The downfall of Bronze Age civilization (LBAC Part 1)
Wrath: O muse, sing that of Achilles Peleus’ Son:
Accursed, it brought countless troubles upon the Achaeans,
And untimely cast many stout souls to Haides,
And made those heroes prey for both dogs
And vultures; thus did Zeus fulfil his will.
The sack of Troy, once thought largely a matter of legend, did happen according to the current consensus of historians and archaeologists, although it’s still not entirely conclusive. In fact there seem to have been at least three separate confrontations between Greek peoples and Trojans which were later conflated and mythologized in various ways with the Iliad (Ἰλιάς) mainly focusing on the last of these. I’ve translated that work’s this first line, above, to be true to the original, which begins with μῆνιν (anger, rage, wrath), and, I believe the name of the hero is given as a patronymic, Πηληϊάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος, (literally, “son of Peleus Achilles”) as was common in the ancient world. While the word order is a bit stiff, it gives the proper weight to the ideas. Homer’s “text” was actually an oral tradition from a time when the Greeks, rather than not yet having learned writing, had actually forgotten it—a Dark Age.
Emily D. T. Vermeule, classical scholar and archaeologist, sums the case for the war’s historicity:¹
[T]he possibility that the Trojan War was [a Greek engagement] with an Anatolian dynast in his walled castle at the height of the early Mycenaean age must at least be considered. Since a fifteenth century Hittite drew a sketch of one of these Achaian warriors in full battle dress and plumed helmet and since one of them dropped his sword (was buried?) as far north as Smyrna, their presence in western Anatolia is not just philologically demonstrated but physically established.
There is additionally a contemporary account from the Hittites who ruled most of eastern central Anatolia (modern Turkey) about a conflict occurring among their neighbors to the west that also seems to correspond to the Trojan War. In the Tawagalawa letter, written by Hittite king Hattusili III, warfare is described with some placename correspondences, summed up in Letters from the Hittite Kingdom, thus:²
The Lukka Lands mentioned in the text are classical Lycia, and Wilusa is Ilios/Troy.
The linguistical problems of matching later Homeric Greek versions of words with the centuries-older languages of the region is highlighted by the fact that Tawagalawa is thought to be a Hittitization of the Greek Etiokles (Ἐτεοκλῆς), via a reconstructed Mycenaean form *Etewoklewes. He is also named as the brother of the king of the Ahhiyawa/ Ἀχαιοί/ Achaeans—one of the collective names for the Greeks used by Homer. The placename correspondences are Wilusa/ Ἴλιος/ Ilios, Lukka/ Λυκία/ Lycia, Taruisa/ Τρῳάς/ Troas.
Homeric Greek in itself is problematic: it’s a literary dialect of Archaic Greek containing elements of Ionic, Aeolic, Attic, Arcadocypriot, and even a smattering of non-Greek languages. Mycenaean Greek was written in syllabic/ ideographic Linear B, while Hittite used a cuneiform with similar features, but the systems are otherwise completely unrelated. Syllabaries are also not ideal for representing highly vocalic Indo-European languages, which both Hittite and Mycenaean Greek are; reading both reminds me of trying to decipher kana-ized English. Take Mycenaean e-re-pa-to for example: old as the word is, when you normalize the spelling, you get the very recognizable elephantos.
The survivors from the Trojan side dispersed, some say settling Europe, tying into national origin myths from Rome to Britain, which, on the other hand, seems to lack archaeological foundation. As to the Greeks, the palatial centers as well as many other towns and villages of the Mycenaeans were abandoned and no further monumental stone buildings constructed. Wall painting disappeared, and, since there was no longer a redistributive economy to keep records of, Linear B writing also fell into disuse. The population declined, vital trade links were lost, and the organization of the state with kings, officials, and armies vanished. O Brother, Where Art Thou? isn’t far from the mark in transposing Odysseus’ wanderings to the depression-era South.
I only recently ran across the term Late Bronze Age collapse (LBAC). I had heard of the Greek Dark Ages, the Fall of Troy, the Exodus (the historicity of which has not been established, but this would be the context it would fit into), and even the battles between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples, which put an end to the New Kingdom, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which these events were connected. This cultural cataclysm included the Near East, the Aegean Region, North Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek Dark Ages are reckoned to have lasted some 300 years, but many of the civilizations affected simply never recovered.
The extent to which the cultures in the area were in contact in the Late Bronze Age (LBA) was something else of which I was not aware. As Eric Cline³ has pointed out, even civilizations that were not in direct contact were ever more than three steps removed from contact with one another in this network. Basically they could all both send and receive goods to one another.
How do we know? Lots of ways: first there is the presence of goods from these civilizations in one another’s lands, as I’ve made brief mention of already. There are too many such examples to catalogue here, so I’ll discuss one I found quite striking concerning a fresco found in what was an Egyptian port city called Peru-Nefer (modern Tell ed-Dab’a).
