Sunday 16 June 2024

Bronze Age Collapse

 Just over three thousand years ago (c1200 BC), there was a flourishing international community comprising a number of sophisticated nation-states. This economic 'federation' encompassed Egypt, the Mycenaeans, the Hittites, Cyprus, and Crete. These societies were stable, economically viable, and adorned with a refined and structured administration system. In short, these societies were intensely civilised and, moreover, enjoyed diplomatic, commercial, and political interconnectivity. And yet, within a generation, these mighty, highly organised states were no more, with the exception of Egypt. However, Egypt was so battered by the event that it never rose to independent greatness again. What happened? What could be so catastrophic and momentous to have caused these powerful and wealthy civilisations to collapse at the same time and so quickly? The problem is that we have very little evidence to sift in order to piece together the events that destroyed four civilizations and brought one to its knees. However, it is possible to put together a plausible scenario, a scene that has ramifications for our modern Western socio-political civilisation. Who said we were just three meals away from societal collapse? Read on and weep.

These events occurred in the 'High Bronze Age', on the cusp of the introduction of iron for utensils and weapons. It is oft asserted that the Sea People's use of iron weapons gave them a distinct advantage when fighting the Mycenaean Greeks, Hittites, and others who relied mainly on inferior bronze swords and spearheads. This supposed 'weapon superiority' is more apparent than real, and I'll comment further later in this post.    

The eclipse of the major powers in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aegean and Near East was not due to a single catastrophic upheaval. Indeed, research suggests that a confluence of factors was likely involved. Some of these factors were interconnected, whilst others appeared to stand alone. Regardless, the major civilisations of the region were blighted by a number of unfortunate events that, by their very nature, had an additive and perhaps synergistic effect that proved too much for these seemingly robust and secure societies to withstand. On mature and studied reflection, it has been revealed that the stability was somewhat of a chimaera, a societal cohesion riddled with fragile choke points and fractures.

Socio-Politicol Stability

We tend to look back and see ancient civilised societies as existing in some form of dynamic harmony. Yet this is an illusion. The minority of the population lived extremely well, while the majority were either slaves or impoverished serfs. This can be a perilous situation for the ruling elites, and if their fingers ever relax from the instruments of internal social control, then social upheaval is a real eventuality. Evidence from Mycenae, obtained from inscribed tablets of the period, hints at civil unrest and an increase in military activity. Even the mighty Hittites seemed to be experiencing significant internal agitation. It is oftentimes difficult to dissemble the causal factors. Perhaps it was a reaction to external stressors of the period. At this time, the empire was under pressure from the Haskas people to the north. During this calamitous period, the Haskas appropriated Hittite territory and burnt the Hittite capital of Hatti. It did not help that the Hittites were dealing with a plague outbreak at the time.  

Climate Changes

Pollen excavated from the region and dated to circa 1200 BC, together with oxygen isotope studies from marine environments, indicated a drastic drop in rainfall in the region concomitant with a drop in crop productivity. This sudden change in agricultural fecundity would have resulted in famine and increased competition for resources, leading to societal disruption and contributing to mass migration. Evidence indicates at about this time there were a series of powerful earthquakes along the littoral shore of the region. Cities and, more importntly, city walls damaged by seismic activity would render cities vulnerable, ripe and easy pickings for those able to take advantage of the calamity, whether from within or without.  And this brings us to consider the enigmatic 'Peoples of the Sea'.......  

Folk of the Sea  

Historians are still debating where the 'Sea People' originated. Most sober historians (few in number) place these folk originating from Europe and Anatolia. Were they a reaction to calamitous events to which they had little control? Or were they reavers exploiting weaknesses within the fabric of the civilised states? Did their presence, therefore, precipitate the collapse, or were they victims themselves? Cause, effect or maybe a combination of both? Nevertheless, undoubtedly, the 'Sea Peoples' were a confederation of at least nine separate peoples. During a fifty-year time span, they ravaged the seaboard of the region, causing great harm. As the empires of the time relied greatly upon maritime trade, the destruction of the major seaports completely dislocated the economic basis of the region. It is thought that the major disruption of sea commerce contributed directly to the socioeconomic collapse of these once-mighty empires. The Egyptians succeeded in repelling the Sea Peoples in two momentous battles. These battles were celebrated on stone reliefs that can be seen today at Medinet Habu, Thebes and Karnak.

