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1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed

1177My first reaction to reviewing this book is to say: If you are interested in ancient Mediterranean civilizations, by all means read this. If not, you probably can ignore it.

But there is a caveat.

If you are interested in the Middle East today, and in the world in which we live, and wondering what might happen to us all, you might want to take a look at this.


Because it really is true what George Santayana said: those unaware of history are doomed to repeat it, as well as the generalized statement, “history repeats itself.”

Since both interests are mine, reading this was a no-brainer.

Eric Cline, recognized expert in this area of history takes us through all the archaeological finds, and all the current theories supported by experts around the world who specialize in this time period–the end of the Bronze Age.

All the collapse occurred over as much as a hundred years, historians/archaeologists have puzzled over the cause with varying explanations, supported to a greater or lesser extent by the archaeological record.

For a long time blame was placed upon the “sea peoples” (a group I had always associated apparently incorrectly with the Phoenicians), who invaded the Levant and other points destroying towns and cities and looting the landscape. But this is but the tip of the iceberg as Cline points out.

Although Ramses III writes that the sea peoples were defeated by Egyptian forces, it certainly marked the high point of Egyptian power in the region. This occurred in the 7th year of his reign (1184-1153 BCE) and referred to the second wave of such people.

But excavations throughout the area, including the kingdoms  of Babylonia, Egypt, Mycenae and a host of others suggest a much more complicated picture.

While there were plenty of sacked towns, and evidence of fierce fighting with arrowheads embedded in the remaining walls, along with evidence of major fires throughout, many sites fail to show this at all.

What we learn is that prior to the collapse, this region, encompassing dozens of cities, nearly a dozen “kingdoms” and a large swath of land supported a vibrant international trade system that was supported by commercial as well as government ships traversing the vast Mediterranean dropping and picking up goods throughout. Letters between heads of state, diplomatic missions, embargos against client states who stepped out of line were well-known. In deed, goods traveled far distances. Tin, located primarily in Afghanistan was essential to produce bronze and that parallel to oil today is important in this discussion.

We will learn that after decades, even hundreds of years of study, we still don’t know the “cause” and evidence builds that it was in the end no one thing. A series of earthquakes over a decade or more certainly played a part. Climate change, causing severe drought and crop failure that lasted for decades, also played a part. The breakdown of king-dominated principalities occurred in some places. Trade routes were disrupted by internal strife, invasions and perhaps other things as well.

Part of the cause is no doubt due to the historical fact that no civilization has not collapsed sooner or later. As Cline points out, each is replaced by something that is quite different though ultimately better. People talk of systems failures, and complexity theory. The latter is a fairly new phenomenon which explains that the more complex a system, the more assuredly it will fail though the causes are not clear and when is not especially foreseeable.

A complex system becomes so interrelated that a failure in any portion of it causes a chain-reaction or domino effect throughout the system as a whole. It may take decades but it will happen. Leaders tend to see only the immediate problems and thus cannot properly address the greater issue, and it’s unclear whether anyone ever could.

The lessons for us are apparent. Our world economy is becoming ever more interdependent. We are all aware now that events in far-flung locations can have grave impacts upon us locally. Whether there is much we can do about it is another thing, but it surely points up the fact that while some consider the expenditure of funds toward these ancient excavations and the ongoing core-sample studies being done around the globe and so forth,  to frivolous expenses secured by prima dona professors who become “experts” in minutia, such is not at all the case. They do provide us with information that very much points to real problems here and now in our reality.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. You may as well. And it provides good food for thought certainly and that is always a good thing.

(Note: this is a first in a series contemplated by Princeton on Turning Points in Ancient  History, so you may want to check in from time to time with Princeton’s website.


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