Eric Cline’s new book, "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed"
- is a detailed account and discussion of how civilization, at least in the eastern Mediterranean, collapsed.
- The date, 1177 BC, is more or less the midpoint of a process
- that took many years and was the consequence of changes that occurred in the preceding 4 centuries
- The eastern Mediterranean spans the west coast of modern Greece, to Mesopotamia on east,
- and just south of the Black Sea through upper Egypt
- that is, the upstream portion of the Nile valley approximately parallel to and north of the southern end of the Red Sea.
- Even more than for the date, this is a variable area.
- Cline’s book discusses all of these areas, though at times the discussion focuses on only part of this area.
Cline’s punch line is that all monocausal explanations are wrong, or at best, incomplete
- He concludes that the collapse was due to “A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Calamities?” (Chapter 5)
- Before turning to a summary of the book and my ruminations on it,
- I have some disclaimers:
1. I am not a specialist, nor do I have special expertise in the Ancient Mediterranean.
2. I approach the issues in this book from a general interest in collapse, primarily using a world systems analysis “lens,”
but drawing on other approaches to collapse, as well.
3. like Cline, I want to see - if we can draw any lessons from this early, possible first (depending on one’s definitions of collapse and civilization)
collapse of civilization.
4. my goal is to provoke reflection on Cline’s arguments.
That said, on to the summary:
In a brief Preface, Cline describes the aim of the book:
- to explain how the Late Bronze Age ended.
- He also hopes to draw lessons from this study for contemporary times, noting the work of Jared Diamond (2005) & Justin Jennings (2011; but also see Kardulias 2014).
- A key parallel is that both Diamond’s & Jennings’s books are concerned with “globalized world systems with multiple civilizations” (p. xvi).
- He further notes that Carol Bell (2012), Susan Sherratt (2003), and Fernand Braudel (2001) have made similar calls for such comparisons.
- However, Cline’s book is also a bit of detective story, trying to solve the mystery of the collapse of the Bronze Age.
- 1177 B.C. is directed toward an audience larger than scholars of the Bronze Age.
The Prologue opens with a discussion of the Sea Peoples
- who they were, where they came from, and so on.
- No texts from the ancient world refer to “Sea Peoples.”
- This term is used to cover a number of groups that invaded many areas of the Eastern Mediterranean in the early 12th century BC.
- There was no single invasion, but a series of waves of incursions.
- Some of the Sea Peoples even arrived by land.
- They left no texts or monuments memorializing their invasion(s),
- hence the number of conjectures of who they were and where they originated.
- Various scholars place their origins in many different parts of the Mediterranean.
- Cline notes that only the origins of the Peleset (also known as the Philistines) are clearly identified.
- He cites evidence of their violence, but also notes that we do not even know,
- if they were an organized group or merely poorly organized marauders.
- While they no doubt played some role in the Late Bronze Age collapse,
- they were only one many factors that created a “perfect storm.”
The 1-st chapter focuses on the 15th century BC.
- He begins with the Hyksos invasion of Egypt ca 1720 BC,
- which was possibly aided by new military technology.
- Subsequently, Hyksos trade with Crete flourished;
- Cline notes that this is a familiar example of how objects originating far away take on value just because of their distant origins.
- He then turns to Minoans, whose origin is still not certain, though Anatolia is most likely.
- Egyptian trade extended to Anatolia.
- In regards to evidence of trade between Minoans and other cultures, we run into a familiar problem:
- many trade items were perishable.
- So many trade items left little evidence in the archaeological record,
- although some evidence exists in documents, whose survival is often a matter of chance.
- This is a familiar problem in the history of ancient societies.
- Tracking trade is also a problem, since much of it is ancillary to tribute or gifts, being conducted on the side by seamen.
In 1479 BC, there was a battle with Canaan at Megiddo
- that marked a significant delimitation of one frontier.
- After reviewing more historical accounts, he turns to discussion of Hittites.
- A common view is that the Hittites originated in Anatolia, not Canaan, as the Bible suggests.
- Still, it does cause him “to wonder how the Bible could have gotten it so wrong” (p. 33).
- His answer is that the Hittite empire was far-flung and only an outpost that was attacked.
