Bronze Age Civilization Collapse - 1200 BC

Northern Wall of Ramesses III Mortuary

The Bronze Age began around 3000 BC and ended circa 1200 BC. The major powers of this age include the Egyptians, Minoans, Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians. These civilizations would ultimately fall with catastrophic events resulting in the first recorded Dark Age.

The ending of the Bronze Age and the subsequent Dark Age that followed is a catastrophic event that is still not completely understood. How could the major powers of the age fall so quickly? What do we know about the world during this time and what caused this catastrophe?

Life in the Bronze Age

Late Bronze Age Map - 1200 BC Late Bronze Age - 1200 BC

A type of globalization was in place, as all of the major powers were interconnected. Trade networks exchanged glass, ivory, copper, tin, bronze, perfume, and pottery. Bronze could be seen as the equivalent of our Modern economy's crude oil. It was used for axes, knives, plows, and wheel mechanisms.

Bronze is made of 90% copper and 10% tin. Afghanistan served as the primary source for tin. This was transported over 1000 miles to the west. The island of Cyprus was the primary source of copper, and is where we get our English word for this element. The Minoan civilization, based in Knossos on the island of Crete, was responsible for the majority of bronze smelting. Bronze was then exported to the rest of the region. Akkadian, the primary language of the Babylonians, is somewhat of a common language for the entire region.

Mycenae Lion Gate, c. 1250 BC Mycenae Lion Gate, c. 1250 BC

Life was very good in the 13th and 14th centuries BC. Harvests are recorded as being unusually robust as a result of higher than average rainfall. This combined with an already dynamic and interconnected economy created an explosion of peace and prosperity for generations. It is speculated that perhaps this made the culture soft in some way. The people may have grown to think that their civilization could never face any real adversity.


Assyrian War Chariot, 7th century BC Assyrian War Chariot, 7th century BC

The chariot was a technological development of the early second millennium BC. They were made of light hardwoods with a woven leather platform on which the driver could stand. The entire vehicle weighed less than 40 lbs (18 kilograms). The wheels were the main technological development. They were made with spokes, and weighed one tenth as much as the solid wheels used in the third millennium BC. Such a light vehicle could begin to use horses as a draft animal. Whereas an ox cart could travel two miles in an hour, a horse drawn chariot could travel ten.

Chariot groups were the most powerful military unit by 1600 BC. During a typical battle in the late Bronze Age, chariot numbers ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand. A chariot group could be quickly sent just about anywhere, as they moved faster than any other military unit. This made quelling rebellions quick and effective.

Chariots would attack by traveling laterally in front of an opposing enemy. They would fire arrows from compound bows as they were moving. This was a highly skilled maneuver that also made them difficult to counterattack. This served as the primary purpose for chariots, a platform for archers.

The Collapse

Sites Destroyed c. 1200 BC Sites Destroyed c. 1200 BC
Source: Biblical Archaeological Society

Something horrifying and catastrophic begins to happen around 1200 BC. There is no one thing that the collapse of Bronze Age civilization can be blamed on. Drought, foreign invasions, and even earthquakes all seem to occur around the same time. There is a layer of ash and general destruction in the archaeological record around major urban centers. It seems people attempted to rebuild these cities, only to see them destroyed again. This went on for about 50 years.


Plate Tectonics for Anatolia and the Aegean Plate Tectonics for Anatolia and the Aegean
Source: Amos Nur and Eric Cline

Shifting geologic plates do not necessarily release all of their energy at once. The stored energy can in fact be released in a series of earthquakes spread over many years. Available geophysical and archaeological evidence suggests that the 50 year period of destruction in antiquity could have been the result of such a series of related earthquakes.

The associated map shows the locations of geologic fault lines. These correspond with Modern records of earthquakes, and also with the archaeological record of destroyed cities for the period around 1200 BC.

Structures in the Bronze Age were far more vulnerable to earthquake damage compared to our Modern buildings. The intensity of a series of earthquakes would not have been enough to destroy Bronze Age civilization, but it certainly could have contributed to it.


Northern Wall of Ramesses III Mortuary Northern Wall of Ramesses III Mortuary

It appears that raiders from Europe began attacking the centers of civilization during the 13th century BC. The first Sardinians in Egypt were raiders who ravaged the delta in 1279. They were defeated by Ramesses the Great. They had come "in their warships from the midst of the sea, and none were able to stand before them."

These raids go on for many years. The invaders are commonly known as the 'Sea Peoples.' Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III leaves us an inscription describing an invasion by 'Sea Peoples' in 1177 BC:

"The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Kkatte, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at [one time]. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people and its land was like that which had never existed. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared for them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denen, and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the Earth, their hearts were confident and trusting as they said 'Our plans will succeed!'"

