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 – since 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 Anatolian Hittite’s 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 Mycenaeans primary source of income. Financial devastation in the wake of internal warfare, external invasions, or natural disasters would have made recovery near impossible.
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.
However, in 2018 a team of German researchers published a study countering this view, stating:
“Although some of the observations from the two investigated citadels [in Tiryns and Midea] could be explained by seismic loading, alternative nonseismic causes could equally explain most observed damage. In some cases, the structural damage was clearly not caused by earthquakes. Our results indicate that the hypothesis of a destructive earthquake in Tiryns and Midea, which may have contributed to the end of the LBA Mycenaean palatial period, is unlikely.”
Those researchers believe that an uprising or invasion was more likely to have initiated the fall of the Mycenaeans.
But if we follow the influence of seismic activity through, it does appear 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.
The archaeological site of Mycenae near the village of Mykines, Peloponnese, Greece. (gatsi /Adobe Stock)
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 .
Clay tablet inscribed with Linear B script dated 1450-1375 BC, Knossos. ( CC BY 2.0 )
A Dangerous Chain of Events
One must also remember that the destruction of whole societies does not happen overnight; it is likely that if the fall of the Mycenaeans is linked to a natural disaster, this disaster was the starting point of a foreseeable, dangerous chain of events. The movement of native Mycenaeans serves as another valuable indicator in the constant debate of their eventual collapse.
While the evidence discovered at the sites of former palatial complexes indicates that there was extensive burning of various city centers, and the aforementioned seismic activity that likely caused or exacerbated this destruction, there is also evidence that many of these sites were abandoned.
Robert Drews (1993) notes that the lack of skeletal remains at numerous sites might suggest the natives had time to flee their crumbling cities. Therefore, they might have anticipated further devastation, and thus, were able to escape in time. Weakened environments could lead to weakened economies and thus political unrest ; should any invaders threaten such a dismantled society, abandonment might very well have been the best immediate solution. Whether they intended to return to their homes is, again, debated.
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Mycenaean figurines from Agios Konstantinos, Methana. (14-13th century BC) Archaeological Museum of Piraeus, Greece. (Schuppi/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The precise reasons behind the Bronze Age Collapse of the Aegean will likely never been known; too many factors working in conjunction with one another could have had any number of negative impacts on the centralized international trade centers of the Mediterranean.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The Mycenaeans' downfall, however, might have a light at the end of the tunnel. Their extensive borrowing of Minoan art forms, palatial complex structures, and language indicates that assimilation went both ways—the Mycenaeans did not let the Minoans die out. Therefore, should the Minoan Linear A script ever be deciphered as the Mycenaean's Linear B has, records of the end of the Aegean Bronze Age might be discovered.
Linear A tablet from the palace of Zakros, Archeological Museum of Sitia. ( CC BY 3.0 )
As the end of the Mycenaeans ushered in the Greek Dark Ages , in which Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are the among the earliest texts to break free from this dark period, any surviving information relating to the last couple centuries of the Mycenae in the Bronze Age might lead to a more complete understanding of the factors of its fall.
Top Image: Bright Greek sunlight shines of rock wall of ancient Mycenae on the road up to the famous Lions Gate into the hill fortress where Mycenaean armies originated. Source: Susan Vineyard /Adobe Stock
Drews, Robert. 1993. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton University Press.
Gutenburg, B. and C.F. Richter. 1954. Seismicity of the Earth and Associated Phenomena. Princeton University Press.
Knapp, Bernard and Sturt W. Manning. 2016. "Crisis in Context: The End of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean." American Journal of Archaeology . 120.1. pp 99-149.
Laffineur, R. and Emanuele Greco, eds. 2005. Emporia: Aegeans in the Central and Eastern Mediterraean: Proceedings of the 10th International Aegean Conference Volume 1. Université de Liège.
Laffineur, R. and Emanuele Greco, eds. 2005. Emporia: Aegeans in the Central and Eastern Mediterraean: Proceedings of the 10th International Aegean Conference Issue 25, Volume 2. Université de Liège.
Sandars, N.K. 1987. The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean 1250–1150 B.C.E . Rev. ed. Thames & Hudson.