The Fall of a Civilization: The Mysterious Collapse of the Mycenaean Bronze Age
"In most cases, collapse results from multiple, 'cascading' stress factors—politico-economic, demographic, and sociocultural as well as environmental…relational aspects, arguing that factors such as structural deficits, inherent social antagonisms, and political dynamics made complex societies vulnerable to extreme climate events. Thus, climatic fluctuations or alterations served as catalysts rather than unique triggers for the demise…" – Knapp and Manning (2016)
The Aegean Bronze Age is predominately known as the period in which the battle-hardened Mycenaeans conquered the simple sea-trading Minoans and rose to become one of the most powerful trading powers in the Eastern Mediterranean. While the Minoans have long been presumed to be a peaceful race due to archaeological findings (or rather, the lack of military findings), the same has never been presumed of the Mycenaeans. Their artwork, shaft graves, and surviving Linear B tablets reveal a very strong warrior culture not previously seen in the Minoan Aegean.
Example of "Phi" figurines (because they look like the Greek letter Φ) from Mycenae. (13th century BC). ( Public Domain )
It has therefore often been assumed that the catastrophe that brought the Mycenaean culture to its knees was related to this preference for bloodshed—perhaps by themselves engaging in warfare - the Mycenaeans were seen as a threat by neighboring empires. However, there are numerous other factors that could have brought this warrior culture crashing down—namely a combination of disruption in the social, economic, political, and environmental status quo . This article will attempt to briefly examine these various factors and the role each could have played in the fall of the Mycenaeans.
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Marching soldiers, painted on the crater of Mycenae, Late Bronze Age, 12 century BC, National Archaeological Museum of Athens, N 1246. Detail. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Mycenaean Union of Religion, Politics, and Economics
Mycenaean culture was centered around large palatial complexes, in which religion, politics, and economics were intricately entwined. The disruption of one could lead to the disruption of many. Further, this centralization similarly indicates that any amount of division among leading figures could have shattered the Mycenaean order—for example, a shift in governmental power, internal warfare, or lack of attention to religious details might disrupt Mycenae's international trade market, creating a ripple effect.
Copper, for example, was highly valuable as a protective element in religious ceremonies; to obtain copper, one needed to be in contact with the Anatolia's Hittite tin trade. Essentially, as Mycenaean culture was so tightly woven around itself—dependent on good relations with neighboring leaders and societies— any amount of internal unrest could negatively affect the Mycenae's primary source of income. Financial devastation in the wake of internal warfare, external invasions, or natural disasters would have made recovery near impossible.
Replicas of Mycenaean swords and cups. (Ruth van Mierlo/ CC BY 2.5 )
While external invasions speak for themselves, theories of the impact of natural disasters on the Mycenaean culture also abound; similar events occurring in contemporary Mediterranean cultures further the likelihood of these events. Specifically, Anatolia (modern day Turkey, in which the mythological Troy existed), Egypt, and the Levant (modern day Iraq, etc.) were damaged by a chain of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that also rocked the Aegean. This seismic activity appears to have caused a fiery domino effect due to the centralization of each community—oil-burning lights were common in Mycenaean-Minoan Greece, Anatolia, etc., and the consistent earthquakes that rocked the Mediterranean, quite simply, could have enabled these elevated flames to tip over and set fire to the aforementioned palaces. Having the type of communities in which politics, economics, and religion were all focused around singular sites made it far too easy for these fires to almost instantaneously devastate order.
One of the most significant instances in which fire is believed to have caused such destruction is the situation at Knossos in Crete. The well-known Linear B tablets, Mycenaean records, and the undeciphered Linear A tablets of the Minoans were likely baked around the time of the collapse, thus preserving them for future decoding. Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who "discovered" the Minoans, presumed that the fiery preservations had been caused by an earthquake which had toppled nearby torches. Whether or not these fires did cause the end of the palatial complex at Crete is still questioned; however, the fiery preservation of the tablets is evidence that the overwhelming fires were very real dangers within these tightly woven communities.