By: Rachel Hallote
When archaeology makes the news, it is most often due to sensationalist claims made by journalists or others who misrepresent archaeological finds and their significance. It is therefore particularly gratifying when an archaeologist gets to start the conversation himself or herself, and for the profession to represent itself publicly.
This is what has happened with Eric Cline’s new book, 1177 B. C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. In recent months, Cline has been able to engage the public with serious archaeological scholarship. Major media outlets such as the Huffington Post and the New Yorker, reviewed the book favorably, and helped him continue the conversation.
In the volume, Cline proposes that the Bronze Age ended due to a “perfect storm” of calamities. These calamities led to the collapse of the various interrelated civilizations and cultures of the Aegean, the Near East and Egypt. Cline gathers all previous research on the topic and then looks at the big picture, by discussing ancient geopolitics in terms that makes sense to a non-specialist.
While it is somewhat of a gimmick to pin the end of the Bronze Age to a single date, the year 1177 refers to the 8th year of Ramses III’s reign, the year when Egypt fought its second war against the Sea Peoples. The arrival of the Sea Peoples c. 1200 (their first wave came during the time of Merneptah) has long been considered a signal of the changing status quo in the Near East as well as in the Aegean.
In the first half of the volume, Cline describes the major Bronze Age civilizations that were soon to collapse, concentrating on the international connections among them. In his first chapter, he covers most of the significant events relating to the rise of Mycenaean civilization. His second chapter deals nicely with Amenhotep III’s likely contacts with Mycenae in mainland Greece, as well as with every facet of the Amarna period, especially Egypt’s still expanding foreign relations. The third chapter continues the theme of foreign contacts into the next century (the 13th), concentrating on the rise of Assyria, the second rise (and then fall) of the Hittites and their conflicts with the Mycenaeans over western Anatolian territory. This final issue allows Cline to put some of the linguistic and archaeological evidence for Homer’s narratives into context.
Cline does not neglect the peripheral regions, such as the important Mediterranean port city of Ugarit, the vital copper trade from Cyprus, or the appearance of the Israelites in Canaan. By the time he gets to Chapter Four, which deals largely with the 12th century, the coming collapse is quite clear. He describes Ugarit’s flourishing and far-reaching international trade of the 13th century, but also the sudden, violent destruction of the city in the 1180’s, as well as destructions of other sites in the region, all possibly related to the coming of the Sea Peoples. He also mentions other, non-Sea People related changes in this chapter—the end of the Kassite dynasty in Mesopotamia, the destruction of a few major Hittite sites, and destruction of some major palace sites in the Aegean, including Mycenae, and more gradual cultural change on Cyprus.
Chapter Five pulls all these disparate changes together, as Cline discusses additional possible causes such as earthquakes, but especially droughts and amines caused by climate change, and internal rebellions in individual cities. Cline suggests that all these factors may well have affected the previously robust international trade, and therefore can be seen as together as leading to collapse.
The suggestion of climate change is one of the main reasons Cline’s book is so appealing to the public, as climate change is an issue on everyone’s lips today, with dire predictions printed in just about every day’s newspapers. Today’s environmental catastrophists tend to predict that the domino effects of environmental change will lead to social collapse—just as happened at the end of the Bronze Age.
However, this is where Cline’s book does something unexpected, and as yet under-appreciated, for our modern cultural discourse. While the parallels between ancient and modern have become clear to journalists who have reviewed the book, they have perhaps concentrated on the doom-and-gloom too much to understand what Cline says about what happened next.
Because while Cline’s focus is on the collapse of the Bronze Age, readers of his book will be able to see how from the ashes of this collapse, other, still greater civilizations emerged, including Western Civilization itself. Israelites and Judahites developed in Canaan as a result of the power vacuum left by the collapse, and their codex (now referred to as the Bible) still serves as the basis of three of the major world religions of today.
The cultures and writings of Classical Greece also emerged from the post-collapse memories and mythologies of the warfare at the end of the Bronze Age. Ultimately Greek culture combined with biblical culture, which together led to our modern western world. Taking a long view, why then do we see collapses and major cultural changes as bad? If the public is indeed interested in the collapse of the Bronze Age as potentially parallel to events in our own near-future, part of the attraction should be that any losses we suffer will eventually lead to futures that are as yet unimaginably bright.
Rachel Hallote is Professor of History at Purchase College.
Additional Links:[list type="icons-file"]
- Climate change destroyed the Bible’s ancient kingdoms, study finds
- Did climate change lead to the downfall of Ancient Egypt?
- Climate Change-Fueled Droughts Are About to Make Syria Even More Hellish
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