The reconstruction shows that it’s a scene of bull-leaping, similar to that found in the great palace of Knossos in Crete. In addition to the distinctly Minoan motif, this particular type of fresco, called buon fresco, painting done with pigments dissolved in water on a thin coat of still-wet plaster, itself originated in Crete, so artisans from the island had to have either worked on this one, or, at a minimum, trained those who did. Indeed, there seems to have been a craze for Minoan frescoes in the ancient Levant, as they appear in several locations in Egypt and Canaan, including what’s now known as Kabri in Israel, Alalakh in Turkey, Qatna in Syria, as well as Dab’a in Egypt.
Furthermore, a site called Mari in what’s now Eastern Syria, has yielded more than 25,000 clay tablets inscribed with Akkadian text, including a wealth of documentation of ancient trade. Sadly, it is known to have been pillaged by looters during the present civil war while archaeologists have looked on helplessly. Cline elaborates on the find:
The archives included records of trade and contact with other areas of the Mediterranean and Near East, with specific mention of unusual items that were received. We also know from these tablets that gifts were frequently exchanged between the rulers of Mari and those of other cities and kingdoms, and that the kings requested the services of physicians, artisans, weavers, musicians, and singers from one another.
Included among the exotic imported objects recorded in the tablets at Mari were […] weapons made of gold and inlaid with precious lapis lazuli, as well as clothing and textiles […] The items had traveled a long way from Crete, acquiring what is now known as “distance value,” in addition to the inherent value that they already held because of the workmanship and the materials from which they were made.
So what happened to this early global trade network? The Sea Peoples have been something of a bogeyman for the collapse. Often sited in making this claim is a desperate letter King Ammurapi of Ugarit wrote to the King of Alashiya (an ancient regional name for Cyprus):
My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? … Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.
Note that kings of the time often used familial terms in addressing their allies—using father, he is likely simply calling the king his elder. As to the Sea Peoples, not much is known about them—even the term used for them was made up by French archaeologists. What is known is that they seem to have been quite warlike: the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Canaanites, The Cypriots, and others were said to have fallen to them. When they turned toward Egypt, an inscription of Ramesses III names them and their depredations:
The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were on removed and scattered in the fray. No country could stand before their arms, from Khatte, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at [one time]. A camp [was set up] in one place in Amor. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjekker, Shekelesh, Denye(n) and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting “Our plans will succeed!”.
Note that most kings did not know how to write, with an official scribal class doing most of that work, but the inscription was ordered by Rameses III and written in his voice. Also, Khatte (Hatti) is Anatolia under the Hittites, Qode is in the southeast of modern Turkey, Carchemish is in the north of modern Syria, and Arzawa is in western Anatolia. Other inscriptions use these and other names, for a total of nine, for which there are some more-or-less conjectural correspondences:
- Peleset: Philistines
- Tjekker: Teucrians (a Trojan group)
- Shekelesh: Sicels (Sicilians)
- Denyen: Danaans (a Greek group)
- Washesh: Oscans (an Italic tribe)
- Eqwesh: Achaeans
- Lukka: Lycians
- Shardana: Sardinians
- Teresh: Tyrrhenians (Etruscans)
There are many theories about the origins of these tribes and what spurred them into action, from migrations driven by famine, to invasion in a quest for wealth. The Egyptians won a Pyrrhic victory against the Sea Peoples, with Ramesses declaring:
They are capsized and overwhelmed in their places. Their hearts are taken away; their soul is flown away. Their weapons are scattered in the sea.
Those he did not destroy, he claims to have settled in Canaan under the crushing yoke of his rule. But as I mentioned, the victory came at a high cost: the New Kingdom was over, and a decline known as the Third Intermediate Period began.
Nonetheless, the archaeological record seems not to jibe well with Ramesses’ account. Although many cities in the region were destroyed in this period, invasion doesn’t seem to account for all of them—the evidence seems to show some as rebellions, plagues, or natural disasters. A further sign that the Egyptian claims may be overblown or misinformed comes in the fact that the Greeks appear both as invaders and invaded, as do the Trojans.
The Bronze Age, obviously, was fueled by the metal of the same name, an alloy of copper and tin. Copper was abundant, with an important center for its production being Cyprus, from which our word copper descends, and for which one etymological analysis says that the Mycenaean ku-pi-ri-jo originates with the Sumerian word for the metal, zubar. To get from zubar to Κύπρος, consider first, a confusion with kubar, Sumerian for “bronze”, second, υ shifted from an ancient [u] sound to the classical [y], and last, the addition of the Greek masculine gender suffix, -ος. The Mycenaean form seems to have had an -ios ending, which marks a masculine genitive, so “of copper”, which seems to have been later dropped, as now Κύπριος means someone from Cyprus.
