Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age transition in the Near East and the sea peoples

After 2,000 years of great civilizations, Asia Minor seems to have no history for a period of close to five centuries. The events of the Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age, transition in the Near East have intrigued historians and archaeologists since long years. Certain scholars disagree with this verdict, but seemingly unrelated events have led to the ruin of numerous city-states in Anatolia, Syro-Palestine, Mycenae and Cyprus. Additionally, Egyptian mortuary texts illustrate a dramatic sea and land battle between the Egyptians and foreign invaders. Several authors have described the subsequent era in passionate terms comparing it with ‘Dark Ages’.

One of the foremost authorities on archaeology and art of Anatolia, Professor Ekrem Akurgal of the University of Ankara, describes the period as follows;

“. . . Today [1961], despite all industrious archaeological exploration of the last decades, the period from 1200 to 750 for most parts of the Anatolian region lies still in complete darkness. The old nations of Asia Minor, like the Lycians and the Carians, the names of which are mentioned in the documents of the second half of the second millennium, are archaeologically, i.e., with their material heritage, first noticeable about 700 or later . . . Hence the cultural remains of the time between 1200 and 750 in central Anatolia, especially on the plateau, seem to be quite irretrievably lost for us…”

“..The cause of the interruption in the flow of history about -1200 is assumed to lie in some military conquest; but the Phrygians, who are supposed to have been these conquerors, did not themselves leave any sign of their occupation of the country from before -750..”

If there is no sign of Phrygian occupation for the period, are there possibly some vestiges of occupation by other peoples?

Since then (1961), the events of the Late Bronze Age- Early Iron Age (12th century) transition in the Near East have been subject to publications and multidisciplinary research studies. Most of them have focused on Sea Peoples and the socio-political changes in the Eastern Mediterranean that occurred with their arrival. Daniel Jokobus Krüger from the Annales School, (which is an exclusive group of scholars and do not restrict themselves to rigid methodologies) brings the following interpretations  in his “Contextual Study of The Late Bronze Age (Nov.2004)”

“The Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transition has often been labeled as a time of ‘crises’ (Ward and Joukowsky 1992). However theatrical it may sound, it was a defining moment in the history of the Mediterranean. The great powers of the time; Hatti, Mycenae and Egypt were confronted with threats, from internal instability and dangers from abroad. Several of the major political entities disappeared, for example Ugarit, Mycenae and Hatti, while others withdrew from previously occupied territories, Egypt. Archaeologists found several significant ancient texts, as part of libraries or attached to the walls of monuments and buildings. These provided a spectacular account of massive migrations, and great wars, on sea and land. They even identified these exotic people, calling them the Peoples of the Sea (Dothan & Dothan 1992)…

Even though it is possible and seemingly accurate to describe the Late Bronze Age (1550 – 1100) as a time of clashes, conflagrations, war, pillage and invasions, it probably did not accurately reflect the reality of the time. It was a time of creative progress with economic, diplomatic and cultural contacts between groups (Knapp 1988:135). Trade and commerce represented the structure that facilitated the contacts and the trade goods, especially metal, formed the common denominator while the establishment of nation states provided the foundation for international trade in the second millennium. It also refers to trade in elephant’s ivory, box wood, timber and perfumed oil while Egypt imports furniture, chariots, horses, linen, ebony, oil, silver, ivory and gold (Sanders 1985: 47-48).

The nation states wrested control of the trade, warfare and diplomacy from the smaller city-states who in turn became increasingly dependent on the central governments for basic resources, armies and a legal system (Knapp 1988:137). They had no choice but to group themselves with larger governments. Since trade flowed through established routes, it most probably formed the basis of a diplomatic network through which contact was made with foreign governments.

To grasp the character of the Late Bronze Age, the various nation states and their relationships with each other will  have to be considered. It is clear that the trade network was quite complex and that its continued presence rested on the stability and security of the region.

In the decades between 1250 and 1150 B.C.E the system collapsed. In an apparent random series of events cities were destroyed and kingdoms vanished. The Kingdom of the Hatti disappeared; the sophisticated palace complexes of Mycenaean Greece came to an end and succession of confusing destructions that befell the island towns of Cyprus.

Although it is clear, from ancient literature and archaeological evidence, that a movement of large numbers of people took place during this era (or the Sea Peoples) and inevitably played an important role in the collapse, it is still not evident whether they were the result of this collapse or were part of the cause. The traditional assumption is that these events are solely attributed to the Sea Peoples.

However, in light of recent archaeological excavations and new ways of looking at old evidence, some are challenging the existing assumptions. A number of scholars even describe this age as a time of”…enterprising merchants and traders, exploiting new opportunities, new markets, and new sources of raw material…”(Muhly 1992:10).

Assigning a central role only to the Sea Peoples and invasions, or events external to a particular area, and neglecting the internal forces does not provide a complete picture of the events. The crises can only be described in terms of widespread, interlocking socio-economic system that has collapsed. The collapse of the political system in the Near East can be loosely grouped around five events.

These are;

•     The destruction of the Mycenaean palace system,
•    Changes that occurred in Cyprus,
•    The end of the Hittite kingdom,
•    The movement of large bodies of people and its depiction in Egyptian records,
•    The settlement of new peoples in Canaan
•    And the role of the environment.

Some historians support the notion that these changes occurred not as a result of external pressure but as a consequence of factors already present in the fabric of the Aegean world. Warren (1989:134-135) is of the opinion that stasis or internal or interstate wars were responsible for these waves of destruction. What we now accredit as a possible cause of these events, such as the proposed migratory movements of the Sea Peoples, may infact only be a response to these events. What follows is a breakdown of the central power’s influence and a vacuum is created. This, in turn, resulted in the displacement of several groups that creates massive population movements, either internal (within states) or external (between states), migrations. Seeing that several settlements in the Eastern Mediterranean basin existed in close proximity to the sea, several groups adopt a sea route along the eastern sea board that inevitably resulted in violent interactions with communities along this route.

It is possible to assume that the Hittite empire experienced severe pressure politically, militarily and economically. Internal discontent, due to the rule of two competing branches of the Hittite family (Singer 2000:26), combined with military pressure from Assyria and costly campaigns against “the enemies of Alašia” probably destabilized an already weakened state. The added pressure from a severely weakened economy due to drought, and the increasing pressure of displaced people, possibly resulted in the final unraveling of Hittite control. Singer (2000:27-28) believes that a failed last-ditch attempt to halt a Sea Peoples invasion was the primary cause of the collapse of the Hittite empire.

Literary texts from Ugarit, Emar and Hatti evoke a picture of a region under pressure. Although the precise meaning of the texts is not always clear, it suggests an economic and social pressure from within and a military burden from outside its borders. However, it is possible that literary texts that reveal the escalating grain price, suggest an already unstable system. Several of the countless threats faced by the Hittites could account for the regional ‘disturbance’ as espoused by Betancourt.

And the role of the Sea Peoples? As a representation of a large ethnic movement in the Eastern Mediterranean, they were probably the result of the general systems collapse and not the cause of it.

Source and Reference:

1. Akurgal, Die Kunst Anatoliens von Homer bis Alexander (Berlin, 1961), pp. 5-7; cf. his Phrygische Kunst (Ankara, 1955), p. 112.
2. Daniel Jokobus Krüger , “Contextual Study of The Late Bronze Age (Nov.2004)
3. varchive