Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Crisis or
The End of the Bronze Age Part I

The end of the Bronze Age, (c. 1200-900 B.C.E.) in the history of the world may in fact be the great turning point. In this essay a brief look will be made of various causes, courses and consequences.


A) Climate Change

Around 1300 B.C.E. there is evidence of a cooling of the climate in the Middle East and Europe, in fact the whole Old World seems to have been affected by a gradual cooling has the weather became both cooler and noticeably dryer.

The evidence for an increase in dryness of the climate has come from an examination of many strands of evidence. For example evidence of prehistoric lake levels and the advance of Glaciers would seem to indicate that between c. 1250 B.C.E. - 1050 B.C.E, was a period of unusual dryness. The result was a series of prolonged and serious drought. Which brought in its wake chaos and disorder producing the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations.

The idea is that the Bronze Age civilizations were dependant on surpluses created by agriculture that disappeared when the drought came. Agricultural surpluses at this time tended to be very small so that a prolonged drought was potentially cataclysmic and not simply disastrous. Archaeological evidence indicates that in parts of Greece the population may have declined up to 75% during this time period.

Evidence from Babylonia indicates a period of severe dryness that lasted until c. 900 B.C.E. Evidence from Egypt indicates that there was at this time a period of dryness and bad harvests. Physical evidence from India indicates a period of dryness and poor local harvests in fact it appears possible that some Indian rivers may have dried out. In China there is some evidence from Oracle bone inscriptions of problems with harvests and the weather.

The problem with this evidence is that although it is suggestive it is not conclusive other pieces of evidence indicate that the weather was not unusually dry in each of the areas mentioned. Also increased dryness may have been a tendency not a sudden, dramatic change of weather conditions. In other words this is not a sufficient sole cause for the crisis.1

B) Mass Migrations

The Egyptian inscriptions record that the attacks of the Sea-Peoples where veritable movements of entire peoples, including children, wives and goods, of people looking for a place to settle down. Much of the migrations originated from Aegean area and peoples from there settled from Sardinia to Palestine. In Europe ceramic and other evidence indicates a series of mass movements into Europe.

It was first proposed in the late nineteenth century that the close of the Egyptian New Kingdom had been caused by the mass migrations of whole peoples. The model for this being the mass migrations of the period at the end of the Roman Empire.

The most convincing evidence for the mass migration theory is a series of inscriptions from Egypt that describe mass movements of peoples from the north into the Middle East. An inscription from the reign of Rameses III; the inscription talks about a confederacy of many different peoples that after destroying the Hittite Empire then devastates Syria before descending on Egypt. These inscriptions date from the reign of Rameses III (1182 - 1151 B.C.E).

For example:

The foreign countries made a plot in their islands. Dislodged and scattered by battle were the lands all at one time, and no land could stand before their arms, beginning with Khatti [Hittite Empire], Kode[Asia Minor] , Carchemish[Syria] , Arzawa[Asia minor] , and Alasiya [Asia Minor?]...A camp was set up in one place in Amor [Cannan?], and they desolated its people and its land as though they had never come into being. They came, the flame prepared before them, onwards to Egypt. Their confederacy consisted of Peleset, Tjekker, Sheklesh, Danu, and Weshesh, united lands, and they laid their hands upon the lands to the entire circuit of the earth, their hearts bent and trustful 'Our plan is accomplished!' But the heart of this god, the lord of the gods, was prepared and ready to ensnare them like birds...I established my boundary in Djahi , prepared in front of them, the local princes, garrison-commanders, and Maryannu. I caused to be prepared the river mouth like a strong wall with warships, galleys, and skiffs. They were completely equipped both fore and aft with brave fighters carrying their weapons and infantry of all the pick of Egypt, being like roaring lions upon the mountains; chariotry with able warriors and all goodly officers whose hands were competent. Their horses quivered in all their limbs, prepared to crush the foreign countries under their hoofs.

... a net was prepared for them to ensnare them, those who entered into the river-mouths being confined and fallen within it, pinioned in their places, butchered and their corpses hacked up. 2

It was evidence like the above that caused late nineteenth century historians to theorize by analogy with the "Wandering of Nations" at the end of the Roman Empire to suggest that something similar happened at this time. This explanation is now under severe attack. For example it appears that the analogy with events around the fall of Rome are not quite as convincing if only because it is now recognized that the "Barbarian Hordes" that "destroyed" the Roman Empire were actually quite small, (For example the largest "horde" referred to, the Vandals, numbered, Men, Women, Children and Slaves, 80,000 persons) and so migration turns out to be an inadequate explanation for the fall of Rome. That being the case it may not be the explanation for the end of the Bronze Age. Further the inscriptional evidence used to support this theory is not quite as clear as it seems given that many of the peoples referred to in fact lived quite close to the peoples they were attacking. Also evidence of a change in population is not apparent in most places.

