The Late Bronze Age collapse is an interesting case I’d love to see more work on. Thanks a lot for posting this.
I once spent 1h looking into this as part of a literature review training exercise. Like you, I got the impression that there likely was a complex set of interacting causes rather than a single one. I also got the sense, perhaps even more so than you, that the scope, coherence, dating, and causes are somewhat controversial and uncertain. In particular, I got the impression that it’s not clear whether the eruption of the Hekla volcano played a causal role since some (but not all) papers estimate it occurred after the collapse.
I’ll paste my notes below, but obviously take them with a huge grain of salt given that I spent only 1h looking into this and had no prior familiarity with the topic.
Late Bronze Age collapse, also known as 3.2 ka event
Quick: 50 years, 1200-1150 BCE
Causes: “Several factors probably played a part, including climatic changes (such as those caused by volcanic eruptions), invasions by groups such as the Sea Peoples, the effects of the spread of iron-based metallurgy, developments in military weapons and tactics, and a variety of failures of political, social and economic systems.”
In a recent paper, Knapp & Manning (2016) conclude the collapse had several causes and more research is needed to fully understand them:
“There is no final solution: the human-induced Late Bronze Age ‘collapse’ presents multiple material, social, and cultural realities that demand continuing, and collaborative, archaeological, historical, and scientific attention and interpretation.”
“Among them all, we should not expect to find any agreed-upon, overarching explanation that could account for all the changes within and beyond the eastern Mediterranean, some of which occurred at different times over nearly a century and a half, from the mid to late 13th throughout the 12th centuries B.C.E. The ambiguity of all the relevant but highly complex evidence—material, textual, climatic, chronological—and the very different contexts and environments in which events and human actions occurred, make it difficult to sort out what was cause and what was result. Furthermore, we must expect a complicated and multifaceted rather than simple explanatory framework. Even if, for example, the evidence shows that there is (in part) a relevant significant climate trigger, it remains the case that the immediate causes of the destructions are primarily human, and so a range of linking processes must be articulated to form any satisfactory account.”
While I’ll mostly focus on causes, note that also the scope of the collapse and associated societal transformation is at least somewhat controversial. E.g. Small:
“Current opinions on the upheaval in Late Bronze Age Greece state that the change from the Late Bronze Age to the Geometric period 300 years later involved a transformation from a society based upon complex chiefdoms or early states to one based upon less complex forms of social and political structure, often akin to bigman societies. I will argue that such a transformation was improbable and that archaeologists have misinterpreted the accurate nature of this change because their current models of Late Bronze Age culture have missed its real internal structure. Although Greece did witness a population decline and a shift at this time, as well as a loss of some palatial centers, the underlying structure of power lay in small-scale lineages and continued to remain there for at least 400 years.”
By contrast, Dickinson:
“In the first flush of the enthusiasm aroused by the decipherment of the Linear B script as Greek, Wace, wishing to see continuity of development from Mycenaean Greeks to Classical Greeks, attempted to minimize the cultural changes involved in the transition from the period of the Mycenaean palaces to later times (1956, xxxiii-xxxiv). However, it has become abundantly clear from detailed analysis of the Linear B material and the steadily accumulating archaeological evidence that this view cannot be accepted in the form in which he proposed it. There was certainly continuity in many features of material culture, as in the Greek language itself, but the Aegean world of the period following the Collapse was very different from that of the period when Mycenaean civilization was at its height, here termed the Third Palace Period. Further, the differences represent not simply a change but also a significant deterioration in material culture, which was the prelude to the even more limited culture of the early stages of the Iron Age.” (emphases mine)
Causes that have been discussed in the literature
[This PNAS paper argues against climate-based causes, but at first glance seems to be about a slightly later collapse in Northwest Europe.]
Hekla volcano eruption, maybe also other volcano eruptions
But dating controversial: “dates for the Hekla 3 eruption range from 1021 BCE (±130) to 1135 BCE (±130) and 929 BCE (±34).” (Wikipedia)
Buckland et al. (1997) appear to argue against volcano-hypotheses, except for a few specific cities
Bernard Knapp; Sturt w. Manning (2016). “Crisis in Context: The End of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean”. American Journal of Archaeology. 120: 99
Kaniewski et al. (2015) – review of drought-based theories
Langguth et al. (2014)
Weiss, Harvey (June 1982). “The decline of Late Bronze Age civilization as a possible response to climatic change”. Climatic Change. 4 (2): 173–198
Middleton, Guy D. (September 2012). “Nothing Lasts Forever: Environmental Discourses on the Collapse of Past Societies”. Journal of Archaeological Research. 20 (3): 257–307
Considered but refuted by Drews (1993).
Particularly for Crete?
Epidemics (mentioned by Knapp & Manning)
By unidentified ‘Sea Peoples’
For Greece: by ‘Dorians’
“Despite nearly 200 years of investigation, the historicity of a mass migration of Dorians into Greece has never been established, and the origin of the Dorians remains unknown.” (Wikipedia)
Cline, Eric H. (2014). “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed”. Princeton University Press.
Cline (2014) is dismissed by Knapp & Manning (2016)
By broader ‘great migrations’ of peoples from Northern and Central Europe into the East Mediterranean
Dickinson against invasion theories: “General loss of faith in ‘invasion theories’ as explanations of cultural change, doubts about the value of the Greek legends as sources for Bronze Age history, and closer dating of the sequence of archaeological phases have undermined the credibility of this reconstruction, and other explanations for the collapse have been proposed.”
Technology (as a cause for why the chariot-based armies of the Late Bronze Age civilizations became non-competitive)
Palmer, Leonard R (1962). Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets. New York, Alfred A. Knopf
Changes in warfare: large infantry armies with new (bronze) weapons
Drews, R. (1993). The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton)
“political struggles within the dominant polities” (mentioned by Knapp & Manning)
“inequalities between centers and peripheries” (mentioned by Knapp & Manning)
Synthesis: general systems collapse a la Tainter
Types of evidence
“material, textual, climatic, chronological” (Knapp & Manning 2016)
Textual evidence very scarce (Robbins)
Archeological evidence inconclusive, can be interpreted in different ways (Robbins)
Thank you for your notes. Really quite interesting. I was not aware that the dating of the Hekla eruption was so disputed. The reason I focussed on it was that droughts seemed to me like they played a crucial role. The research by Drake et al. argued (relying on isotope data) that this drought was caused by a cooling of the sea, which in turn needs an explanation. And the most likely explanation seemed to be a volcanic eruption.
But I agree that it is overall very hard to understand the timing of all those events. Especially as it played out differently in different parts of the region. In some regions maybe the pandemic struck first, while it was migration or drought in others. I had hoped to highlight this complex web in my second figure.
Thanks! Interesting to hear what kind of evidence we have that points toward droughts and volcanic eruptions.
Note that overall I’m very uncertain how much to discount the Hekla eruption as a key cause based on the uncertain dating. This is literally just based on one sentence in a Wikipedia article, and I didn’t consult any of the references. It certainly seems conceivable to me that we could have sufficiently many and strong other sources of evidence that point to a volcanic eruption that we overall should have very high credence that the eruption of Hekla or another volcano was a crucial cause.
Guys, great post and discussion. I was taking a look at the discussion about Hekla’s role… even if the eruption succeeded the breakdown of those civilizations by half a century, it’d likely have an effect concerning their prospects for recovery.