Tin, on the other hand, was hard to get—there was some, but not a lot in northern Anatolia, Cornwall, which was an important source later, is pretty far away, so most of it seems to have been brought from what’s now Afghanistan. Carol Bell observed:
The strategic importance of tin in the LBA was probably not far different from that of crude oil today. The availability of enough tin to produce […] weapons grade bronze must have exercised the minds of the Great King in Hattusa and the Pharoah in Thebes in the same way that supplying gasoline to the American SUV driver at reasonable cost preoccupies an American President today!
Handily if you run short on tin, there’s another, plentiful metal you can substitute to make bronze. Unfortunately, that metal is arsenic. What’s great about arsenical bronze is that weapons and armor manufactured using it actually take on several improved properties: arsenic acts as a deoxidizer, so castings are less porous and more ductile, and the capacity for work hardening is also increased, so better cutting edges can be created. Furthermore it can be given an attractive silver-colored surface.
The downside is of course that arsenic is categorically toxic. Most copper ore already contains arsenic, and smelting it vaporizes much of whatever is present as arsenic oxide. Ötzi, the Alpine ice-mummy, was carrying a nearly pure copper axe-head and had high levels of copper and arsenic particles in his hair, and so seems to have been involved in smelting. Copper and bronze smiths would often end up with chronic arsenic poisoning, causing peripheral neuropathy, a symptom of which is a weakening of the legs and feet. This may be the dark truth behind ancient myths of lame smiths, with Hephaestos being a paragon of the type. Start the large-scale manufacture of arsenical bronze and one can imagine the results: in addition to being even worse for metalworkers, anyone touching the finished product would also start to feel the effects of the metal’s toxicity. Copper arsenate, another compound of the same metals, has been used as an herbicide, fungicide, insecticide, rodenticide, and slug poison, but has been banned for many uses because it is also highly carcinogenic.
One of the factors often overlooked in the fall of Rome, which precipitated a more familiar Dark Age, was lead poisoning. The Romans found lead a wonder metal, using it in plumbing, makeup, and even as a flavor enhancer in their wine. The very word plumbing derives from Latin plumbum, “lead”, which also provides its chemical symbol, Pb. Before you start feeling superior, you should remember that we thought it was great to use in plumbing and paint, as well as to burn in our fuel until quite recently, and that’s with a much greater scientific understanding of the situation. It was one of the first times corporations had clear scientific evidence of deleterious effects and chose not to act until forced to do so. And our problems are not over; lead in the pipes was also the problem in Flint.
Bronze was on the way out. During the Dark Age, edged weapons of iron came into widespread use: by 900 BC, almost all weapons in grave goods were made of iron. Indeed some claim that the upheavals of the collapse had to do with an escalation of weaponry, including use of iron, or of bows with increased range.
Then as now, earthquakes were a constant danger over much of the region: there are 16 active faults known today. Some theorize an earthquake swarm, a sequence of seismic events over a large area. Just to the left of the famous Lion Gate in Mycenae the sharp rise in the ground is actually the shearing from a fault running through the site.
There were also extended periods of drought in the area, which would be pretty difficult for these early agrarian societies to deal with. Sites like Copán (in modern Honduras) seem to have suffered a similar fate—cities based on agriculture can rapidly expand their populations, but they are also very susceptible to dips in farming productivity. Disruptions in the supply of food mean that people have to leave urban areas and “live off the land” instead; returning to a subsistence hunting-and-gathering lifestyle.
While Egypt continued to limp along after the collapse, Greece came back stronger than it ever had been. After the 800s BC writing reappears in Greece, now adopting the Phoenician alphabet rather than Linear B, a system much better equipped to describe their language, and one much of the world still uses some form of today. Indeed, the vacuum left by the downfalls of some of the civilizations in the area was what allowed others to rise, including the Phoenicians, the Etruscans, the Romans, the Persians, the Israelites—the groups we think of as the wellsprings of Western civilization.
The apocalypse has haunted our species’ imagination however—a fall from a past Golden Age to one with diminished capacities and humbler hopes, or the end of all things: the Deluge, the End of Days, the Second Coming, Ragnarǫkkr, Frashokereti. No doubt for those trying to survive through those years of tumultuous destruction and catastrophic change, it was a grim struggle. But the arc of history, it seems, was toward the good. So if we are in the apocalyptical times that some suggest, perhaps it will represent an opportunity for some eventual betterment.
Read Subsequent Articles in this Series
- From “‘Priam’s Castle Blazing’: A Thousand Years of Trojan Memories”, Troy and the Trojan War, John Lawrence Angel, Machteld Johanna Mellink, eds., 1984.
- Hoffner & Beckman, 2009, my emphasis.
- In his 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which is now on my reading list. The image is also after one of his.