Despite the above points there is some evidence in some areas of population change. For example the arrival of the Phrygians in Asia Minor by c. 1000 B.C.E., the Philistines in Palestine by 1150 B.C.E., and the Greek Speaking Dorians into southern Greece c. 1000 B.C.E. In most cases these migrations seem to have occurred one or two centuries after the collapse of Bronze Age civilization in the areas settled into by the people involved. The only exception seems to be the Philistines whose arrival coincides with the destruction of many cities in Syria / Palestine.3

Relief showing Ramese's III defeat of the Sea Peoples

C) Raiders

A different reading of the evidence indicates that, at least in the Aegean, it is possible that Raiders based in modern day Thessaly pillaged, one by one the Mycenaean Palaces and destroyed Troy.

This argument first originated from an analysis of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, which indicated that the traditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey seemed to originate from an area of southern Thessaly from which bands of sea-borne raiders originated in period of c. 1200-900 B.C.E. It seemed that oral traditions from that area played a role in creating the Epics of the Iliad and Odyssey whose traditions centred around the exploits of raiders. The problem with this account was that it was based on amalysis of traditions that involved only one of the cultures that collapsed and it did not explain the completeness of the collapse given that the raiders were interested in rich booty not in inflicting massive cataclysmic destruction.

In other words the raiders appeared to be more a symptom of decline than a cause of the decline and fall of Bronze Age civilization.4

D) The Military Explanation

During the Bronze Age Military Power was concentrated in the so-called Palace Civilizations, which based their power on the command of large Chariot armies. Egypt had thousands of Chariots, and so did Babylonia, Assyria and the Hittite empire.

In this time period Horses were not large or strong enough to support a human riding on his/her back, but were perfectly capable of drawing a Chariot. The Chariot was drawn by a team of Horses, (two). On the Chariot were usually 3 persons. The Driver who drove the horses, a soldier who protected with a shield and sword the main warrior, and the main warrior, the Archer who fired long arrows from a powerful compound bow.

The evidence indicates that the whole system was quite expensive. The horses had to be carefully trained to function as a team and were therefore expensive. The Chariot itself was a very expensive item requiring a specialist to build. The compound bow was expensive requiring, usually, years of work by a specialist to create. The armour of the Archer was also expensive. And the Archer required years of training and as a specialist warrior was not cheap. Add to that the driver, the cost of horse fodder, the great expense of Bronze weaponry, due to the cost and rarity of Bronze. The result was that most countries were much too small to support more than a few hundred Chariots. Only great states like Egypt or the Hittite empire, Assyria, Babylonia could support thousands of Chariots. Needless to say losing such expensive military equipment was not wanted given the cost of replacing it.

The Chariot and the Archer were the main military forces of this time period. The Chariot being used as a mobile platform for an archer to shoot from, and the main enemy of the chariot archer being other chariot archers. Battles were contests on level ground between chariot armies.

The Chariot Archer were aided by skirmishers who provided support and helped protect the horses from injury and attack. Theses forces also provided troops to besiege cities and fortresses and to provide troops to fight in difficult terrain, like mountains etc. Theses skirmishers were vastly more numerous than the numbers of Chariot archers, drivers and bodyguards.

Theses troops were recruited mainly from peoples living on the margins of the great civilizations, such has the peoples of central Greece, the Caucasus, the Zagros Mountains, and the Arabian Desert, highland areas throughout the Middle East and probably beyond.

Between 1300 B.C.E., and 1200 B.C.E., these skirmishers discovered that with their protective armour, javelins, long swords. Spears and the occasional bow combined with their vastly larger numbers that they could destroy the Chariot armies of the Palace civilizations. Only civilizations that could field large infantry forces to protect the Chariot forces had any chance with swarms of skirmishers who, killed or wounded the horses and then dispatched the vastly outnumbered archer, driver and body guard. The result was the pillaging of one Palace after the other, the destruction of cities and mass migrations throughout the eastern Mediterranean.5

E) The Advent of Iron

The warrior aristocracies of the late Bronze Age depended for their power on the use and monopoly of scarce bronze weaponry. Bronze was rare because it was an alloy of copper and tin. Copper was relatively common. Tin however was quite rare and had to be imported from far away. At this time the main source of tin seems to have been Hindu Kush area of the Himalayas. Tin also seems to have come in smaller amounts from England. Making bronze also required that both the copper and tin be liquefied and so required highly technical and specialized training to do. It also required fairly complex apparatus to do. This limited the ability of people to work with bronze. The result was to add greatly to the cost of the resulting bronze. The end result was very expensive bronze tools and weapons.

Iron had one crushing advantage over bronze, it was relatively common, certainly more common than copper. The main problem was that working iron required higher temperatures than bronze, but unlike bronze there was no need to liquefy iron it could be worked solid. It was the invention of the bellows that enabled craftsman to create the temperatures necessary to work iron. With bellows the craftsman, or blacksmith, working iron, was also considerably more mobile than the worker of bronze. With the loss of the monopoly of metal weaponry the warrior aristocracies collapsed.

