Bronze Age Globalism, and The Sea Peoples?

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Nestled in the centre of Turkey lies the modern site of Hattusa, the capital of the ancient Hittite Empire. Situated on top of a rocky outcrop overlooking a bend in the Kizilirmak River, Hattusa white limestone walls stand out against the yellow grassland of the hills, lying where they fell over three thousand years ago. One can instantly come to the realization that Hattusa was once a mighty city which boasted 100 towers defending it, gateways carved with impressive sculptures of lions, and rows of houses indicating a complex system of urban planning.

For centuries, this was the centre of the mighty Hittite Empire which spanned all of modern day Turkey and extended into Israel and Palestine. Hattusa’s people cultivated wheat, barley, and lentils, and wore clothes spun from the wool of the sheep that roamed the plains and hills. But if you dig down into the ruins of the archaeological site, what you find is a thin black layer right above the city’s ancient floors. This layer is a mixture of ash, charred wood , and rubble scorched in a fierce fire and dates back to the end of the 13th century BC. 20 kilometres to the north lies the ancient city of Alaca Hoyuk where the Hittites buried their kings in opulent tombs showing the same thing. It is completely covered by ash and rubble at the same level beneath the dirt. Still more, a 100 kilometres to the east of Alaca Hoyuk lies the fortified town of Karagolan which shows the streets littered with arrowheads and bones of men, women, and children scattered. In fact, if you zoom out and look across the Eastern Mediterranean, anywhere you go in an area spanning around a 1000 kilometres, you will find the same evidence across the region. 

Around the years 1200-1100 BC, right at the end of the Bronze Age a wave of destruction razed across the region. It wiped whole civilizations off the map and discriminated against none. Ancient civilization like the Ugarit, Minoans, and Mycenaean Greeks disappeared altogether, completely disappearing from the records and leaving fragmented pieces of evidence behind. Some parts of the region took almost a 1000 years to fully recover from the disaster and its effects can still be seen to this day. What happened in the region stands to be one of humanity’s most hotly debated mysteries.

 Trade, Back in the Day

The Bronze Age marked the first time humans started to work with metal. Bronze tools and weapons soon replaced earlier stone versions. Humans made many technological advances during the Bronze Age, including the first writing systems and the invention of the wheel. Humans may have started smelting copper as early as 6,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, a region known as “the cradle of civilization” and a historical area where agriculture and the world’s first cities emerged.

Ancient Sumer, one of the cities in the fertile crescent which would grow into an empire, is often cited by archaeologists as the first civilization to start adding tin to copper to make bronze. Bronze was harder and more durable than copper, which made bronze a better metal for tools and weaponry. No sooner had they discovered it that everyone else in the region started to increase their production of bronze. In fact, archaeological digs in the Mediterranean Sea have found ships from the 13th century B.C. had products on it from seven different states and included;

  • Egyptian jewelry
  • copper and tin
  • glass ingots
  • resin for the production of perfume
  • various flavours of fruit
  • and weapons of various kinds.
    • From about 1800 BCE until around 1200 BCE commerce in the region flourished to the extent that it can be described as the earliest known example of global trade.
Map of the Bronze Age collapse ca 1200 BCE

After Nearly 2000 years of growth and prosperity, the Mediterranean civilizations unravelled and collapsed. One of the most convincing narratives to this mystery involves a race of mysterious seafaring peoples. Historian Robert Drews argues that barbarian fighters, including the Sea Peoples, motivated by other elements of catastrophes such as drought, brought about the final collapse. “The Catastrophe came about when men in ‘barbarian’ lands awoke to the truth that had been with them for some time; the chariot-based forces on which the Great Kingdoms relied could be overwhelmed by swarming infantries, the infantrymen being equipped with with javelins, long swords, and a few essential pieces of defensive armour… found it within their means to assault, plunder, and raze the richest palaces and cities on the horizon, and this they proceeded to do.” Alternatively, Eric Cline, historian and professor of Classics and Anthropology at the George Washington University retorts that “many explanations have been tried and few have stood. Unparalleled series of earthquakes, widespread crop-failures and famine, massive invasion from the steppe, the Danube, the desert – all may have played some part; but they are not enough.” 

Despite all of the theories, the safest bet is to attribute the annihilation of mass populations and civilizations to a mixture of climate change, plague, drought, invasions of ‘barbarians,’ internal strife, political instability, and socioeconomic and technological changes. Regardless of which theories are put forward, the question of what happened to the vast empires and diverse cultures that inhabited the Eastern Mediterranean remains to be the most intriguing mystery yet to be solved.

Thanks for reading!

Kareem Abdurazag


Writer | Culture & Humanities Blogger

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