The Role of Bronze

The epoch under consideration represents what historians call 'The Late Bronze Age'. Bronze is a composite material mostly comprised of copper with a small admixture of tin. Copper was readily available to the late bronze age civilisations centred upon the Mediterranean. To increase the hardness of copper to produce bronze, a small amount of tin was necessary. Tin is a relatively rare metal found in pockets throughout northwest Europe. Bronze was certainly an important metal for the civilisations in question. Not only was it used for the production of weapons such as swords, spears and armour it was also essential for everyday utensils and cutting tools. By the late bronze age, the use of bronze was at its zenith, and any interruption of the tin trade, as occurred in c 1200 BC, would have serious consequences for bronze-reliant societies. And, of course, this is what occurred during this critical period of history. Without bronze, you can't have a bronze age. It has been put forth by serious scholars that the Sea People employed iron weapons, which gave them an edge (ged it?), over their civilised foes. The problem with this thesis is that if the Sea Peoples had access to iron weapons, it is unlikely that they would have been superior to their bronze counterparts. Bronze weaponry had reached its peak in technological evolution, while iron was a new technology, and the iron of the time would have had a high slag content. Thus, swords made of iron would have been soft, easily bent and would require constant sharpening in order to maintain a keen edge.        

What we see is the conjoining of a number of events and catastrophes, some interrelated, that placed severe strains on the Bronze Age civilisations under discussion. The cumulative damage inflicted by these factors proved too much, destroying internal cohesion and ultimately resulting in governmental and political dissolution. 

If history has taught us anything, it is that all civilisations are susceptible to disintegration given the right circumstances. This collapse can be dramatic or involve a slow, steady decline into decadence and final annihilation. From my observation, Western Civilization has been in decline for a while now, and I would mark the start of the dark descent as the beginning of the Great War in 1914. I am happy to share my reasons, but that will have to wait another day. 

For those who can see, Western Civilization is under assault from a number of internal and external negative pressures. The parallels with the Bronze Age Collapse are uncanny. Surely, there is nothing new in this world. Unrestrained immigration, financial disarray, catastrophic international conflict and war, a looming Great Recession/Depression, internal societal chaos and degradation, together with a mix of natural disasters, are predictors of future desolation and ultimate abasement. Nuff said.


  1. [Sackerson] Interesting. I agree that the UK's decline began with declaring war on Germany in 1914. What would we be now - what would the world be now - if we hadn't and Germany had swiftly defeated France? No Communism, no Spanish flu... Has anybody written the scenario?

  2. A very interesting scenario. As I understand it toward the end of the 19th century Britain seriously considered entering in an alliance with Germany. However, the Kaiser's grandiose warship building plans scuppered the deal. Britian was forced into an alliance with the French. Let's be honest, France was not our 'natural' ally. If a deal for a military alliance had been brokered between Britain and Germany it would have made for an interesting geopoliticol situation. The greatest sea power allied to the greatest land power- O to ponder.....

    1. Interesting as the whole tragedy/farce that was the first world war actually sprung to the fore of my thoughts too.

      It was Bismark who compared Britain and Germany to the elephant and the whale: each master of its own domain but unable to harm the other.

      Natural allies?

      Well, they had the same enemies: France and Russia.

      The two-power standard which determined the size of the Royal Navy – a fleet 10% larger than the two next naval powers – was aimed at France and Russia.

      In the 1890s, negotiations looked, for a time, as if they might lead somewhere, but in reality, neither nation really needed it.

      In the event such an alliance seeing conflict – Britain and/or Germany against France and/or Russia – while the powerful Germany army would be very useful to Britain, the powerful British fleet would not be so obviously useful to Germany.

      As Bismark (I believe again) put it, “battleships can’t run on wheels”. Blockade can be a devastating weapon – as Germany itself was to discover – but it is not quick.

