This evening my boyfriend and I decided we would like to learn about the fall of the Bronze Age. Really he wanted to learn about the World Wars or the rise of communism, but I pointed out that to understand WWI you probably want to know what was going on just before it, and that I would be willing to only ride this slippery slope as far as the Bronze Age, and that the Bronze Age collapse was pretty interesting. Admittedly I also wanted to learn about a period of history that had at most one of carnage and photography.

The basic situation with the end of the Bronze Age, as I remember hearing it, is this. There were about nine thriving civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea leading up to 1200BC. They had palaces and grand monuments and written records and ships carrying perfume and metals and grapes and letters about. It was going pretty well. Then in a matter of decades, they were all destroyed or drastically diminished. Basically every major city in some large area was ruined and often abandoned forever.1

The big mystery of it is what happened. In spite of us having earlier records for events like Hammurabi returning a pair of sandals, it seems that this early try at an interconnected civilized world came to an end without leaving conclusive evidence about what the problem was. There is writing of ‘sea people’ attacking cities, and evidence of drought and famine, earthquakes and violence. But which, if any, of these really caused it is an open question.

A mystery that we discovered tonight is that there aren’t any good looking documentaries about this around. It was easy enough—and incredible, let me say—to watch a documentary about that time a religious commune tried to start a city in rural Oregon, but there are only a couple of neglected videos on obscure websites about what I’m told is one of the most intense civilizational disintegrations ever.

We ended up watching expert Eric Cline give a lecture about it instead. It was pretty interesting, though I think we have disagreements about epistemology. 2 Highlights for me included seeing the neat parcels of glass dredged up from a trading ship wrecked 3400 years ago, and hearing concerned letters from the time 3 4 . The continuity of familiar human experience—molding substances and transporting them around, anguish, asking for help—so far back into the mist of civilizational dawn that the requests are pressed into clay tablets, is inspiriting in spite of the hardness of the experiences.

  1. “Drews claims that every major settlement between Pylos in Greece and Gaza in the Levant was destroyed and abandoned. Forty-seven were credibly identified as having been destroyed during this period, and the number is probably much higher in actuality.” - Grant Piper 

  2. For instance, his central complaint about a simple theory was that it was simple. 

  3. “The gates of the house are sealed, since there is famine in your house, we shall starve to death. If you do not hasten to come, we shall starve to death” - Someone living in Northern Syria a long time ago, p305. 

  4. More from a desperate king here