The sudden sensationalism of the 2nd millennium BC (LBAC, Part 3)
Who knew the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC) would suddenly blow up on social media? A few weeks ago articles began appearing in my Facebook feed from a variety of sources. The first was from Atlas Obscura, a site whose stories I have enjoyed in the past:
A Centuries-Old Frieze, Newly Deciphered, Tells the Story of the End of the Bronze Age
This immediately struck me as wrong on a number of levels. first it should be millennia-, (roughly 3200 years) not “centuries-old”, and why is it “newly deciphered” rather than discovered, and then there is not a story of “the End of the Bronze Age” but many of them across a large geographical area, and finally there’s an implication that the inscribers of the frieze somehow knew they had been living in the Bronze Age—this is it, guys; tomorrow we switch to iron.
The article itself is somewhat more circumspect, noting that there is controversy about some of the claims made by Institute for Luwian Studies president, Eberhard Zangger, including the possibility of forgery.
As many of these articles note, the original frieze upon which this text was inscribed was dug up by villagers in Beyköy, Turkey in 1878. It seems to already have been broken into chunks. Georges Perrot carefully transcribed everything, even though he did not know the language, before the villagers used the original pieces in the foundation of a mosque. Perrot’s notes were lost, but a supposed copy of a copy was found.
The story was rapidly echoed around the internet on sites running the gamut from tabloids to “legitimate” mainstream press to scientific journals:
- Mysterious civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ were wiped out by ‘world war zero’ 3,000 years ago (Daily Mail)
- Archaeologists decipher 3,200-year-old stone telling of invasion of mysterious sea people (The Independent)
- Entire Civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ May Have Been Wiped Out in ‘World War Zero,’ Archaeologists Say (Inquisitr)
- Devastating ‘World War ZERO’ destroyed ancient Mediterranean civilisations and plunged Europe into a dark age (The Mirror)
- World War Zero brought down mystery civilization of ‘sea people’ (New Scientist)
- Luwian hieroglyphic inscription explains the end of the Bronze Age (Phys.org)
- Scientists proclaim a new civilization in the Aegean Bronze Age (Popular Archaeology)
- 3200 Jahre alte Hieroglyphen könnten das Rätsel um den Untergang der Imperien im östlichen Mittelmeer lösen (Der Spiegel, “3200-year-old hieroglyphs could solve the puzzle of the downfall of the empires of the eastern Mediterranean”)
Despite the lurid headlines all the articles I’ve seen contain the necessary disclaimers though buried in the late paragraphs if you actually read them.
To quickly clear the air, World War Zero, is an absurd claim. People in Shang Dynasty China (商朝), for example, not only were completely uninvolved in any warfare in the region, they were entirely unlikely to have been aware of the calamities of the LBAC, or for that matter, even the existence of these civilizations. At most, the area involved in the LBAC stretched from modern Italy to Afghanistan, and the large nations needed for such a conflict were also not warring against each other, but fending off the raiding Sea Peoples, who, as the name suggests, did not constitute a nation at all, but several different ragtag migrating groups.¹
As to the Luwians, just looking into the name, we see it in Mycenaean Greek in the toponym ru-wa-ni-jo (Λυϝανίος/ Luwanios), which shows a genitive ending, so it is “land of the Luwians”. However, it is generally accepted that Luwian is a language, and never spoken of either in that language, or those used nearby as a people, and so this name is effectively “land where Luwian is spoken”. Luwian was widely spoken in Anatolia, and indeed within the Hittite kingdom, particularly in the capital, Ḫattuša. The language was closely related to Hittite as a fellow member of the Anatolian branch of Indo-European, and the hieroglyphic script was commonly used on Hittite political monuments. And far from being known by only a few, the language is well documented. It’s also worth noting that none of the serious scholars of the language are on board with Zangger.
Fred Woudhuizen, the Luwian language specialist of the group also tried to connect it to Etruscan, even though most agree the latter language to not even be Indo-European. The Institute also claimed to have deciphered the Phaistos Disc, which serious scholars have found indecipherable without additional data from other sources. The many and varied proposed solutions have been labeled as classic examples of pseudoarchaeology.
