Your own ships did this!

Josephine Quinn

  • 1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed by Eric Cline
    Princeton, 237 pp, £11.95, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 16838 8

In 1982 a sponge diver spotted a ‘metal biscuit with ears’ on the seabed off the southwest coast of Turkey. It was a copper ingot from what is now known as the Uluburun ship, a single-mast sailing boat built of cedarwood from Mount Lebanon, which sank around 1300 bce. The wreck was lying at a depth to which archaeologists could safely scuba dive for only twenty minutes at a time, twice a day. Even then, the excavation director said, they ‘felt as though they had had two martinis before starting’. It took almost 23,000 dives to map the wreck and retrieve the cargo.

It was worth the effort: the quantity, variety and value of the goods the ship was carrying were astonishing. There were ten tons of Cypriot copper, and more than a ton of tin, probably from Afghanistan – enough to make more than three hundred suits of armour. There was coloured glass from Egypt, ostrich eggs (which would have been made into vases) and textiles dyed purple, a colour obtained from sea snails harvested and crushed in their millions for a product worth its weight in silver. There were storage jars containing half a ton of terebinth resin for perfumes and incense. There were spices – coriander, cumin, safflower, sumac – and almonds, pine nuts, dried figs, pomegranates, barley, olives, grapes, beads of glass and faience, vessels of metal and wood, carved ivory. There was pottery from Cyprus and the Aegean, silver from Anatolia and gold from Egypt, including a scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti, wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten. There was a stone mace from the Balkans, Sudanese blackwood, elephant and hippopotamus tusks, musical instruments and a six-inch sculpture of a Levantine god.

The discovery was sensational, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. In 1887, a peasant woman gathering fuel in Amarna in Middle Egypt, Akhenaten’s capital city, found a collection of clay tablets. The tablets contained a couple of decades’ worth of royal and bureaucratic correspondence from the reigns of Akhenaten and his father, Amenhotep III. One of the major themes of the letters is the exchange of gifts between kings, including the rulers of the Hittites in Anatolia, the Mitanni in Northern Mesopotamia and the Kassites in Babylon. These rulers called one another ‘brother’ and sent gifts of precious metals, perfume, jewellery, thrones, linen, ebony, grain, gold and particular kinds of people: artisans, attendants and brides. The kings were particularly keen to send off their daughters, with appropriate dowries: Amenhotep III married the daughters of two Kassite kings, two Mitanni kings and a king of Arzawa in southwestern Turkey. The niceties had to be observed, however, and when Kadashman-Enlil of Babylon wrote to the pharaoh that if the gold he had been promised arrived by a certain time, he would send his daughter in return, Amenhotep chastised him: ‘It is a fine thing that you give your daughters in order to acquire a nugget of gold from your neighbours!’ The breach of etiquette didn’t stop him taking up the offer.

The international exchange of letters, gifts, gold and women came to a relatively abrupt end between 1225 and 1150 bce, with the fall of the Hittite and Kassite empires, as well as the Aegean kingdoms we now call Mycenaean, and the violent destruction or abandonment of a series of important Bronze Age sites in the Levant, Turkey, Cyprus and mainland Greece. Even Egypt gradually lost its grip on the Levantine territory it had held for centuries. The prime suspects for this series of collapses have traditionally been identified as the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’ who came from the West, possibly the Aegean, to attack and then settle in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Eric Cline’s engaging book shows that this can’t be right. For one thing, there is very little evidence for a coherent group of Sea Peoples, a modern name for two different coalitions that contemporary inscriptions claimed came from both sea and land to attack Egypt – unsuccessfully – first in 1207 bce, and then in 1177. Whoever these people were, and wherever they came from, there is nothing to link them with the wholesale destruction at the end of the Bronze Age, much of which in fact happened before they appeared on the scene. In several cases, there are more plausible culprits: the Hittites claimed responsibility for the conquest of Cyprus, the Kashka may well have brought about the Hittites’ own downfall, and we know that the Kassite kingdom fell to the Elamites. Cline surveys other possible causes of collapse: internal rebellions, declining trade, earthquakes and climate change. The latest pollen analysis suggests that there was a dramatic decrease in vegetation in the area between 1250 and 1100, a period which also saw the highest temperatures recorded in the Greenland icecap in five millennia. Contemporary texts record rising grain prices in Egypt and famine further north. But all of these problems should have been surmountable, and there are clear signs of rebuilding after major earthquakes around 1250 at both Mycenae and Ugarit.

