Monday, August 12, 2019

August's Book: 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric Cline
History/Archaeology (2014 - 179 pp.)

Eric Cline's 1177 BC takes the reader through one of the most fascinating periods in human existence, using a multi-disciplinary approach centred on history, archaeology and science. Looming figures like Ramses III and Nefertiti reign. The Trojan War is current news. The Hittites send ships across the Mediterranean while the Babylonians and Assyrians cling to past glory. This is the Late Bronze Age, which ended, at least approximately, in the year that lends itself to the title of this book.

The Sea Peoples are the starting point for Cline's analysis. Who were they? Where were they from? (Early guesses include Sardinia and Sicily, but they may have been from the north of Greece.) Why do they only appear in Egyptian records, primarily the diaries of Ramses III? (Cline is confident Ramses III did not fabricate their existence.) From there, Cline tells stories of war, massacre, drought, earthquakes and infighting - essentially all the reasons a country can collapse. For all the Sea Peoples' notoriety, it is notable just how little of 1177BC is about them, whomever they were. They could have been anything from proto-Viking-style raiders to refugees.

Each of the Late Bronze Age's great civilizations experienced some combination of causes for its collapse, depending on factors from political culture to terrain. One of the most notable examples is the Hittites, denizens of what is now Anatolia, whose arid inland location made them impervious to Sea Peoples but prone to famine. Cline's thesis is that the Late Bronze Age civilizations suffered a global collapse that cannot be attributed to any one cause: "...the end of the Bronze Age empires in the eastern Mediterranean was not the result of a single invasion or cause, but came about because of multiple incursions and manifold reasons." (174) This collapse is reminiscent, postulates Cline, of the precarious situation the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East find themselves in today.

Partially, the book is a literature review of the discipline, which is incredibly useful for the scholar who is not as immersed in the late Bronze Age as Cline. These sources span different countries, languages and disciplines. Just as curiously, they differ in their own origins, from the bull-in-a-china-shop digs of Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century to Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 to the latest publication from Princeton University Press. With the multitude of voices came just as many pet theories on what went wrong, including Colin Renfrew's "systems collapse" theory favoured by Cline. (161) Then there are the critical studies types: Christopher Monroe of Cornell University "...suggests that dependence, or perhaps overdependence, on capitalist enterprise, and specifically long-distance trade, may have contributed to the economic instability seen at the end of the Late Bronze Age." (150) This quotation arises in Cline's discussion of the collapse of Ugarit, a semi-major city-state in the Levant. As tempting an explanation as this is due to the effect collapsing civilizations can have on each other, it may be too much an effort to see ourselves in the past; historians generally agree that modern capitalism surfaced no earlier than Medieval Italy. Similarly, identifications of ancient droughts and famines with the modern term "climate change" (142) may be only partially illustrative.

One of the book's more notable sources of archaeological material is the Uluburun shipwreck. (75-79) The origin and destination of the ship are unclear, but may be Hittite, Cypriot, Egyptian or Mycenaean. The ship carried bronze armaments, ivory, and a (literal) ton of resin made from pistachio trees, "a fortune". That the ship appeared to carry so much military gear and also so many commercially valuable products suggests that it could have been "on a shopping trip", or that it could have been used to resupply an invasion force of some kind: writers of Ancient Greek-themed fantasy fiction should have a field day with Uluburun.

Where the evidence is less conclusive is for the events of Exodus. Best estimates place Exodus sometime in the 75 years preceding the Bronze Age Collapse, although some sources place it in the mid-1400s BC; Cline postulates that the Exodus occurred during the reign of Ramses II in approximately 1250BC, which is 200 years after Biblical stories imply. (91) Fascinatingly, Cline's 1250BC dating would make the Exodus contemporaneous with the Trojan War. Less convincing is Cline's attempts to record the possibility of forty years wandering in the desert, as Biblical timelines are notoriously mythological.* The events themselves, though, were certainly feasible. Where difficulty arises is in Cline's apt observation that the Exodus wouldn't leave many traces: "On the other hand, what might one expect to find as artifacts of Israelites camped in the desert for forty years more than three thousand years ago?" (93) The ten plagues that struck Egypt during this era face similar difficulty in tracking, considering, for example, the tendency for dead pests to decay.

If there is a protagonist in a book like this, it is Ramses III, Egyptian pharaoh from 1184-1153. He repelled the Sea Peoples, oversaw a multitude of governmental reforms, and, in case ancient lineage ever got boring, died in a murder conspiracy launched by his harem. During his lifetime, he oversaw one of the most aggressive conquest campaigns of the era; artifacts from his regime have been found at the destruction sites of Megiddo, (117) Lachish (120) and Hattusa (125). Troy's destruction is less certain, but Cline estimates that it was some combination of Sea Peoples, earthquake and fire, rather than the Mycenaeans of Trojan War fame. (127) All of these destructions hearken back to the Bronze Age Collapse itself, a series of events so much better recorded than the era directly afterward in part due to the detail of Ramses III's diaries. This may be an example of winners writing history, though, as the book's map of Late Bronze Age destruction sites includes cities in (what is now) Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria and Israel, but none whatsoever in Egypt. (110-111)

Cline explores Egypt's more glamorous side in his analysis of Nefertiti and King Tut. After the death of Akhenaten, who declared there to be two gods, one of them reserved exclusively for his worship, Egypt normalized somewhat. King Tut did not accomplish much as a monarch, becoming famous to 20th-century audiences simply because of the wealth of material that is known about his short, tragic life. The late Akhenaten's wife Nefertiti takes up a greater part of the story, being one of two likely queens involved in the Zannanza Affair, the largest diplomatic incident of its time. The Hittite king's son was promised the Egyptian throne in return for marrying an Egyptian queen; en route, he was ambushed and killed, sparking a protracted conflict. Cline declares it more likely King Tut's wife Ankhsenamen was the queen in question. (69-70) On a modern note, Nefertiti's bust has been in demand by the Egyptian government since 1924, but it remains in Berlin.** (62) Millennia after Nefertiti's death, governments are still in uproar over her.

A brief word on the Minoans and Mycenaeans is in order. Unlike the Egyptians and Israelites, who are immediately recognizable, the Minoans and Mycenaeans don't seem like the Athenians and Spartans of the Classical Age afterward, let alone the Greeks of today. Mycenaean civilization was almost completely obliterated, ushering in the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1200BC-800BC), a time when early ironworking sported "technical deficiencies" compared to its bronze ancestors. Its language, Linear B, was lost forever, resulting in a complete lack of written documents for the few centuries following the Bronze Age Collapse. It was only in 1952 that Michael Ventris definitively linked Linear B to Ancient Greek, so for much of the history of scholarship of Mycenae, it was almost purely an archaeological site. (39) By learning ancient languages, archaeologists can turn sites into history.

Take note, prospective readers of the Ancient world: this is not an easy read. It's relatively quick due to its reasonable page count, but many of the pages require 2-3 reads. The book also has a glossary and numerous chronologies for ease of reference. I feel privileged to be able to remember a quarter of the events that took place so long ago.

Ease of Reading: 1
Educational Content: 10

*On the plus side, Cline never attempts to record all 969 years of Methuselah's life.

**The bust was transported to Berlin in 1912 but was not exhibited to the public - or, apparently, the Egyptian government - until 1924.

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