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The End of the Bronze Age
During the 2nd Millenium BC, the ancient world was at its apex. The Egyptians, Minoans and Hittites ruled the Mediterranean. Trade routes ran throughout North Africa, the Middle East and even as far as the lands that make up modern Afghanistan. Writing flourished, and civilisations built magnificent monuments.
Then, around 1200 BC, it all came crashing down.
Invasions, earthquakes, drought and plague destroyed cities, scattered trade routes and brought mighty empires to their knees. The ancient world entered a dark age, during which trade came to a standstill, and entire writing systems went extinct.
To us, it may seem like a footnote in the grand scheme of history, but for people of the time, it was the end of civilisation as they knew it. As with any significant turning point in history, there was no single cause but rather a sequence of events that combined to form a domino effect.
Here are five factors that contributed to the Bronze Age collapse.
5 Factors Contributing to the Bronze Age’s End
- The Sea Peoples
- Natural Disasters
- Civil Unrest
1. The Sea Peoples
Around 1200 BC, the great empires of the ancient world were beset by a series of raids from a mysterious seafaring force that contemporary scholars refer to as “the Sea Peoples”.
“The Sea Peoples are the big boogeymen of the Bronze Age collapse,” writes Eric Cline in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Scholars used to believe they were the primary cause of the collapse, but they’ve since been relegated to one of many factors.
Their raids sowed discord even among the great military powers of the time. At Ugarit, a major port city in Canaan, the king wrote of unknown enemies who burned his cities and “did evil things in my country.”
The ancient Egyptians were the only ones who seemed able to deal with the raiders effectively. They won two major victories, the second of which is depicted on Ramses III’s temple walls at Medinet Habu.
Others weren’t so lucky. The Hittite empire was plunged into chaos and never truly recovered from the onslaught.
It’s not clear where the Sea Peoples came from, but historical sources claim they had women and children in tow, suggesting they were refugees being pushed out of their homeland rather than just simple pirates.
2. Natural Disasters
Earthquakes, drought and even meteorites beset Bronze Age civilisations with an intensity not seen in thousands of years.
Historians refer to the string of earthquakes that perpetually hit the region over fifty years as the “earthquake storm”. Fritz Schachermeyr, in his book Griechische Fruhgeschichte, suggests that major cities such as Knossos in Crete, Mycenae in Greece and Troy in Western Turkey were all destroyed by earthquakes.
Mt. Hekla (a volcano in Iceland) erupted in 1159 BC, emitting a cloud of ashes that blocked the sun for several years. This led to cooler temperatures that would have disrupted agriculture in the northern parts of the globe.
In 1600 BC, a volcanic eruption devastated the Aegean island of Thera and sent tsunamis hurtling toward the coast of Crete, wiping out many settlements in the process.
The most significant natural occurrence was a three-century-long drought that devastated the region.
This drought is mentioned by ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484-430 BC), who believed it brought about the Bronze Age collapse.
Pollen samples reveal a sharp decline in traditional Mediterranean vegetation such as oaks and pines around 1250 BC.
River-based civilisations such as Egypt and Babylon were not as severely affected. Still, the drought would have brought about mass migration and severe economic disruption for other people of the time.
It may be hard to believe, but meteorites could have contributed to the Bronze Age collapse.
It’s believed that the city of Tall el-Hamman, located in modern Jordan, was wiped off the map by a meteorite around 3700 years ago. Researchers have uncovered evidence of a meteor explosion even larger than the one that hit Tunguska, Russia, in 1908 (which had 1000x the power of an atomic bomb).
3. Civil Unrest
The earliest recorded labour strike in history occurred in Deir-el-Medina during the reign of Ramses III (1186-1155 BC), and Cline cites the destruction of the Canaanite city of Hazor as “caused by an internal rebellion of the city’s inhabitants”.
This reflects general unrest among the populace who would have been suffering as a result of famine and drought. Like the Feudal era, the ancient world had a rigid class structure; the cracks in such a system always begin to show during periods of strife.
Warfare and famine disrupted the trade routes that were the lifeblood of the Bronze Age civilisation, resulting in a shortage of resources such as ivory, gold and tin (the latter of which is a key component in the very material for which the period is named).
Bronze comprises 85–95% copper and 5–15% tin. Copper was readily available in the Mediterranean (particularly Greece and Cyprus), but tin had to be sourced from far-flung locations such as modern Afghanistan and Britain (shipwrecks discovered off the coast of Israel contain tin ingots that were smelted in the south-west of England).
This shortage of tin was more of a symptom of the Bronze Age collapse than a cause, but it played a role nonetheless.
Epidemics don’t feature as prominently in texts discussing the Bronze Age collapse, yet there are suggestions they played a major role.
The Plague of the Philistines, also known as the Plague of Ashdod, is the earliest recorded outbreak of plague in human history. Granted, our only available source on this is the Bible, but the descriptions of boils breaking out on the bodies of the afflicted match what we know of the bubonic plague (although it may also have been a case of Tularemia, known as “rabbit fever”).
The Bible claims the plague was the vengeance the Lord inflicted on the Philistines for stealing the Ark of the Covenant. However, as Charles Gregg writes in Plague: An Ancient Disease in the Twentieth Century, “the plague of the Philistines probably invaded the town of Ashdod from a stricken ship rather than with the Ark of the Covenant and then infected the crowds that conveyed the ark to the other afflicted cities”.
Either way, the outbreak supposedly convinced the Philistines to return the ark to the ancient Israelites.
The source for the Plague of the Philistines may be biblical in nature, but there are other historical records of major epidemics breaking out throughout the ancient world. Ancient Hittite tablets at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations describe a plague that devastated Anatolia, turning cities into graveyards and even claiming the king’s life.
The Rise of the Iron Age
The Bronze Age collapse ended a thriving globalised economy. Still, it wasn’t the end for humanity, which emerged from the dark age that followed with greater strength, reflected in the resilience of the new material known as iron.
From the ashes of the old powers emerged new civilisations such as Persia, Greece and Assyria, which would, in turn, lay the foundations for the modern world.
Philip Norrie for National Library of Medicine. 2016, June 26. How Disease Affected the End of the Bronze Age.
Eric H. Cline. 2021, February 2. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.
Dave Roos for history.com. 2021, July 28. What Caused the Bronze Age Collapse?
Joshua J. Mark for World History Encyclopedia. 2019, September 20. Bronze Age Collapse.
Roff Smith for National Geographic. 2013, October 26. Drought Led to Collapse of Civilizations, Study Says.
A scientific report published in nature.com. 2021, September 20. A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.
Demiroren News Agency for Daily Sabah. 2021, June 3. Ancient tablet exhibit to tell story of epidemics in Anatolia.
Tom Metcalfe for Chemistry World. 2019, September 26. Bronze age tin from Israeli shipwrecks was mined in Britain.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.