As Cline sees it, the real problem these civilisations had was each other: the quantity of exchange evident from the Uluburun wreck and the Amarna letters produced an imprudent degree of ‘hyper-coherence’ across the region. Although nominally independent, the civilisations of the Near East came to depend on trade with each other, even for basic goods and services. The system was too complex, and when a ‘perfect storm’ of manageable problems led to collapses in some kingdoms, and the disappearance of traditional trade routes, it had a ‘domino effect’ on the others.

Cline builds a convincing case for his theory over a long and absorbing tour of the Late Bronze Age, starting in the 15th century with the ‘rise of international connections on a sustained basis’, and continuing through three hundred years of archaeological and documentary evidence for intensive international travel, migration, exchange and diplomacy. The narrative is studded with potted biographies and anecdotes, from a quarrel between rival Egyptian rulers – one of them said the other’s pet hippopotamuses, several hundred miles away, were keeping him awake – to the way Nefertiti’s bust made it to Berlin after it was excavated at Amarna in 1912: having agreed to split the finds and to give their Egyptian colleagues first choice, the German archaeologists are said to have deliberately placed the star piece uncleaned and forlorn at the end of a long row of sculpture.

Did civilisation really collapse at the end of the Bronze Age? It’s true that a number of cities, though in quite distinct areas and at rather different times, suffered violent destruction. But they were not always, or even often, completely destroyed: in some cities, such as Megiddo in modern Israel and Pylos in Greece, it was only the political centres or elite districts that were affected, and many made a swift recovery. In others, such as the Hittite capital of Hattusa, the buildings that were destroyed had already been abandoned. And plenty of places do not seem to have been affected at all, especially in the Levant. Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, which had existed as separate states and trading centres since the third millennium bce, continued more or less unchanged. If anything, they benefited from the destruction of larger kingdoms.

Although a number of great empires declined and even fell in this period, this wasn’t a new phenomenon: Babylon was sacked by the Hittites in the 16th century, the kingdoms of mainland Greece superseded those of Crete in the 14th century, and the Mitanni became vassals of the Assyrians in the 13th century. The collapses weren’t always sudden – Mycenae was already in decline when it was hit by an earthquake c.1250 and then suffered a violent attack c.1190 – or final: people continued to live in Mycenae after these events. And they were not universal: Egypt survived; Assyria continued to thrive.

Contact and exchange across the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean also continued, though, as Cline says, they were ‘probably no longer under the control of the elite classes who had dwelled in the Bronze Age palaces’. There is archaeological evidence for a decline in the quantity and a change in the nature of imports and exports, but no evidence for isolation or desperation. Our understanding of trade and administration in the period – and indeed of literacy – is severely limited by the lack of archival evidence of the kind found at the earlier sites of Amarna, Hattusa, Knossos and Pylos, where the clay tablets were accidentally fired (and thus preserved) when the palaces were destroyed. The commercial success of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos depended on their excellent natural harbours, which have kept them in almost continuous business ever since, and for the most part out of the hands of archaeologists.

People continued to move about: the population of some places increased, and evidence of depopulation in other areas seems to be a result of migration rather than anything else. Migration may also explain the appearance in some southern Levantine sites in the 12th century of Aegean styles of pottery and architecture, which has traditionally been associated with the arrival of the ‘Philistines’, perhaps from Cyprus. Whether or not this is right – pots weren’t necessarily accompanied by people – the turn to new cultural styles doesn’t seem to have followed directly on violent destruction, and if new populations arrived, they may well have settled amicably alongside or even lived among older ones. It is striking that while Bronze Age evidence for art and material culture inspired by Aegean models, such as the Minoan frescoes painted in 15th-century Egypt, is usually seen as a sign of thriving international trade and diplomacy, the same phenomenon in Iron Age Palestine is often taken as evidence for invasion and civilisational collapse: the travellers and traders of the Late Bronze Age become the pirates and refugees of the Early Iron Age.