That’s the main items debunked, but James Mellaart, in whose notes the copy of the transcription that was eventually translated was found, is definitely worth a bit of discussion as well. In what is now known as the Dorak Affair, Mellaart, through a highly suspicious set of events, presented extensive sketches and notes of what he claimed to be a group of antiquities from the Yortan culture, the so-called “Dorak Treasure”, to the British Institute of Archaeology. None of the details, however, could be verified—the address in Izmir where he supposedly viewed the items did not correspond to the residence he said he visited. Subsequently, Turkish authorities came to believe that he was party to smuggling the treasure he had described, permanently banning Mellaart from the country. The treasure likely never existed, and was simply a hoax perpetrated by Mellaart and his wife, though others insist the CIA was involved. In any case Mellaart had to issue a public apology and his reputation as a serious archaeologist was forever marred.
Although incorrect as to Metal and the Fonz in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs of 2003, Chuck Klosterman was prescient about the news media. He describes how,
It’s not that the truth is being ignored; it’s just that the truth is inevitably combined with bunch of crap that’s supposed to make news stories unbiased and credible, but really just makes them longer and less clear.
And since then, there has been a natural escalation of the trend, such that articles can make exaggerated and sensationalist claims, then include far past the TL; DR limit the information that this “news” is widely disputed. They have thus tricked you into clicking, told you a bunch of useless nonsense, and then, as an afterthought, let you know that they have wasted your time.
The other interesting thing about the rapid spread of misinformation is the growing field of churnalism. Most of these articles don’t even bother to appear original, they simply repeat the story, and the outlets the stories appear in don’t create content, they simply aggregate it. The New Scientist article appears to have been the original. None of these articles say anything different from one another—they all contain some version of the same information in a longer or shorter format. Even the Zangger quotes they use seem to come from a press release, or at most a quick perusal of the Institute’s website, rather than real interviews or research.
Maybe the worst part about this sensationalist rumormongering is that this is the second time around for the Institute’s far-fetched claims. All the same information, barring the suspicious inscription, is old news—there was already a flurry of shallow reportage back in May of 2016. And it was thoroughly debunked by serious scholars back then, but no one let that stop them.
My version of the article would have gone something like this:
Fringe Scientists Advance Dubious Smoking Gun for LBAC
Legitimate community gives emphatic thumbs down
Eberhard Zangger has a story for you. It’s an epic one, with invasions, counterinvasions, and civil wars. Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites, Minoans, Trojans, Greeks, and more are caught up in its immense sweep.
But no matter how grand and appealing this tale is, very little is given in the way of actual evidence, and indeed, it flies in the face of what is generally accepted in the field.
And while the very nature of science is that conventional wisdom must yield to new evidence, what the Institute for Luwian Studies offers is quite slim: an inscription, rather than hard archaeological data.
Homer’s tales of the Trojan War, which also figure into Zangger’s theory, do not constitute fact (and similarly, the accepted view is that they contain only a kernel of truth—that the Mycenaean Greeks seemingly did engage in conflicts with Trojans in western Anatolia), and until corresponding evidence comes to light (as the ruins of Troy did), they remain merely stories.
Furthermore, the inscription that comprises the linchpin of the theory is yet to be revealed. In a move more Barnumesque than befitting the scientific community’s gravitas, the Institute for Luwian Studies is actually only teasing a December unveiling.
The Institute for Luwian Studies’ first salvo came in May of 2016: Zangger, went wide with a sensationalist “World War Zero” angle together with zero evidence, but said he expected to find it using boots-on-the-ground archaeological digs in the region. Even if this effort had gone forward, in spite of the shoddy science of trying to make evidence fit a theory, that’s not what transpired.
Instead, an unnamed person sifting through the notes of a discredited archaeologist came forward with a possible forgery purporting to be a copy of a copy of a transcribed no-longer extant Luwian inscription, which just happened to be the puzzle piece Zangger needed to prove what he has been arguing.
Although it seems reasonable to wait and see what information is put forward in December, it is also worth noting that this PR campaign also involves a Zangger book launch, so I’d recommend taking all this as just one step removed from a claim of ancient aliens.
Read Previous Articles in this Series
- I’m paraphrasing Eric Cline in “World War Zero or Zero World War?”, Rogue Classicism, 2016.