and precipitation levels on land), the hypotheses advanced today are not very different from those in a standard history textbook from 40 years ago. The elusive Sea Peoples who battled with Ramses III are frequently mentioned as one of the culprits. But it’s debatable whether they were warriors or peaceable farming folks looking to integrate into a new society and find a better life for their families. And why were these Sea Peoples, possibly coming from Sardinia, Sicily, and the Aegean, on the move? Was it because of climate change and an ensuing famine back home? 

If the science of current climate change is controversial, the analysis of Bronze Age climate change, with its bold claims of precision, seems even more unreliable. Cline quotes an archaeologist who maintains that “there was a sharp increase in Northern Hemisphere temperatures immediately before the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial centers, possibly causing droughts, but .  .  . a sharp decrease in temperature during the abandonment of these centers, meaning that it first got hotter and then suddenly colder.” As Cline (sanely) points out, “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.”