When Civilization Collapsed:  Death of the Bronze Age


William H. Stiebing, Jr.


Archaeology Odyssey, September-October, 2001


It was a cataclysm of immense proportions: Near the end of the 13th century B.C.E., the great Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean and Near East suddenly collapsed.

In the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1400-1200 B.C.E.), Mycenaean civilization flourished in Greece and Crete. The Hittites controlled most of Anatolia and northern Syria from their capital at Hattusa (modern Bogazköy, about 125 miles east of Ankara). The Egyptian New Kingdom ruled not only in the Nile Valley but also in Palestine and southern Syria. Commerce flowed over trade routes that crisscrossed both land and sea. A late-14th-century B.C.E. ship excavated off the Uluburun promontory in southern Turkey, for example, carried cargo from Cyprus, Canaan, Egypt, Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece.

A century later, all these civilizations had begun to unravel. Cities burned, trade became almost nonexistent, and large groups of people migrated from one place to another.

When calm returned, a new world had dawned. In the wake of the magnificent Late Bronze Age civilizations, new peoples eventually arose, including the classical Greeks and biblical Israelites—two of the most significant precursors of modern Western civilization.

Mycenae and the Mycenaeans
Around 1500 B.C.E., Mycenaeans from the Greek Peloponnesus invaded Crete, destroyed the Minoan palaces, and took control of the island. For the next three centuries, the Mycenaeans were the dominant power in the Aegean. They ruled Crete from Knossos into the 13th century B.C.E.(1) and set up settlements on the island of Rhodes and at Miletus in Anatolia.

Signs of the disaster to come first appeared in the 13th century B.C.E. Although Mycenaean products such as perfumed oils and unguents continued to be in great demand throughout the eastern Mediterranean, matters were not so peaceful at home. By the mid-13th century B.C.E., the rulers of Mycenae, Athens, Gla and Tiryns found it necessary to strengthen their fortification walls, and the palace at Thebes in Boeotia was burned. The palace at Knossos in Crete, taken over from the Minoans, may have been destroyed about the same time.

Then came the widespread disasters of the early 12th century B.C.E.(2) Around 1200 B.C.E. Pylos was destroyed and Thebes was burned again, along with Gla, Iolkos, Midea, Tiryns and the Menelaion (a site near Sparta associated with the Homeric king Menelaus, the younger brother of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon and the husband of Helen). Portions of Mycenae were burned (possibly twice) in the early 12th century B.C.E., but this great citadel survived the fires. Then, around 1150 B.C.E., Mycenae, Tiryns and the nearby sites of Asine and Iria were razed. Many sites in Greece were simply abandoned, with refugees settling as far off as Cyprus. The population of Greece seems to have declined by about 75 percent. The literate, highly centralized Mycenaean kingdoms with their elaborate bureaucracies disappeared—and small, poor agricultural villages took their place.(3)

Similarly, Crete seems to have suffered a major decline in population. People abandoned the coastal areas and built new villages in the hills or in other easily defensible positions.(4) Without the palace bureaucracies to maintain it, knowledge of writing was lost both here as well as in Greece.** A "Dark Age" descended over the entire Aegean region.

Hattusa and the Hittites
Texts surviving from the reign of the last Hittite king, Suppiluliuma II (c. 1200-1180), refer to general discontent among the Hittite people. The population's displeasure may well have been due to food shortages. Not long before the destruction of Canaanite Ugarit around 1185 B.C.E., the city's king received three letters mentioning famine in the Hittite Empire. One demanded that Ugarit furnish a ship to transport 2,000 measures of grain to Cilicia, in southern Anatolia. It is, the letter says, a matter of life or death!(5)

With the Hittite Empire severely weakened, Hittite vassals in western Anatolia and elsewhere rebelled. Egyptian annals record that the so-called Sea Peoples (see Invasions of the Sea Peoples) were marauding in Anatolia at this time. The Hittites raised an army and navy from their citizens and their loyal vassals and deployed them to meet these threats. However, this left the Hittites' loyal allies like Alashiya (Cyprus) and Ugarit defenseless. The king of Alashiya appealed to the last king of Ugarit, Ammurapi, for help in defending the island. Ammurapi regrets that he is unable to help:

My father behold, the enemy's ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country [Ugarit]. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Hittite country, and all my ships are in the land of Lycia [Lukka]? ... Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.(6)

Hittite and Ugaritic records then become silent, so we do not know what happened to the Hittite forces to which King Ammurapi had committed troops and ships. It is likely that the Hittite forces were defeated, for a wave of destruction swept over the Hittite Empire. Hattusa was violently sacked and burned—as was Troy, Miletus, Alaca Hüyük, Alisar, Tarsus, Alalakh, Ugarit, Qatna, Qadesh and numerous other cities either ruled by the Hittites or associated with the empire.

The Hittite Empire was gone, but Hittite culture did not disappear. In Syria during the 12th century B.C.E., several small kingdoms arose whose rulers bore Hittite royal names and whose religious, artistic and epigraphic traditions derived from the Hittite Empire. The Assyrians called these kingdoms "Hatti," the old name for the Hittite Empire. However, the language of these "Neo-Hittites" was not the Hittite of the former rulers of Hattusa. It was a dialect of Luwian, a related Indo-European language that had been spoken by groups in western and southern Anatolia during the Bronze Age. Peoples from Cilicia or western Anatolia, it seems, migrated to Syria during the upheavals of the early 12th century B.C.E. and filled in the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the once-great Hittite Empire.

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1 The destruction of the palace at Knossos has been dated c. 1400-1380 B.C.E. by Sir Arthur Evans. A review of the evidence from Knossos, however, makes it likely that the palace continued to exist under Mycenaean rule into the 13th century B.C.E. (Back)

2 For a survey of sites, see R. Hope Simpson and O.T.P.K. Dickinson, A Gazetteer of Aegean Civilization in the Bronze Age, Vol. 1: The Mainland and Islands (Göteborg: Åström, 1979); and Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 21-26. (Back)

3 See V.R. d'A. Desborough, "The End of the Mycenaean Civilization and the Dark Age: (a) The Archaeological Background," in I.E.S. Edwards et al., eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, 3rd ed., vol. II, part 2 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 658-671. (Back)

4 R.W. Hutchinson, Prehistoric Crete (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962), pp. 320-325; d'A. Desborough, "Mycenaean Civilization," pp. 675-677; Drews, End of the Bronze Age, pp. 26-29. (Back)

5 Michael C. Astour, "New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit," American Journal of Archaeology 69 (1965), p. 255. For a different interpretation of this letter, see Harry A. Hoffner, "The Last Days of Khattusha" in William A. Ward and Martha S. Joukowsky, eds., The Crisis Years: The 12th Century B.C.: From the Danube to the Tigris (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1992), p. 49. (Back)

6 Astour, "New Evidence," p. 255. Words in brackets were added by the author. (Back)