The Sea Peoples come through twice according to Egyptian texts. Once in 1207 and again in 1177 BC, Ramesses III states that he defeated the invaders. Images of these defeated people are carved into stones. These inscriptions show large groups of people migrating. They are not raiders, they are more like settlers. The inscriptions show ox carts and many possessions.

They came from 'the northern rim of the world,' through Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and into Caynan. Pharaoh Merneptah boasted of resisting an attack by a Libyan king who was supported by "northerners, from all lands." He describes specifically who these northerners were. In the minds of an everyday Egyptian these people would appear to be from the most northerly parts of the world. Specifically Lycia, Greece, Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia.

It is not clear what caused the Sea Peoples to move. Perhaps drought, famine, or earthquakes. Or maybe all of these. They may have been driven out of their own lands by some other group of invaders. It is known that Indo-Europeans had been migrating out of Eastern Europe and into Southern Europe and Central Asia for thousands of years.

Climate Change

Pollen Derived Climatology 1200 BC Pollen Derived Climatology 1200 BC
Credit: David Kaniewski Et Al

The climate appears to have changed rapidly starting around 1250 BC. A 300 year drought sets in. Food crops sporadically fail and trade between the major powers was thus reduced. Many regions record famine in the years leading up to 1200 BC. There are even records of Egypt sending grain shipments to the Hittites, traditionally enemies.

Agriculture in the region does not completely rebound to pre-catastrophe levels until around 850 BC. Although it appears that cultures built around rivers survived, perhaps thanks to a more reliable water source. This includes the Egyptian people.

The Invention of Iron

The Hittites were a group of Indo-Europeans who migrated from Eastern Europe to Anatolia (modern day Turkey) around 1800 BC. They are supposedly the first to invent iron working. That is, heating up iron and physically beating carbon into it. This turns the outer surface into steel, leaving the inside as soft iron.

This technology was somewhat known to all cultures. But it was not applied to everyday life or militaries in any meaningful way. The major powers of the day continued to rely on bronze as the basis of their civilization. It appears that iron technology may have given infantry an advantage over established chariot groups.

The Sword

Jettying Three Story Type Naue II Sword, South-East Europe, 8th century BC
Source: Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

Around 1400 BC a new type of sword was invented probably in northern Italy, commonly called the Naue II sword. This new sword shape was originally made of bronze, but was soon also made from carbonized iron. The iron version was made in a similar shape to bronze swords, only a little longer. This new technology quickly spread and replaced older sword designs. It spread first into central Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles.

By 1200 BC it had spread to Greece, the Levant, and Egypt. It was very popular in Greece, but it is in Europe that the greatest number of ancient swords have been found.

A new type of military unit was now being deployed. An infantryman would typically carry a lance, some type of shield, and an iron sword. The lance could be thrown at a moving chariot driver, or thrown into the chariot's spokes. The shield provided protection from arrows shot from moving chariots. Finally, the sword was used in hand to hand combat with chariot drivers at close range. Iron swords cut through the softer bronze an opponent might be carrying.

Peoples on the periphery of civilization suddenly realized they could defeat the major superpowers of the day. It likely seemed unbelievable that infantry could defeat chariots. But this appears to be what happened and is likely how the major civilizational powers of the Bronze Age were defeated.


Knossos Palace Ruins, Crete Knossos Palace ruins, Crete

Every major kingdom fell, except for Egypt. But they were so weakened that they never were the same again. There is no direct proof of what caused the Bronze Age collapse. Drought, earthquakes, famine, new military technology, and a movement of people all contributed. The result is history's first recorded Dark Age.

At this time, only 1% of the population could read and write. Linear B is the primary script. The art of writing was quickly lost in the aftermath of the catastrophe. It was replaced with the Phoenician Alphabet around 1000 BC. The Greek Golden Age followed soon after.

Bronze is much easier to work with than iron. Because of this, there was very little incentive for the major economies to advance to a more durable and effective metal technology. When the supply of tin was cut off from the east, a change to iron technology was forced. Had it not been for the Bronze Age catastrophe, civilization may have stagnated in the areas of metal working and writing. Additionally, copper and tin deposits are scarce, requiring more organized trade routes. Iron deposits can be found in many more locations. A change to iron decentralized military power and economic activity.

Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
Matthew 26:52

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

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  The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean by
  Cyprus in the Neolithic and Bronze Age Periods by
   by Barbara Cifola
   by David Kaniewski
   by Paulina Suchowska-Ducke
   by Angelo Mazzù Et. Al.
   by Amos Nur and Eric Cline

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Bronze Age Civilization Collapse - 1200 BC

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