The Year Civilization Collapsed 1177 BC

26 Jan


What happened more than 3,000 years ago that caused a worldwide collapse of society


Half way through Eric Cline’s engaging book there is a map of the ancient eastern Mediterranean  and Near East. It shows 47 archaeological sites that were destroyed in the period around 1200 BC. They include the Palaces of Knossos,Mycenae, and Pylos in Crete and mainland Greece; Troy, Miletus, and Hattusas in Anatolia; Carchemis, and Ugarit in Syria; Megiddo (Armageddon), Lachish, and  Ashkelon in the Lavant; and four less famous sites on the island of Cyprus, such as Enkomi. In Egypt shortly after this period, the New Kingdom pharaohs lost their authority over the  country with the assassination of Rhamesses lll in about ll55 BC. The Bronze age collapse of Western civilization was complete.

Explanation for the collapse have been offered for well over a century: some pre-date the actual excavation of most of the above sites during the 20th century. In general , beginning with  the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero in the 1860’s and 1870’s, and continuing until recently,the destruction has been attributed to an invasion by the so-called “Sea Peoples” . They are mentioned and depicted as captives) under the mysterious ethnic names Peleset, Tjekker, Shekelesh, Shardana, Danuna, and Weshesh in the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Ramesses lll at Medinet Habu. According to Ramesses, these groups overran the great powers of the day- the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Canaanites, the Cypriots, and others- until they were finally stopped in Egypt, first by the pharaoh Merneptah in 1207, and then again by Ramesses lll in ll77 BC.


However there is no incontrovertible archaeological evidence for where the Sea Peoples came from, who they were, or what lands they conquered. The Shardana have been speculatively  linked with Sardinia. the Peleset with the Philistines( who came from Crete, according to the Bible, and settled in Palestine); but there is no proof of these associations. The Sea Peoples remain as enigmatic as ever; notes Cline. Along with some other modern scholars, he argues: rather than militant invaders intent on destruction, they were more likely to have been refugees who did not necessarily always attack and conquer the local peoples but frequently simply settled down among them. Either way, they are unlikely, all by themselves, to have ended civilization in the  Aegean and eastern Mediterranean .


The capture of the Sea Peoples during the battle of Delta.

If not outside invaders, what did destroy these cities? This, of course, is the subject of Cline’s book, which is the first title in a Princeton University Press series, Turning Points in Ancient History, The series aims not only to illuminate key events in the past, but also to elucidate  their relevance to the  present. The regional situation in ll77 BC  and in AD 2013 are surprisingly similar, Cline remarks in his opening paragraph, ” The economy of Greece is in shambles. Internal rebellions have engulfed Libia, Syria and Egypt, with outsiders and foreign warriors fanning the flames. Turkey fears it will become involved, as does Israel . Jordan is crowded with refugees, Iran is bellicose  and threatening, while Iraq is in turmoil.; the fact that there is no 2lst century equivalent of the Sea Peoples (unless we compare them with the unfortunate African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe) might even provide further ammunition for those who doubt the Sea Peoples existence.

It might at first seem far- fetched to compare the pre-Classical world of l200 BC with our present-day, internationally linked, world. But Cline makes a fascinating case for equivalence. In fact, much f his book is rightly taken up with discussing the ancient world in the centuries leading up to l200 BC , before he reaches the period of simultaneous site- destruction. Despite the hazards of travelling by land and sea at this time, and the cumbersome nature of written  communications ( mainly in Akkadian cuneiform), the major powers were much in touch with each other, through trade, diplomacy, marriage, and war. For example Minoan pottery and other finished objects from Crete- or at least written references to them – have been excavated in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Syria, and Iraq.  A cuneiform tablet notes that Zimri-Lim, a Syrian king of Mari, sent a pair of 18th century Minoan shoes as a gift to King Hammurabi of Babylon, who returned them to Zimri-Lim for reasons not recorded

Minoan Pot Octopus  Minoan Ryton from Zakros 1500-1450 bc


Minoan Pot of the Octopus Style                       Minoan Ryton


Consider the astonishing Bronze Age ship wrecked off the south western coast of Turkey at Uluburun some time around l300 BC, which was discovered by a Turkish sponge diver in 1982 and subsequently excavated with great care by archaeologists led by George Bass. On board were products from at least seven different countries, states, and empires. For example the cargo contained ten tons of copper from Cyprus and one ton of tin probably from Afghanistan, two dozen ebony logs from Nubia, almost 200  ingots of coloured raw glass from Mesopotamia, about 140 Canaanite storage jars containing terebinth resin, fruits and spices, brand new  pottery from Cyprus and Canaan, scarabs from Egypt (one made of solid gold inscribed in hieroglyphics with the name of Nefertiti) and cylinder seals from the Near East (some made of lapis lazuli from  Afghanistan), swords and daggers from Italy and Greece (which may have belonged to the crew or the passengers), and a stoner scepter- mace from the Balkans. Also found were 14 pieces of hippopotamus ivory and one elephant tusk. Although the owners and sponsors of the Uluburum ship are unknown, as are its port of origin and destination, it is reasonable to assume that the ship was part of a widespread international trade-not least because two other Bronze Age shipwrecks have also been identified.

