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.”

Cline evaluates theories from a host of academics. He dutifully discusses systems collapse, complexity theory, and “hyper-coherence,” only to conclude that “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?” 

Much more interesting is the description of what made the Late Bronze Age something to write home about. And write they did: There are archives full of clay tablets in Linear B and cuneiform script, in early Greek, Akkadian, and Hittite (interestingly, the earliest known Indo-European language), and an abundance of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The tablets contain detailed records of royal marriages, battles, and peace treaties, such as an account of the Battle of Qadesh in 1274 b.c. and the ensuing peace treaty. (Originally inscribed on two silver tablets in Egyptian and Akkadian and still extant in ancient stone and clay versions, the words of the treaty currently adorn the entrance to the United Nations Security Council.) Or this heartrending letter from someone in the kingdom of Ugarit: 

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!

We study ancient history and archaeology for a variety of salutary reasons. General Allenby, for instance, claimed that he beat the Germans and Turks at Megiddo in 1918 because he had read a translation of Thutmose III’s account of his victory there in 1479 b.c. But sometimes ancient history is just fun, because it reminds us that many material aspects of life haven’t changed all that much in more than 3,000 years. As Cline tells us, an Akkadian tablet from 1750 b.c. discusses a Mesopotamian king’s use of ice in his summer drinks, which included beer, wine, and “fermented barley-based drinks flavored with either pomegranate juice or licorice-like aniseed.” Another tablet from the period mentions a “pair of leather shoes in the Caphtorian style” that were sent to the king of Babylon but were returned. The Minoan and Mycenaean word for sesame is “sa-sa-ma, coming from the Ugaritic word ššmn, the Akkadian word šammaššammu, and the Hurrian word sumisumi.”

Cline calls this period “the first truly global age.” A wrecked ship from 1300 b.c., discovered in 1982 off the Turkish coast at Uluburun, contained objects from at least seven different countries: copper from Cyprus, ebony from Nubia, raw glass ingots from Mesopotamia, terebinth resin in Canaanite storage vessels, a small bronze and gold statue of a Canaanite deity, a stone scepter-mace from the Balkans, Egyptian scarabs, and tin and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.   The sheer wealth of these empires, their global reach, their treaties and their trade agreements, command our respect, even if their cultures seem not to have contributed much, at least not directly, to future developments in religion, art, science, philosophy, literature, or technology. 

Which leads us back to our original question: Does the collapse of Late Bronze Age civilizations make a difference to us, or is it just a historical curiosity? Cline mentions the 2008 banking crisis and the possibility of devastating climate change as evidence that our own civilization could crumble at any moment. He doesn’t mention, but we can hardly forget, the terrorists who daily plot to destroy the West—perhaps the equivalent of those marauding Sea Peoples of the Bronze Age. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently reported that if just nine electric-transmission substations were destroyed in the United States, we could be plunged into a national power outage lasting weeks or even months—perhaps not enough to destroy our civilization, but surely a calamity worth pondering. Civilizational collapse could happen to us; but aside from voting for bank reform, funding the defense budget, buying a Prius, studying subsistence farming, and joining the NRA, it’s not clear what we might do to prevent it or survive it. 

The end of the Bronze Age may be most interesting to us for what was to emerge on the far side. After a period of relative chaos, the Mediterranean world reorganized itself. Some of the products of this new age were the Homeric epics, ancient Israel, the widespread use of iron, the democratic city-state, private mercantile enterprise, and the prototype of the alphabet we use today. 

In a sense, we of the Information Age are still living in an extension of the Iron Age. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

Susan Kristol, a classicist, lives in Northern Virginia.