He then examines the history of Mycenaeans
- and argues that they took over trade routes to Egypt and the Near East,
- which facilitated their rapid rise.
- He concludes that trade networks extended far beyond what has been found archaeologically.
- This trade was only the beginning of a “Golden Age.”
Chapter 2 explores the 14th century BC
- Cline notes a shift in trade from Crete to the Greek mainland, and
- based on archival material, he reconstructs extensive relationships (his diagram on p. 55 is quite useful).
- Egypt used Nubian gold to attract traders.
- He suggests that gold may have functioned much like shells did,
- as Malinowski describes in his well-known discussions of the Kula Ring.
- Cline further suggests that “we should not underestimate the importance of the messengers, merchants, and sailors,
- who were transporting the royal gifts and other items across the deserts of the ancient Near East,
- and probably overseas to the Aegean” (p. 59).
- He asks whether the various exchanges might account for similarities among:
--- the Epic of Gilgamesh & Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey,
--- the Hittite Myth of Kumarbi & Hesiod’s Theogony (p. 59).
He then discusses the rise of Assyrians, and later, Nefertiti and King Tut
- He reviews various rebellions and battles, and says there is some evidence
- that captives brought disease from the Hittite homelands (p. 70).
- He notes that Hittite goods are almost nonexistent in the Aegean and suggests
- that this may have been due to an Hittite embargo against the Mycenaeans.
- He concludes by commenting that this may represent one of the earliest forms of globalization
The archaeological excavation of sunken ships is discussed in the 3-rd chapter
- especially the Uluburun ship, which had products from at least 7 different geographical sources.
- The Uluburun ship was the 2-nd discovery of a wreck that had been sailing east to west
- which strongly supports arguments that trade was further and more extensive
- when the ships sailed (ca 1300 BC) than had been accepted previously.
- Texts found in Ugarit from about 40 years after the Uluburun ship noted
- that some merchants were exempted from taxes.
Hittites and Egyptians fought a major skirmish at Qadesh in 1274 BC
- whose events and results are still disputed.
- At about the same time, Hittites were fighting against a rebellion in Anatolia,
- likely underwritten by the Mycenaeans.
- This may have been related to the Trojan War;
- Troy VI had imported objects from many places in the Eastern Mediterranean.
- Cline argues that this was a “contested periphery,”
- that is, a location on the periphery of both the Mycenean and the Hittite empires.
- There is evidence of a flow of goods between Mycenae and Hittites,
- though the direction of flow is debated.
- Evidence also shows that the Aegean and Egypt were in contact.
The evidence for the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt is less well documented
- Even the dating is controversial
- with the Bible suggesting 1450 BC & archaeology suggesting 1250 BC
- He says the evidence for the latter date is more persuasive.
- It is clear that the parting of the Red Sea due to the eruption of Santorini had been at least a century earlier.
- The discussion of these accounts will be of interest to Biblical scholars as well as other historians.
- Whether the Israelites invaded or migrated over decades remains unclear,
- but it is clear that they were in Canaan by the end of 13-th century BC.
The Assyrians became a great power
- from 1400 to 1200 BC and
- were in correspondence with other great kings in Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and the Hittites
Around this time, Cyprus was a major source of copper
- which seems to have prompted attacks by Hittites;
- however, it is also possible that it was connected with the appearance of the Sea Peoples.
The next chapter 4 focuses on the decline of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 12-th century BC
- Records of marriages and presence of trade goods indicate that
- Ugarit was a major entrepót and vassal of the Hittites.
- Documents found in Ugarit indicate considerable exportation of perishable goods (p. 104).
- On p. 107, Cline diagrams the reach of royal letters from Ugarit over much of the Eastern Mediterranean
- (the Map on pp.110–111 is useful in following these discussions).
- However, Ugarit was destroyed violently between 1190 and 1185 BC,
- dates which are supported by the occurrence of an eclipse mentioned in other documents.
Then Cline summarizes in some detail the widespread destruction around this time
- The destruction of Lachish during the reign of Ramses III is clear, even if who or what caused it is not.
- It is also clear that Mesopotamia was not destroyed by the Sea Peoples.
