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1177 b.c.

17 april 2021

I don't know if Eric Cline's 1177 B.C. was a bestseller, exactly, but it was pretty popular for an academic-press book, enough to merit a new edition this year. And this despite the fact that 1177 B.C. contains no ancient astronauts or coconut-raft circumnavigations. Instead it is a witty but down-to-earth account of the cosmopolitan Bronze-Age world of over 3,000 years ago – and that civilization's sudden collapse.

Far eastern Europe and western Asia, in the thirteenth century BCE – that is, the years between 1299 and 1200 – formed, Cline argues, "an interconnected world of trade, migration, diplomacy, and alas, war. This really was the first global age" (loc. 1729). International shipping, high-level diplomacy, royal marriages, and diverse urban communities thrived.

And then, within a couple of generations, that interconnected world crumbled. The Hittites were no more. The Mitanni, the Myceneans – forget about them. Even the Assyrians fell on centuries of hard times. Only Egypt remained a highly-developed, powerful empire – but at the cost of its centuries-old New Kingdom, which dwindled into the long darkish age we now call the Third Intermediate Period. Third Intermediate Period sounds like something between Trigonometry and Study Hall, but it lasted 400 years.

Traditionally, historians of the ancient world blamed the mid-12th-century collapses on the "Sea Peoples." These shadowy invaders seem to have plundered the Syrian city of Ugarit and then marauded their way south until the pharaoh Ramesses III kicked their asses out of Lower Egypt. Or maybe. As Cline notes, nobody in antiquity even used the term "Sea Peoples." Ramesses and others tended to be more detailed, referring to these undesirables by specific tribal terms that now sound to us a lot like "Sicilians," "Sardinians," and "Philistines." The truth is that nobody has any idea who the Sea Peoples were, if they came by sea at all, or what role they really played in bringing down the Late Bronze Age civilization.

Whatever happened – and it may have been war, rebellion, invasion, earthquake, drought, famine, pandemic, climate change, or all of the above – the fundamental "international" structures of the 1200s broke down in the 1100s, followed by a breakdown of many of the internal structures of the polities of the day. Among the casualties of the fall of the Bronze Age, for instance, was bronze itself. Copper from Cyprus and tin from what is now Afghanistan met in smelters across the ancient world to form its signature metal. Once the trade routes were disrupted, cultures based on bronze declined, with some time elapsing before the Iron Age replaced and improved upon older metallurgy.

Some of what we know about this collapse is in the realm of history. Public documents, in the form of writing on various Egyptian monuments, are part of the record. So are cuneiform tablets from a wide range of sources. Cuneiform has the simultaneous advantage and disadvantage of preserving a snapshot of the moment when it was abandoned. Clay tablets were the original read/write erasable medium. After you read them, you mussed them up and wrote something new. Those discovered in places like Ugarit were sometimes preserved because they were just about to be sent out when the Sea Peoples or whoever put the city to the torch, firing the outgoing mail into earthenware. The effect is that of a vivid cry for help and then permanent silence.

But Cline notes that even the facts we have about (circa) 1177 BC, even the historical documents, are thin material for inference. Was Ugarit torched, or did it just burn down accidentally? Did bodies found there and in other ruins succumb to Sea-People weaponry, or buildings toppled by earthquake? When Ramesses III claims to have handed the Sea Peoples their rear ends, was he exaggerating – was he outright lying? Was there even much of a collapse at all; did a proto-capitalist dispensation of small-merchant-princes replace older "palatial" regimes? (Maybe; but standards of living and levels of population clearly did decline for some while, starting in the 1100s.)

Paleopalynology, the study of pollen and other minute old vegetable remains, has confirmed – since 1177 B.C. was first published in 2014 – that a "mega-drought" afflicted the eastern Mediterranean and surrounding areas in the century or more surrounding that fatal date. This dry spell looks like the culprit, except (as Cline points out) many a civilization has come through worse droughts – and worse earthquakes, worse rebellions, worse epidemics than anything we suspect for 1177 – relatively unscathed. Some combination of factors hit in just the wrong sequence, and though "this megadrought is likely to have been the principal driving force" (loc. 3679), "it was not simply a linear progression from drought to famine to upheaval that ended the Bronze Age" (loc. 3692).

Cline's 2021 revision comes in the wake of COVID-19 and increased concerns about climate change. "Hypotheses formed by archeologists," he wryly admits, "frequently reflect the era, decade, or even the year in which they are publishing" (loc. 3400), and the revised 1177 B.C. is no exception. But disease and bad climate are inevitable scourges, because of our dependence on our health and our atmosphere. The 21st century CE is not all that different from the 12th BCE in terms of what can go wrong.

"The ancient Hittites probably had no idea what was happening to them" (loc. 4157), says Cline, but we ought to be better prepared for what's happening to us. But is the collapse of civilization always a bad thing? We tend to think so because we are civilized. I'm not recommending a back-to-basics few centuries ahead, mind you. I enjoy baseball and opera too much for that, and though I will not be around to enjoy the baseball and opera of the 22nd century, it is a nice idea that there will be some.

Yet as James C. Scott argues in Against the Grain, dark ages may not be the downers they're cracked up to be. The fall of the Myceneans, for example, meant that "there were no palaces … all administrative structures came to an end, and the concept of a supreme ruler, the wanax, disappeared" (loc. 4075; here Cline quotes Joseph Maran). If you were a wanax, that was probably too bad. But most people weren't wanaxes; most people were probably slaves. What if the ancient Peloponnesus spent a few centuries as a bunch of smaller, more egalitarian if poorer autonomous collectives instead of being ruled by a splendid high king? The recent history of supreme rulers should give us pause when assuming that having one is a good thing.

And I have spent enough time in academia to kind of like the idea of the disappearance of all administrative structures.

Cline, Eric H. 1177 B.C.: The year civilization collapsed. Revised and Updated. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. GN 778.25 .C55 2021. Kindle Edition.