We know that iron weaponry starts to appear in the 14th century, for example an iron dagger appears in the tomb of Tutankhamen, made from meteoric iron. The Hittites also started to use iron weapons in the 13th century. The problem with iron weaponry being the main reason for the collapse is that iron weaponry became common well after the end of the Bronze Age was underway. In fact the armies of the Sea Peoples and others that threatened the great civilizations were overwhelmingly armed with bronze. It appears that the spread of iron confirmed the collapse and end of the Bronze Age Warrior aristocracies but did not cause it.

At the last half of the dark age period, (1050-900 B.C.E.), it appears that large forces of iron equipped peoples had encircled, undermined and invaded the great civilizations of the Middle East and thus putting all such societies under serious threat. So it appears that iron played a role later on in prolonging the crisis, and confirming its effects.6

F) Systems Collapse

We know a fair bit about the Palace civilizations of the late bronze age due to the survival of Palace archives from such places as Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos in Greece, Hattusa in Turkey, Ashur in Assyria, Babylonian cuneiform tablets, and of course the records of Egypt.

What these tablets reveal is that the world of "Palace" civilizations was one of bureaucratic domination and administration.

Babylonian Boundary Stone

The records could be quite meticulous and detailed listing, vats of olive oil, amounts of wheat stored, officials working in the palace etc., etc. Given their size the "Palace Civilizations" were quite bureaucratic and top heavy. These societies depended upon a class of scribal record keepers to record taxes, of grains, olive oil, rare metals, etc. Further trade was subject to quite rigid control by the Palace bureaucracies.

The Palaces were not simply habitations for members of the Royal and Noble families, they were centers of bureaucratic control and production and distribution. For example the Palace of Minos at Knossos in Greece, which covered an area bigger than Buckingham Palace in England, devoted much of its space to storage and distribution of grain and olive oil. Also in the Palace was found archives and centers of bureaucratic activity. This pattern of centralized bureaucratic Palace culture with centralized taxation, distribution, production and control was found in the Hittite Empire, Babylonia, and Assyria and in Egypt. This system required meticulous record keeping and a staff of full time bureaucrats and record keepers.

At both Pylos in Greece, Thebes in Egypt and at Mari in Babylonia surviving archival documents reveal careful records were kept of size of herds of animals, taxes in kind from fields, amounts of various goods stored in different locations, who did what or was to do what, and Royal control of foreign trade.

It appears that the system was heavily dependent on the continued operation of the bureaucracy and the smooth functioning of system. It seems to have been rather sensitive to disruption. It seems to have required rather significant exploitation of the peasant population. As soon as the system was unable to extract the necessary taxes from the population it was in trouble. It appears that in many areas there was no significant middle part of the population, ("middle class"), to mediate the social dynamics between the classes of rulers and ruled.

So that when the system was stressed, by crop failure, invasion, wars, etc., it had a built in potential to crash and burn because it lacked strength to deal with the severe stress.

An analogy can be made with the Classic Maya collapse of 800-900 C.E., when another top-heavy system fell apart under stress because of lack of basic strength. Cultures like that of Egypt and Babylonia-Assyria were able to better weather the crisis because of the much greater strength of the middle strata of their societies and because the bureaucratic apparatus was therefore less of a burden on the societies.

Although suggestive this theory would be helped if we had much better records from this period and so is far from proven.7


The most obvious conclusion is that a search for a one cause for the collapse will fail. It appears that the reasons the collapse happened were multi-causal, and that theses causes interacted in such a way to produce the end of the Bronze Age and the birth of a new world.

Course and consequences to follow in Part II

1. Out of the Desert, William H. Stiebing Jr., Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1989, pp. 167-187. see The End of the Bronze Age, Robert Drews, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ., 1993, pp. 77-84 for a summary and critique.

2. From Here See also Ancient Records of Egypt, vol. 4, James Henry Breasted, University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL., 1906, pp. 37-39.

3. The Ancient Near East, vol. 2, Amelie Kuhrt, Routledge, London, 1995, pp. 385-410, Drews, pp. 48-72, The Sea Peoples, N. K. Sandars, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, Ancient Iraq, 3rd Edition, George Roux, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. 266-281, The Greatness that was Babylonia, H. W. F. Saags, Mentor Books, New York, 1962, pp. 98-104, also see Steibing above.

4. See Drews, pp. 91-93, and Sandars.

5, See Drews, Part 11, pp. 97-225.

6. Drews pp. 73-76, Sandars pp. 174-177, Rise of the West, William McNeil, University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL., 1963, pp. 117-118.

7. The Collapse of Complex Systems, Joseph Trainter, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, McNeil, pp. 116-133, Drews, 85-90. Kuhrt, pp. 385-410, Structure, Dynamics, and the Final Collapse of Bronze Age Civilizations in the Second Millenium B.C., Kajsa Ekholm Friedman, in Hegemonic Declines Present and Past, Ed. Jonathon Friedman, Chistopher Chase, Dunn Paradigm Publishers, London, 2005, pp. 51-87, Myths of the Archaic State, Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 131-160, Roux above, For the Mayan Collapse see The Fall of the Ancient Maya, David Webster, Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Course and Consequences to follow in Part II

Pierre Cloutier

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