- Similarly, there was extensive destruction in Anatolia.
- Some Hittite sites were destroyed, but others were only abandoned.
- However, there was extensive destruction on the Greek mainland.
- It seems Cyprus was probably destroyed by Hittites and not by Sea Peoples.
- This seems to have been accompanied by famine, though abundance of Bronze arrow heads supports warfare, too.
- Cyprus did survive until 1075 BC, but with serious restructuring of economic and political organization.
- Meanwhile, there was extensive fighting in Egypt, and new evidence shows that
- Ramses III had his throat cut, suggesting a possibility of an internal coup.
- Although massive destruction in the Eastern Mediterranean is well-documented,
- who or what caused it is not.
Chapter 5 - “A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Calamities?” is the key chapter
- For scholars interested in collapse and massive changes in empires or world systems
- Here, Cline follows Sherlock Holmes in arguing that it is necessary to choose
- among probabilities to solve the mystery of the collapse.
- To start, there is no consensus among scholars on cause(s).
1. Earthquakes may have contributed, but their timing often was wrong for causing the collapse.
2. The timing of climate change, drought, and famine are similarly problematic;
3. furthermore, evidence shows that the population decline was not very steep.
4. There is evidence, however, that the Early Iron Age was dryer than the Late Bronze Age.
5. To assert emigration, begs the question: what caused migration(s)?
6. Internal rebellions also seem too few and too weak to have initiated collapse.
7. What about invaders and/or rapid decline in international trade?
- Again, they may have been possible contributors, but insufficient to be the entire cause.
- A sharp drop in trade may have made some cities more vulnerable to attack because resources became scarcer.
- The question remains, why were the destroyed cities not rebuilt by survivors?
- An increase in private merchants — as opposed to state-sponsored merchants —
- may have been part and parcel of increasing decentralization.
Susan Sherratt (1998) argues that Sea Peoples may have been a final phase in the replacement of old, centralized systems
- but why did decentralization occur at all?
- Ugarit was destroyed by external invaders;
- possibly smaller declines and partial collapses may have generated chaos which, in turn,
- may have opened new opportunities to private traders.
- What about the celebrated Sea Peoples? Where did they go?
- Some came by land as well as by sea, but coastal resettlers may not have caused widespread destruction.
- Others suggest that the incursions were far more gradual over 50 or more years.
- Still, questions remain:
--- Why did Sea Peoples move?
--- Were they opportunists or maybe refugees?
Finally, Cline raises the issue of systems collapse, that is, failures that carried both domino and multiplier consequences
- He draws heavily on Colin Renfrew’s (1979) discussion of collapse
- Although he finds this explanation intriguing, it still leaves open the “why?”
- There are many possibilities, dependence on bronze and other prestige goods among them.
- At best, central rulers could delay collapse, but not ultimately prevent it.
Cline reviews these possibilities and turns to complexity theory
- which might predict collapse, but not precisely.
- One condition is “hypercoherence” described by K.R. Dark (1998)
- under which interconnections in feedback loops are so dense,
- that if any one is broken, it might cause collapse of the entire system.
- Collapse is nearly inevitable because the costs of stability are very high.
- In short, complicated systems can break down in a variety of ways.
- He concludes that monocausal explanations and linear explanations will not suffice.
Cline concludes with a brief Epilogue
- He notes that collapse, although a disaster for current elites,
- can offer opportunities to others.
- He further acknowledges that 1177 BC - is not a precise date for collapse any more than
- 476 AD is a precise date for the collapse of western Roman Empire.
- Rather, it is a convenient marker for a complex process, that occurred over a number of years.
- He notes that rebuilding was a very slow process, entailing decades and even centuries,
- citing some discussion of Dark Ages.
- He closes his account with an argument that new peoples and city-states replaced what had gone before:
- From them eventually came fresh developments and innovative ideas,
- such as the alphabet, monotheistic religion, and eventually help renew the ecosystem
- of an old-growth forest and allow it to thrive afresh (p. 176).
Thomas D. Hall, DePauw University
Useful Insights and Roads not Taken: A Review Essay on "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed" by Eric H. Cline
(Princeton University Press)