That Time Civilisation Collapsed and Writing Nearly Went Extinct

Why Did Cities Crumble and Kingdoms Fall in the Late Bronze Age?

A True Dark Age

People often refer to the Early Medieval Period, from around the Fall of Rome to the Viking era, as the ‘Dark Ages‘. A time defined by technological and cultural regression, and a loss of scientific knowledge gained throughout Classical Antiquity. Whilst this isn’t wholly untrue, literacy levels did fall during this period and record-keeping suffered as a result, it’s also pretty damn far from being true. In fact, the term bugs historians so much, most of them now say it’s a misnomer and refuse to use it. There’s a couple of reasons for this:

  1. The term only makes the remotest bit of sense if you think history is confined to Europe. The Islamic Golden Age started during this time, the Maya were in their Classic Period, and the Chinese were inventing gunpowder. If a ‘Dark Age’ existed, it certainly wasn’t global.
  2. Even in Europe, it only makes sense if you squint really hard and ignore some important artistic and scientific advancements.

Pictured: technological and cultural regression, apparently.

However, there is one period in human history that certainly could be described as a ‘Dark Age’. A time when empires fell and cities burned, art lost much of its complexity and writing itself barely survived (thank fuck it did, or I would be even less use to society than I am already). In this period, known as the Bronze Age Collapse, all the great empires of the Mediterranean crumbled, most beyond repair. Only Egypt, Assyria and Elam survived, and even they would take many centuries to recover. If indeed, they ever did restore their former glory.

Gone were the Hittites in Anatolia, the Mycenaeans in Greece and the Babylonian Kassites. As well as the Minoans, Luwians and Amorites. Every city from Pylos to Gaza was violently razed to the ground, including Mycenae, Hattusa and Ugarit; some of the largest and most powerful metropolises in the world at that time. In less than a century, every major kingdom that existed in 1200 BCE, was either wiped off the map, or brought to its knees. So yeah, in terms of ‘terrible times to be alive’, this era really takes the biscuit.

The weirdest thing is, no one is sure why everyone just collectively went “fuck this civilisation shit” and started wrecking the joint. For a while historians had their theory, that the mysterious Sea People just came out the oceans and ruined everything because…reasons?

I nicked this joke from an archaeologist, which is a tragic thing for a comedy writer to have to admit.

However, if we are willing to withdraw our heads from our asses and Do the Damn Research! we may find that this theory alone doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. That the Sea People may be as much a symptom, as they were a cause, of the collapse and a more nuanced understanding is needed; if we want to gain a clearer picture of what happened.

The Most Precious Resource

Now, if you haven’t heard of the Bronze Age Collapse before, you may well have a few questions. Like, what’s a Bronze Age? How did it go tits up? And who the fuck are these ‘Sea People’?

We’ll get to causes and water dwelling warriors shortly, but to answer the first question, we must start by defining ‘bronze’. Bronze is a metal alloy, made of approximately 88% copper and 12% tin. You can make bronze with arsenic instead of tin but don’t…because, you know, it’s fucking arsenic! Prolonged smithing with that stuff will ruin you (which might be why many metal-working gods, like Hephaestus, have a limp). A ‘Bronze Age’ exists once a culture has successfully learned to forge this metal for itself, or trade for it, in significant quantities. The addition of tin or arsenic to bronze made it stronger and more durable than plain old copper. This gave Bronze Age civilisations a technological advantage over their rivals.

The Bronze Age equivalent of a Winchester rifle. (It’s actually a spearhead, but you get the point).

Acquiring copper was no biggie in the Ancient Near East, even though a large quantity of it came from a single source: Cyprus (kupros means ‘copper ore’ in Greek). However, tin was another matter entirely. It’s actually quite a rare metal, about as abundant as uranium. So, whilst some was mined in Anatolia (modern Turkey) and a trickle may have even made its way down from Cornwall, England, the vast majority came from mines many miles to the east in Afghanistan.

This meant none of the civilisations of the Late Bronze Age were self-sufficient. They all relied on a vastly complicated trade network, in order to acquire the materials and goods necessary to support their economies and populations. In fact, it is one of the few times in history that international trade has been as comparably interconnected and complex to the present.

In this context, you can imagine tin playing a very similar role in the ancient world to crude oil in our global economy today. A rare and valuable resource, upon which all industry, agriculture and military depended. Without tin there was no bronze and without bronze there was nothing. The artisan and the farmer needed bronze for their tools, the soldier needed it for his sword and, thus, the king needed it for his kingdom. This complexity, interdependence, and reliance in trade, would be a critical factor in the turmoil to come.

Delusions of Grandeur

King Tut’s death mask…you may or may not be cursed now. So, apologies if that’s the case.

If I asked you to name a key figure or event of the Late Bronze Age, you may well just stare at me blankly. However, there’s a good chance you actually know a lot more about this time than you realise. Many of the great Egyptian pharaohs you learned about in school were from this era. Including, Tutankhamun, of madly bling tomb/spurious curse fame; his father, the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, who tried to introduce some form of proto-monotheism to Egypt, nearly getting himself erased from history in the process; and Ramses II, widely regarded by historians as one of the most bitching and badass pharaohs of all time (also widely regarded by Theologians as that guy who was a dick to Moses).

Add into the mix Hatshepsut, one of the first true female pharaohs, who, quote: ‘ruled like a man’, and legendary MILF Nefertiti, and you can see this is the VIP section of Ancient Egyptian history. In fact, when someone says the words ‘Ancient Egypt’, this is probably where your mind goes. It’s also the era of Achilles and the Trojan War (if it happened), the Palace of Knossos and the Battle of Qadesh, the earliest recorded battle in history. Cities capable of supporting tens of thousands of people were commonplace and, for the first time, a couple grew to populations of 100,000+. The largest, Pi-Ramses in Egypt, was home to over 160,000.

