In the 12th century BCE, a well-connected and thriving ancient Mediterranean world collapsed into darkness. This early “dark age” was international in nature, as multiple major powers across the Mediterranean and Near East were suddenly extinguished. Theories abound as to the possible cause of this devastating civilizational collapse; from the mysterious piratical Sea People, to a climate change catastrophe. Here is a brief introduction to the Bronze Age collapse and 5 key theories about this enduring mystery.
What Was The Bronze Age Collapse?
The late Bronze Age saw a wave of highly developed civilizations decline and collapse quite suddenly, between around 1200 – 1150 BCE. Several early writing systems vanished, in what is sometimes referred to as the world’s first dark age, and many regions would take centuries to recover.
The largest major powers affected by the Bronze Age collapse were:
The Mycenaean Greeks. These are the Greeks who are mentioned in the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, although the poems themselves were written later. Greece would experience a prolonged dark age after the Bronze Age collapse, in which writing vanished and the Mycenaean palaces were abandoned.
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New Kingdom Egypt. This period of Egyptian history is best remembered for the reigns of Tutankhamun and Rameses II. Egypt reached its largest extent in the thriving New Kingdom Period. Following the Bronze age collapse, a weakened Egyptian civilization would limp on during the troubled Third Intermediate Period.
The Hittite Empire. The Hittites were based in what is now Turkey, and at their height they ruled over an enormous stretch of land that engulfed much of the Levant. Anatolia would gradually split into smaller kingdoms after the Bronze Age collapse.
Kassite Babylonia. The longest lasting of several Babylonian dynasties, the Kassites held the region between the Tigris and Euphrates in what is now Iraq for over 400 years. During and after the Bronze Age Collapse Babylonia was invaded by their neighbors, the Elamites and the Assyrians.
All these regions, as well as other smaller kingdoms record major strife around this time, and the archaeology is even more revealing. Late bronze sites across the ancient world regularly reveal collapsed houses, bodies in the streets, and buildings ravaged by fire.
So what might have happened?
1. The Sea People
This is the most popular theory on our list, and the Sea People have captivated people’s imaginations for centuries. During the 19th century, a mysterious set of inscriptions were found at the Egyptian temples of Medinet Habu and Karnak, dating to the late Bronze Age. These inscriptions describe an enigmatic band of warriors who set upon Egypt, embarking on raids along the Nile Delta.
Although they are specifically mentioned in the context of late Bronze Age Egypt, these raiders have since been blamed for the Bronze Age collapse itself, on the grounds that they may have swept across the Mediterranean, leaving a wave of devastation in their wake.
One particular inscription states:
“No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti [the Hittites], Qode [in Anatolia], Carchemish [in Syria], Arzawa [in Anatolia], and Alashiya [Cyprus] on, being cut off (destroyed) at one time”
—Medinet Habu Relief, 12th century BCE
Corroborating evidence for the destructive power of this band has emerged in the form of letters from the late Bronze Age city of Ugarit in present-day Syria, which mentions the presence of seaborn raiders off the coast.
The warriors included in the Egyptian inscriptions are described as: the Pelesets, the Teresh, the Lukka, the Tjekker, the Shekelesh, the Shardana, the Denyen, the Ekwesh and the Weshesh. The names of all of these peoples were largely unfamiliar to archaeologists when they were first discovered, although several of these nations are mentioned in other texts.
Locating the origin of this motley band has been extremely difficult, and to this day there are many theories attached to each of the individual names mentioned on the list. The written evidence simply describes these invaders as coming “from the sea” or “from the islands,” but gives very little additional information to allow us to locate them.
With very little to go on, there are several key theories as to who the Sea People might have been and why they caused such chaos. One particularly popular theory places the finger of blame on the Mycenaean Greeks.
Close readings of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad have led to a wave of theories that at least some of the Greeks at this time were engaged in some sort of piratical coalition that wreaked havoc on the ancient Mediterranean. While these epic poems are semi-legendary in nature, there are strong reasons to believe they also accurately depict some aspects of life in the ancient Bronze Age Mediterranean.
Furthermore, some historians speculate that the Trojan War was a real event from the Late Bronze Age, which may potentially explain some of the devastation wrought in Western Anatolia in this period.
The Egyptian Sea People inscriptions also support this theory to some degree; the “Peleset” people mentioned in the Egyptian texts have been linked fairly successfully with the ancient Philistines, who according to biblical history came specifically from Mycenaean Crete.
There are also many problems with this theory, not least of which is that Greece itself was particularly badly affected by the Bronze Age Collapse.
There are many other theories about the origins of the Sea People, too many to list here. Some scholars have convincingly linked some of the names in the inscriptions to various locations in Asia Minor, and the Levant, suggesting that the Sea People were a multi-ethnic coalition of raiders from many nations.