So what did collapse? A social and political system of highly centralised palace-based kingdoms, which co-ordinated industrial-scale agriculture, manufacturing, taxation, tribute and trade, and the hierarchical ideology that accompanied them. The failure was predictable: the states affected were all in the northeastern Mediterranean, where conditions were never right for such a system. The evidence for luxury production and large-scale exchange in the Bronze Age can distract attention from the fundamental importance of farming: as Jean-François Melon pointed out in his Political Essay upon Commerce (1735), in a war between the Island of Wool and the Island of Corn, Corn will always win because an army needs food to fight. Palace-based economies needed food for dependent labourers as well as for export, and large-scale state-directed agriculture thrives on reliable weather, hard to come by in most of the Mediterranean. It is much more suited to the inland areas where great kingdoms did continue to exist: Assyria’s fertile territory was buffered by mountain ranges, outside the earthquake zone and far from the unpredictable sea.

Smaller city-states suit the Mediterranean: less bureaucratic, more robust, able to react better to earthquakes, floods, changeable weather and crop failures, especially if they also had good communication routes and were able to spread the risks of trade and investment around a number of relatively independent operators. And so, as Cline says, ‘the mighty Bronze Age kingdoms were gradually replaced by smaller city-states during the following Early Iron Age.’ This remark shouldn’t, however, be taken literally: city-states became more powerful, but they weren’t new, either in themselves or as a political system.

The most famous Bronze Age city-state, Ugarit, was sacked around the year 1185. The site wasn’t reoccupied for 650 years. Ugarit was a vassal of the Hittites, but there’s evidence that its merchants operated independently with the city’s encouragement and protection, and traded widely. ‘Out of the ashes of the old world came the alphabet,’ Cline says, but adds that two different alphabetic scripts were already in use at Ugarit. This was a less elitist form of writing than the syllabic and ideographic scripts which required readers and writers to memorise hundreds of signs, each with multiple meanings, and one more appropriate to the more egalitarian world of the city-state.

The destruction of Ugarit is often seen as a key moment in the collapse of Bronze Age civilisation, but the sacking of the city might have been more of a coincidence. Even if the ‘enemies in ships’ mentioned several times in civic correspondence were responsible, they were probably pirates, perhaps even homegrown, as suggested in a letter from a senior Cypriot official found in the ruins of the city: ‘As for the matter concerning these enemies: (it was) the people from your country (and) your own ships (who) did this!’ Whether or not Ugarit was a victim of its own success, it’s not in the same category as the palace kingdoms of Mycenae or Hattusa, already in decline at the time of their destruction. It belongs instead with Tyre and Sidon, powerful cities in the Iron Age whose early 12th-century phases, if we could only see them, would look a lot like Ugarit. The traditional story of ‘collapse and transition’ might be better labelled ‘collapse and reversion’: it wasn’t mercantile city-states but territorial empires based on centralised palace economies that were relatively new in the eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age, and they seem to have been an unsuccessful experiment.

They might also have been a bad experiment anyway. Was the Late Bronze Age really experienced as a ‘golden age’ by most of the people who lived in these kingdoms, or only by the archaeologists who have found the extraordinary presents sent by the richest to the richest? Cline says that ‘the magnitude of the catastrophe was enormous; it was a loss such as the world would not see again until the Roman Empire collapsed more than fifteen hundred years later.’ But the nature of the loss, like the benefits of that empire, must have depended on your perspective, and it seems that the wealthiest lost the most.

What happened to the rest? They produced less grain and fewer luxury goods, at least for a while, but continued to trade them from city to city and across the sea. We glimpse this world in Hesiod’s Works and Days, probably composed in the eighth century. Hesiod says that he has only ventured overseas once, to a poetry competition, but advises his feckless brother Perses to follow the example of their father, an economic migrant to Greek Boeotia from the Anatolian coast: make your living from farming, but venture out to sea in the summer with a cargo large enough to make a good profit. It’s a hard life, Hesiod makes clear, but with care and hard work you can pay your debts and store up a year’s worth of grain, feed your friends and the gods, and stay out of the way of ‘bribe-eating kings’.