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.

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