The year the world ended

Bronze Age Collapse in a nutshell

Did you know that around 1180 BCE, civilization in the West completely vanished? And that, more interesting still, nobody knows why?

Here’s the collapse of the Mycenaean Bronze Age in a nutshell.

The Bronze Age Collapse in three sentences

From about 1500 to 1200 BCE, the Mediterranean world boasted a wealthy, literate, highly sophisticated, highly interconnected society of city and nation states. Shortly after 1200 BCE, evidence suggests all of these states – except Pharaonic Egypt – completely vanished. Nobody knows why.

What vanished?

The Mycenaean civilization (named after Mycenae – supposedly the leading city of Bronze Age Greece) was that of the mythical Achilles and the Trojan War. But there was nothing mythical about it. Archaeology now proves the existence of a hugely sophisticated and wealthy society around the Mediterranean world at this time. From modern day Iran and Turkey to Italy and Spain, goods and money flowed freely across the Med’, enriching the lives of all society, top to bottom. This was a recognizably modern world, 3500 years ago.

Image: The “Pylos Combat Agate”. Only 3.4cm across! This frankly unbelievable gemstone was carved in 1450 BCE. Testament to the artistic and technological sophistication of the age, this will merit a nutshell blog all of its own.

So what went wrong?

Nobody knows. There are several theories (this is just a selection):

(1) Natural disasters. The Mediterranean is a hotspot for earthquakes and volcanoes, and a well-placed tsunami or two might be enough to wipe out key cities. Massive volcanic activity is credited with the collapse of the Minoan civilization, for instance.

(2) Infectious disease. Some sort of plague might have enough force to topple a civilization.

(3) Mass migration. Populations were on the move at this time, and some say barbarians from the north penetrated the Greek world to the south, settled, and eradicated the civilized world they found.

(4) The “Sea Peoples”. This mysterious name is found in Egyptian sources, attached to huge bands of raiding pirates that pillaged the Med’. Only Egypt, apparently, succeeded in fighting them off.

What are the problems with these theories?

(1) Earthquakes and the like aren’t enough to explain the collapse of the whole known world. Why not just rebuild, as they had done after every other quake?

(2) There’s zero evidence for mass disease. No records and no mass graves.

(3) Populations were on the move, but that explains how societies merge and evolve, not disappear.

(4) Could the “Sea Peoples” really be destructive enough to explain the end of the world? And anyway, where did they come from, and where did they go when they were done burning? Nobody knows. Seems pretty unlikely.

So what’s the answer?

How many times do I have to say – nobody knows. But perhaps the best theory is that of total ‘systems collapse’. Essentially, only a combination of all four disasters could really explain it. And while this is unfortunate, it’s not unlikely. Think about it. Disaster 2 could cause 3 and 4; 4 could cause 2 and 3; 1 might randomly occur after 2, 3 or 4, and could even cause 2, 3 and 4. One natural disaster might lead to failed harvests, disrupted trade, famine, civil unrest, mass migration, invasion – a total breakdown of society.

What happened after?

In a stunningly short time, all cities were abandoned, and people reverted to primitive, poor lives geared solely towards survival. Literacy vanished everywhere except Egypt. It took centuries for society to recover and reset.

A second flowering would follow, but the world that preceded it would be completely forgotten until the Victorians began their obsession with digging.

Image: the so-called ‘funeral mask of Agamemnon’ – one of the first artefacts found to prove the existence of a wealthy, developed Bronze Age society in Greece.

A cautionary tale

If systems collapse is correct, then what made the Bronze Age world so vulnerable was its extreme interdependence. No city or state could survive without the others, and one earthquake might have been all it took to trigger a catastrophic domino effect. This might explain why Egypt – an economically self-sufficient nation not dependent on the others – survived.

Our own modern world relies on an unprecedented level of interdependence, with the Bronze Age Mediterranean coming in a close second. With climate change looming large and natural disasters threatening, we could learn a thing or two from history.

Image: the beautiful flowing lines of ancient Minoan art. The scene depicts the Minoan sport of bull-leaping. And yes – the Minoans really did have a breed of giant bulls!

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