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What caused the collapse of the Bronze Age?

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Over 3,200 years ago, the Mediterranean and the Near East were home to a thriving, interconnected Bronze Age civilization fueled by the lucrative trade in precious metals and finished goods. The great kingdoms and empires of the time—including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, and others—had the technological know-how to build huge palaces and employed scribes to keep records of their money and military exploits.

But within decades, that thriving culture had undergone a rapid and almost complete collapse. After 1177 B.C., survivors of that collapse in the Bronze Age plunged into centuries-old “dark ages” that saw the disappearance of some written languages ​​and the rise of once mighty kingdoms.

But what kind of catastrophic event could have caused such a sudden and sweeping fall?

It is possible that the simultaneous demise of many ancient civilizations was caused not by a single event or catastrophe, but by a “perfect storm” of multiple stressors — epic drought, desperate famine, roving thieves, and more — that toppled these interconnected corporate kingdoms like Stones. Dominoes, according to Eric Klein, author of 1177 BC: The General Collapse of Civilization.

Watch: Engineering an Empire: Egypt on HISTORY Vault

Old world “globalized”

Shows a replica of the wreck of the Uluburun, a Bronze Age ship discovered off the coast of Kas in Turkey. The ship dates back to between 1330 and 1300 BC and was carrying a full cargo of trade merchandise.

WaterFrame / Alamy Photo Gallery

Unlike today, a truly “globalized” economy existed in the Late Bronze Age as many ancient civilizations relied on each other for raw materials – particularly copper and tin to produce bronze – as well as trade in goods made of ceramics, ivory, and gold.

“We’re talking about a region that stretches today from Italy in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and from Turkey in the north to Egypt in the south. That whole region was quite interconnected,” says Klein, professor of classical language, Near Eastern studies, and ancient anthropology at George Washington University.

One way to understand the extent of this interconnectedness is through archaeological finds such as the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of modern Turkey. The wreck dates from the Late Bronze Age (circa 1320 BC) and its contents, scattered across the Mediterranean floor, include an impressive array of luxury goods: carved ivory ornaments, gold and onyx jewelry, and expensive raw materials from distant ports such as elephant tusks and the shell of elephants. Ostrich eggs.

Also on board were large shipments of copper and tin alloys in a typical 10 to 1 ratio, a recipe for making bronze, the strongest and brightest metal of its time. Klein says that copper was mined from Cyprus, tin in Afghanistan, while precious metals such as silver and gold came from Greece and Egypt. Even the wood used to build the hull was imported from cedar wood from Lebanon.

“This vessel is a microcosm of the international trade that was going on in the Late Bronze Age, both in raw materials and in finished products,” says Klein.

Read more: Prehistory: Timeline

Invasion of the “Sea Peoples”

The traditional explanation for the sudden collapse of these powerful and interconnected civilizations has been the arrival, at the turn of the 12th century BC, of ​​the invading conquerors known collectively as “Sea Peoples,” a term first coined by 19th-century Egyptologist Emmanuel D. Rouge.

In Ugarit, a major port city in Canaan, the king wrote of unknown enemies who burned his cities and “done evil things in my country.” In Egypt, the armies of the pharaoh fought off two separate attacks from these mysterious aliens, once in 1207 BC and again in 1177 BC. victorious over the sea peoples squadron.

While the Egyptians were able to fight off the Sea Peoples, other civilizations weren’t so lucky. The entire Mediterranean and Near East are filled with archaeological remains of cities that burned to the ground during this time period, such as Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittite Empire, and Megiddo in Canaan. Some believe that the legendary destruction of Troy may have originated with the invasion of the Sea Peoples.

The true origins of the Sea Peoples is one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries. One leading theory is that it originated from the western Mediterranean – the Aegean Sea or even the Iberian Peninsula in modern Spain – and was driven eastward by drought and other climatic disasters. Their ships invaded the Mediterranean strongholds with women and children, which indicates that the Sea Peoples were raiders and refugees.

An inscription on the walls of the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu depicting the massive naval battle when Egypt defeated the Sea Peoples.

DEA/ICAS94/Contributor/Getty Images

“The Sea Peoples are the greatest bogeyman of the Bronze Age Collapse,” says Klein. “I think they are part of it, but not the only cause. I think it was as much a symptom of the breakup as it was a cause.”

‘Mass drought’ and ‘earthquake storms’

In 2014, researchers from Israel and Germany analyzed core samples from Lake Tiberias and determined, using radiocarbon dating, that the period from 1250 to 1100 B.C. was the driest of the entire Bronze Age, what some scientists call a “mega drought.”

“This was a huge drought event,” Klein says. “It appears to have lasted at least 150 years and up to 300 years in some places.”

The Egyptians and Babylonians survived the worst drought due to their proximity to great rivers such as the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates. But other civilizations were not so fortunate. Where there is drought, there is famine. Nor does Klein think it is a coincidence that the worst years of famine coincided with the invasion of the Sea Peoples, when desperate climate refugees were searching for resources.

The mega-drought was not the only natural disaster that destabilized the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age. Klein conducted research with geophysicist Amos Nur that revealed that during the 50-year period from 1225 to 1175 B.C., the Mediterranean was subjected to rapid fire from large earthquakes known as a “seismic storm.”

“If you look at all of these events individually: drought, famine, invaders, earthquakes, possibly disease — perhaps not one of them is enough to bring down an entire civilization, let alone eight or more,” Klein says. “But if you get three or four of these disasters all happening in quick succession, then you have a ‘perfect storm’ and there is no time to recover.”

After the crash: knowledge lost

Ironically, the interdependence that underpinned the Bronze Age kingdoms may have precipitated their downfall. Once trade routes for tin and copper were disrupted and cities began to collapse, Klein says it had a domino effect that led to a widespread “collapse of the system.”

Among the victims of the Late Bronze Age collapse was a large-scale monument building and a complete writing system called Linear B, an ancient form of Greek used by Mycenaean scribes to record economic transactions.

“Because only 1% of people can read or write, they lose that ability after a breakdown,” says Klein. “It took centuries for writing to get back to Greece, only after the Phoenicians brought in their alphabet.”

Not all civilizations are affected equally. Some, such as the Mycenaeans and Minoans, suffered a complete collapse. The same with the Hittites, who no longer existed as a civilization. The Assyrians and Egyptians were largely unaffected, while the others showed resilience and either changed or redefined themselves.

One example is the emergence of iron as the new preferred metal. Once the supply of copper and tin was in short supply and the demand for bronze in Greece fell, there was a chance for something to replace it.

“Cypriots went from being masters of copper to suddenly becoming masters of this new iron technology,” says Klein. “As it turned out, iron was much better at using plows, and he also made swords that were much better at killing your enemies.”

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