Other historians place them even further afield, connecting the Sea People with tribes from the region of Central Europe, which was also experiencing a major upheaval during this period. In this particular theory, refugees from the north pushed down into the Mediterranean basin, raiding as they went.
While theories about the Sea People are still wildly popular, many historians argue that this small group of raiders who we know were crushed by the Egyptians within a couple of years could not possibly be the sole cause of such a large civilization-ending calamity. The difficulty in locating the origin of the Sea People may also indicate that they were quite simply a band of pirates, drawn from no nation in particular, and their presence in the sources has been overblown by historians looking for an easy explanation.
Many now believe that in all likelihood, the appearance of the Sea People in Egypt around this time was a symptom of the Bronze Age Collapse — not a cause.
2. Climate Catastrophe
Some historians attribute the appearance of the Sea People to a wave of larger migrations caused by an environmental catastrophe — a severe famine. This theory is supported by the presence of ox-carts in some of the depictions of the Sea People in Egypt, which has led to speculation that the Sea People were in fact refugees of some kind.
Initially this argument was based on several pieces of textual evidence that have survived from the late Bronze Age civilizations. For example, a written letter to Rameses II, from Hittite Queen asks the Egyptian ruler for emergency food supplies, stating “I have no grain in my lands.” Another letter, from a Hittite King to the Bronze Age city of Ugarit in the levant, asks for barley, and states quite seriously that “it is a matter of life and death.”
These letters slightly predate the Bronze Age collapse, which may count against them, or it may simply indicate that a lengthy famine set a chain of events in motion that would lead to an international catastrophe.
It has also even been suggested, somewhat tenuously, that the plagues mentioned in the Book of Exodus from the Hebrew Bible may be further evidence for harsh environmental conditions at the end of Bronze Age.
While the textual evidence does not seem like much to go on, a wave of scientific evidence in recent years has emerged to support this theory.
The earliest speculations about famine come from several studies from the 1960s which demonstrated that in late Bronze Age Greece there was a sudden sharp drop-off in the number of people living on the mainland. More recent studies seem to confirm that this drop in population coincides quite neatly with a sharp rise in temperatures in the Bronze Age Mediterranean.
For example, pollen samples from the late Bronze Age, taken from alluvial deposits in both Syria and Cyprus indicate a period of unusually high temperatures. This pattern has also been supported by evidence for low rainfall in late Bronze Age Israel, as well as studies of sediment cores taken from the Aegean Sea, which indicate a stark rise in air temperatures, and a drop in precipitation.
Changes in climate in the late 13th century BCE, may have caused a drought that led to a lengthy famine, provoking a humanitarian disaster that caused political chaos. The theory that climate change may have given rise to the mysterious Sea People also has precedence in other historical periods. Piracy is often a last resort option for people who cannot support themselves any other way.
In a similar fashion, various Bronze Age people may have taken to a life of raiding because their survival was at stake.
Some historians believe a different kind of natural disaster may be behind the collapse of the late Bronze Age civilizations — earthquakes.
While the land around the Aegean sea has many natural advantages, it is also the meeting point of various tectonic plates. Some historians speculate, one huge volcanic event, or series of particularly dramatic earthquakes may explain why so many civilizations in this period were destroyed in unison. A large volcanic eruption, or an event known as an earthquake storm, in which multiple quakes happen in a short period, might have led to particularly large scale destruction.
One reason for the popularity of this theory is that an earlier Bronze Age civilization was effected by just such event. A volcanic catastrophe helped to destroy the ancient civilization of Minoan Crete, when the volcanic island of Thera (Santorini), exploded in a devastating eruption, so large that the island now resembles a massive crater.
The tremors caused by the explosion, along with the gigantic tidal wave created by the collapse of the island into the sea, crippled the once prosperous Minoan civilization, in the 1600s BCE.
While it is difficult to prove such a cataclysmic event actually occurred in the Late Bronze Age, this theory is more than just idle speculation. Many cities from across the late Bronze Age Mediterranean and Near East appear to have undergone some form of violent destruction. While some of these cities betray all the characteristics of having been sacked by invading enemies — with tell-tale signs such as arrowheads lodged in walls — many others show a different kind of upheaval.
Common signs of earthquake damage show up en masse in the archaeological record, including large cracks running through buildings, walls leaning at strange angles, toppled pillars, and bodies crushed by fallen debris.
Earthquake damage has been identified with some certainty in Mycenaean Greece in particular, where major sites at Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes and Pylos, all appear to have been ruined by earthquakes, close to the date of the Bronze Age collapse.
While it seems in many places life appears to have resumed as normal after these earthquakes hit, with obvious repairs to buildings in many locations, one or more large earthquakes may have seriously impacted the smooth-running of these late Bronze Age civilizations.