      Negotiations withered and rest, as they say, is history. Although it is an interesting footnote that one of the primary advocates of a formal alliance with Germany was Joseph Chamberlain, father of Neville.

      The antics of the housepainter blackened the reputation of Germany forever. Kaiser Bill and all other German leaders before said Austrian alas, have been tarred with his brush.

      There is a school of thought (to which I find myself drawn – maybe it’s my natural prejudice?) that has France as the primary driving force behind 1914. Raymond Poincare – French president in 1914 was known to the French left as “Poincaire le guerre”. To say was gung ho about having a go at the fiendish hun is putting it mildly and his posturing and secret negotiations with Russia prior to 1914 (and particularly during the actual crisis) should at least be looked at further by anyone looking to see what actually kicked things off (nobody was innocent in 1914 really, but it was only France (and Russia) who’s aims – the regaining of Alsace-Lorraine – could only be achieved through war. Poincare lived until 1934, long enough to see the rise of the housepainter. Wonder if he died with a sense of foreboding (doubt if he’d be feeling any guilt).

      The really significant result of waterloo was the effective centre of power in Europe moving across the Rhine, where it has remained ever since.

      Britain and Germany became the two foremost European powers, one at the very heart of the continent, the other peripheral and keeping an eye on it. A formal Anglo-German alliance, perhaps formalized in the 1890s is a truly fascinating historical what if.

      It has been “war gamed” so to speak, and the conclusion always seems to be that, sooner or later, it would have broken down. British policy always being to ensure that no single power dominates the continent, and perhaps the German desire for “world domination” (that damned house painter again!) would eventually get the better of them.

      However. There is one aspect of the two which seldom seems to be discussed and perhaps might have steered any formal alliance had it actually happened.

      Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” narrative does seem to have become rather discredited in recent years (understandably!) but one opinion he had was that it was only in Japan, and what he refers to as the “British-German-Nordic” parts of Europe and their diaspora does genuine civic society exist (does it still?)

      The rise of Britain and Germany has many contributing factors, but this basic honesty and sense of honour among many of the functionaries as a factor seems to have been essentially memory holed.

      Had this country kept out in 1914 (as it did in 1870) A German victory in 1916 would have likely, with all that entails. Looking at what actually happened, would that have been any worse?

      Of course, subsequent conflicts might have occurred, and perhaps Britain would have come into conflict with the US for the open seas. But would these imaginary worlds be worse than the one we now have?

    2. I think Britain circa 1900 could have taken solace in the fact that there could be no concord between France and Germany. The loss of Alsace-Lorraine was a grave blight on France's national honour and needed to be expunged in the near future. You are right in thinking that France would have fallen without British involvement, which may have happened in 1914. For all the high and mighty rhetoric about a century-old treaty and protecting 'gallant little Belgium', the truth is that a Europe under German orders was not to Britain's liking.

  3. When a future civilisation finds the decaying artefacts of our society what will they make of the towering three bladed spinning weapons and the acres (ok, hectares) of high quality sheets of flat glass reflectors? All diverting scarce resources from life sustaining industry and resulting in reduced useable farm land .
    Did we live in fear of great flying dragons and were prepared to chop them into nice slices after blinding them with reflected sunlight.
    Truly, the shamans had a powerful influence on the population to be able to cause a once advanced civilisation to self destruct.
    Compare with Easter Island.

  4. [Sackerson] Great comment Mark, thanks. MYOB would have saved us and the world so much grief.

  5. we are in the oil-age since 1914. This factor and the Osman-empire, arm-buddy of the Krauts plus owner of all significant oil-ressources those days, should not be forgotten thinking about WW1. Not coincidental the Brits sent the world´s very first battletanks to the middle east (Battleships on wheels), before they did it in France. The word Nazi was not already invented, but the Kaiser and his high command was exactly that way thinking people (google "Blutpumpe"). Such monsters could not be allowed to rule the world.

    No doubt, that western civilization is going down. Compares to the roman empire in 400 something. A lack of thinking, renaissance of superstition aka religion, despising logic, epistemology...