Mythical hero of the Trojan War: Brad Pitt.

These were highly organised and sophisticated societies, with a standard of living that had never been seen before and would not be seen again for many centuries. Better tools and irrigation techniques improved farming productivity, meaning, for possibly the first time in human history, food was in surplus. Now every individual didn’t have to be out in the field, tilling their grain all the time, some could make cool stuff, sell it, and buy food instead. So, art, architecture and pottery got pretty groovy, which was nice.

Things people are capable of when they’re not worried about their children starving.

The reason I witter on about all this, is that without a sense of the scale and grandeur of these societies, it’s hard to appreciate just how severe and dramatic the collapse was. Hill forts seem pretty neat until you put them next to Abu Simbel (those enormous statues pictured above) or a phat ziggurat; then they’re suddenly a whole lot less sexy. We must understand how high we climbed, to realise how far we fell.

It’s possible that the people of the Late Bronze Age viewed their civilisation much like we do ours today: so much more advanced, powerful, and robust than anything that had come before. Perhaps, they even thought it immune to the follies that had ruined those previous societies. Leaving them too arrogant and ignorant to address their own fragilities…a lesson we’ve all surely learned by now, right guys?

*Sticks fingers in ears and starts whistling*

How Empires Fall Like Dominoes

So, now we’re all clear on just how badass these Bronze Age civilisations were, we can start to ponder the crazy shit that must’ve gone down to make them fold so quickly. So, let’s start with those pesky Sea People. Who were they and could they really have brought about the end of the world as people knew it at that time?

Considering their immense reputation, actual records and evidence of Sea People is scarce. Our primary source is Ramses III’s entry into the epic dick measuring contest that is history, at Medinet Habu. Where he basically just talks about how he, and he alone, had the brains and the balls to stop them. Which, y’know, I’m not saying is wholly inaccurate, he probably did win a battle or two against them, just that ancient rulers weren’t the types to admit to having ‘tiny hands’…so it’s hard to say where propaganda begins and historical record ends.

Ramses III (who was a giant with a knife-wielding hawk, according to this mural) totally merking the Sea People.

Something Ramses does tell us that is, sort of, useful is where these people came from…or went to…we’re not sure which exactly. We’re also not certain of the groups, or locations, these names refer to, although we have some educated guesses based around their consonant structure (see below). One or two things that are clear from the inscriptions and depictions we have, is that these were not a unified people or culture, rather a loose coalition; and they were not purely a military force. Images of ‘Sea People’ show different cultural dresses, women, oxen, wagons, and children. Meaning they were probably formed by various island-dwelling and coastal communities, from across the eastern Mediterranean, who were motivated by migration as opposed to conquest.

Inscription related to ‘Sea People’/Possible identification

Denyen/Ekwesh = Danaoi/Acheans (Greeks)
Peleset = Philistines (who according to the Bible came from Crete, which fits nicely)
Shekelesh = Sicilians
Shardana = Sardinians
Lukka = Lycians
Teresh = Tyrrhenians
Weshesh = Wilusians (Trojans)
Tjeker = Sicels (Sicilians)/Troads (Trojans)

Once historians cottoned on to this and evidence of drought around this time emerged, a new linear model for the collapse was proposed. This started with the drought, which led to famine, which led to the movement of people, which led to conflict and the cutting of trade routes, which led to the collapse. Tying everything up in a neat, tidy, bow. There’s a couple of problems with this though: (a) it’s too neat and tidy, history is usually much murkier and rarely follows such obvious progressions; and (b) it doesn’t really answer what caused the collapse because something must’ve caused the famine. Climate change has been proposed, but then what caused that?

This map should clarify things…shouldn’t it?

It seems we are always searching for a smoking gun that signifies a clear beginning to the collapse but what if there isn’t one? What if the collapse was a complex web of factors, some triggered independently, that all interacted with and, in many cases, exemplified each other? This is the theory proposed by Eric H. Cline in his excellent book: 1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed. In which, ironically, Cline argues there is no clear beginning date to the collapse.

Cline sees evidence for natural disasters, droughts, famines, disease, invasions, internal rebellions, trade disruption and systems failures but he doesn’t see that evidence occurring in a nice sequential pattern. Sea People are recorded as invading Egypt in both 1207 BCE and 1177 BCE, for example, and an earthquake storm was ripping through the region from approx. 1300-1150 BCE. Cline sees each of these factors as stressors that faced alone, or even in some lesser combination, many of these societies could’ve survived. It just so happened that, in this instance, many stressors triggered close together and they sometimes fed into, or reignited, each other.

Once enough of these stressors had built up to crush one kingdom, they all would’ve become more vulnerable. The day Cyprus fell, copper production in the whole region would’ve been severely disrupted. As soon as the Hittites disappeared, so did their access to the lucrative eastern trade routes and, as a result, everyone’s access to tin. The complexity, connection and interdependence that had allowed these societies to flourish suddenly became a weakness. Like the world’s most terrible game of Jenga, as soon as one brick was removed, they all came tumbling down.

But hey, at least there are no pertinent comparisons to draw between the Bronze Age Collapse and the present, right guys?


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Do Your Own Damn Research!

If you would like to learn more about the Bronze Age Collapse, I highly recommend you watch this lecture, with Eric H. Cline, which was a great help to me when writing this article (any unreferenced claims, relating to the collapse, in this piece are likely to be backed up here and/or in his book):

Eric H. Cline is the author of 1177 BCE: The Year Civilisation Collapsed. Which is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a much deeper understanding of the era.

Want to learn more but find lectures and books too heavy? Watch this brilliant series from Extra Credits:

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