4. The Warfare Revolution
Different versions of this theory tie-in quite neatly with theories about the Sea People. The civilizations which emerged after the Bronze Age collapse were quite different from their predecessors. One major difference between them was their armor, weapons, and military tactics.
The Bronze Age collapse coincides almost exactly with the rise of Iron Age technology. From around 1200 BCE, iron based implements started to roll out across Europe and the Middle East. The use of iron was revolutionary in many respects, because iron is much harder than bronze, and makes for far better tools and weaponry.
While this seems almost too convenient to possibly be a coincidence, many historians argue that the piecemeal discovery of the iron working processes across the Mediterranean and Near East moved nowhere near fast enough to have impacted the course of so many civilizations in a 50 year period. The presence of iron weaponry in 12th century sites is vanishingly rare.
Others remain convinced that iron tools may have changed the rules of warfare so fast that new groups who were quick off the mark were suddenly given a military advantage over their neighbors; the marauding Sea People among them.
While not everybody agrees that iron was involved, a strong argument has been made by the respected historian Robert Drews, that the late Bronze Age saw a change in military technology that helped change the shape of global politics. While Drews doesn’t argue in favor of an iron-based revolution, he does note the sudden uptick in the use of bronze swords, and javelins during the 12th century BCE.
Late Bronze Age warfare was typically characterized by the use of war chariots and bows. Armies such as those that fought in huge Bronze Age battles, such as the Battle of Kadesh, consisted of lightly armored charioteers, who would throw various projectiles at each other from a distance. Swords on the other hand were rarely used.
By the 12th century, however, the men depicted in the so-called Sea People reliefs were armed quite differently. They carried slashing swords and javelins and wore heavily reinforced corselets as armor.
These seaborne invaders represent a new type of military that would come to take over in the iron age — composed of heavily armed infantrymen, equipped with thrusting weapons and small round shields.
While under other circumstances the Sea People may have been just a nuisance, when armed with superior technology they became a terrifying menace. Their javelins in particular would have been used to kill horses and immobilize chariots, allowing these well-armed infantrymen to move in and finish the job.
With the balance of power tipped towards various newcomers, the major civilizations of the Bronze Age were now vulnerable on the battlefield.
5. The Bronze Age Collapse: A Systems Collapse
The Systems Collapse theory is often regarded as either the most nuanced answer, or the cop-out answer, depending on your point of view. The Systems Collapse theory has been put forward by several well-known archaeologists, and it incorporates many ideas from the four theories mentioned above.
The strength of the Systems Collapse theory, is that it needs no one all-encompassing disaster to explain the end of the bronze civilizations. Instead it argues a series of smaller disasters was enough to topple a complex international system, inaugurating a new world, with new power-players.
The states of the late Bronze Age period tended to be organized in a similar fashion, with a series of central palaces, or central temples, that distributed grain and other foodstuffs.In theory, ancient Bronze Age leaders got much of their position in society from this communal system of food distribution. This granted Bronze Age leaders a lot of prestige and power, but made their positions precarious — if they failed to deliver prosperity, they were likely to be cast aside.
As these ancient kingdoms grew in strength throughout the late Bronze Age, they fostered a surprising international system of trade and political alliances. For example, we have many cuneiform letters written between the Hittite monarchs and the Egyptian pharaohs, as well as many other smaller Bronze Age kingdoms.
Shipwrecks from the late Bronze Age Mediterranean, also reveal a large and international network of trade. Ships found lying on the sea bed from this date, are often stocked with an astonishing selection of wares, which would have been available to Bronze Age shoppers. The trade in tin and copper necessary to make bronze, was especially important at this time, providing new luxury goods and tools for Bronze Age people.
With an international system of commerce came complexity, luxury, and more sophisticated ways of living. However, in large interconnected systems, strife in one region can have an egregious effect elsewhere.
If famine, earthquakes, or political strife disrupted this network in one or more regions, the knock-on effect on trade across the Mediterranean and Near East would have caused a series of dire calamities. Such a scenario is vulnerable to the so-called “multiplier effect”, when one disaster turns into twenty.
During the Bronze Age collapse, a domino effect may have come into play, toppling one civilization after another. As living standards fell, political authority was challenged, leading to new kingdoms and new systems of government. The palatial economies common in Bronze Age were soon swept away entirely, replaced by new less centralized societies which relied less on their governments for goods and services.
Although the systems collapse theory has risen in popularity in recent years, it is debatable whether it really answers the question. Many Systems Collapse advocates simply fall into the trap of arguing which major event caused such a large disruption in the first place, be it invasions, famine, or earthquakes.
The Bronze Age collapse ultimately has no easy answer, but the Systems Theory goes some way towards incorporating many factors into one explanation.