Consider also, an archive of clay tablets from Ugarit, on the  Syrian coast, delivered during the construction of a military  bunker in 1973. It contains correspondence between the king of Ugarit and the kings of Egypt, Cyprus ,Hatti, Assyria, Carchemish, Sidon, Beirut, and possibly Tyre. Curiously, apart from a single mention of enemy ships, the correspondence contains little evidence of trouble approaching, and suggests that sea-going trade with Ugarit continued right up to its destruction, which must have occurred some time after 1191 BC: the date of execution of an Egyptian chancellor corresponding with the king of Ugarit.

Claude Schaeffer, the French archaeologist who originally excavated Ugarit in the 1930’s, argued that it was destroyed by an earthquake, Marguerite Yon, its most recent excavator, disagrees. She attributes the destruction to enemy attack, on the grounds that numerous arrowheads were found in the destroyed or abandoned ruins, along with  buried hoards of valuables unclaimed by the  inhabitants after their presumably hasty, forced evacuation ( an observation with sad resonance for today’s Syria.


Other excavations of Schaeffer’s time such as Arthur Evans at Knossos and Carl Blegen at Troy , argued for earth quakes, as a key factor in the destruction of 1200 BC . In subsequent decades  earthquakes tend to have been rejected as an explanation in favour of human agency, for instance by Robert Drews in The End of the Bronze Age; changes in warfare and the catastrophe  1200 BC(1993)  Recently, however, the earthquake explanation  has come back into fashion, and with good reason.  Geophysicist Amos Nur ( a Cline collaborator), for example, in his book Apocalypse; earthquakes, archaeology and the wrath of God (2009) convincingly argues that a map of the maximum intensity of seismic ground-motion in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean during the period c AD 1900-1980 shows a striking  overlap with the sites destroyed during the Bronze Age collapse. Of course this does not prove that these sites were destroyed by earthquakes.. ‘ writes  Nur, ‘ but it does place earthquakes high on the  list of suspects whenever unexplained destruction is found’.  Cline is inclined to agree, noting that archaeology definitely implicates earthquakes in the destruction f Mycenae, Tyrins, Thebes, Pylos, Troy, Hattusas, Ugarit, Megiddo, and Enkomi, among other sites.But he concludes that earthquakes, alone, are unlikely to have  caused societal collapse- a view consistent with the fact that no city in history has ever been abandoned after an earthquake, however destructive , with one exception: Port Royal in the Caribbean , much of which slid under the sea in 1692

The Queens Megaron at Knossos

The Queens Megaron Knossos.

Other candidates for the cause of the collapse are: climate change, droughts, famine, internal rebellions, external invaders ( such as the Sea Peoples), and the breakdown of internal trade. The  major evidence for each, drawn from many sites, is objectively considered by Cline- and dismissed as insufficient on its own. Finally he concludes: no single incident can really be imagined to have brought about the end of the Bronze Age; rather, the end must have come as the consequence of a complete series of events that reverberated throughout the interconnected kingdoms and empires of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean and eventually led to a  collapse of the entire system’, in other words, an invasion by the Sea Peoples will no longer wash as an explanation, but, as yet, we do not properly understand what happened in the period around 1177 BC. This is reasonable, if a shade disappointing. But then, aren’t historians ( Starting with Edward Gibbon in the 18th century) still debating what caused the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD – not to speak of the global financial collapse of AD2008 ?

Courtesy Andrew Robinson.



Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Uncategorized


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8 responses to “The Year Civilization Collapsed 1177 BC

  1. Silver in the Barn

    January 26, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Seriously, Rita, the extent of your knowledge is humbling. Are you just in heaven living in a place full of so much antiquity?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ritaroberts

    January 27, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for your lovely comment Barbara, and yes I love anything to do with antiquity and am in my element when hearing of new (ancient) things which have been discovered any where in the world .But as you say I am privileged living in Crete where there is so much antiquity and still more here yet to be discovered.


  3. cav12

    February 3, 2015 at 7:18 am

    Going to have get my hands on this book! Thank you 😀


    • ritaroberts

      February 3, 2015 at 8:00 pm

      Yes ! it sounds really interesting. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting

      Liked by 1 person

  4. vallance22

    March 7, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    I simply have to reblog this! It covers everything, the fall of Troy, Mycenae, Minoan & Mycenaean civlization and the disappearance of the mysterious or not so mysterious sea peoples. Wonderful post! Richard

    Liked by 1 person

  5. vallance22

    March 7, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae and commented:
    I simply have to reblog this! It covers everything, the fall of Troy, Mycenae, Minoan & Mycenaean civlization and the disappearance of the mysterious or not so mysterious sea peoples. Wonderful post! Richard


  6. ritaroberts

    March 8, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Thanks for the reblog Richard. Glad you enjoyed it. !


  7. dianabuja

    March 22, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Lovely blog, Rita! Merci!



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