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Filmed on Monday January 11, 02016

Eric Cline

1177 B.C.: When Civilization Collapsed

Eric Cline is professor of ancient history and archaeology at George Washington University and Director of the GWU Capitol Archaeological Institute. He is author or editor of 16 books, including Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: International Trade and the Late Bronze Age Aegean and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.

Consider this, optimists. All the societies in the world can collapse simultaneously. It has happened before.

In the 12th century BCE the great Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean—all of them—suddenly fell apart. Their empires evaporated, their cities emptied out, their technologies disappeared, and famine ruled. Mycenae, Minos, Assyria, Hittites, Canaan, Cyprus—all gone. Even Egypt fell into a steep decline. The Bronze Age was over.

The event should live in history as one of the great cautionary tales, but it hasn’t because its causes were considered a mystery. How can we know what to be cautious of? Eric Cline has taken on on the mystery. An archaeologist-historian at George Washington University, he is the author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. The failure, he suggests, was systemic. The highly complex, richly interconnected system of the world tipped all at once into chaos.

When chaos overwhelmed civilization

Archaeologist Cline began by declaring that the time he would most like to be transported to is the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean—the five centuries between 1700 and 1200 B.C. In those centuries eight advanced societies were densely connected—Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Hittites, Cypriots, Minoans, and Mycenaeans. They grew to power over two millennia, but they collapsed simultaneously almost overnight. What happened?

The density of their connection can be learned from trade goods found in shipwrecks, from Egyptian hieroglyphs and wall paintings, and from countless well-preserved clay-tablet letters written between the states. The tin required for all that bronze (tin was the equivalent of oil today) came from Afghanistan 1,800 miles to the east. It was one of history’s most globalized times.

In the 12th Century B.C. everything fell apart. For Cline the defining moment was the battle in 1177 B.C. (8th Year of Ramses III) when Egypt barely defeated a mysterious army of “Sea Peoples.” Who were they? Do they really explain the general collapse, as historians long assumed?

Cline thinks the failure was systemic, made of a series of cascading calamities in a highly interdependent world. There were indeed invasions—they might have been soldiers, or refugees, or civil war, or all three. But the violence was probably set in motion by extensive drought and famine reported in tablet letters from the time. Voices in the letters: “There is famine in our house. We will all die of hunger.” “Our city is sacked. May you know it!” In some regions there were also devastating earthquakes.

The interlinked collapses played out over a century as central administrations failed, elites disappeared, economies collapsed, and whole populations died back or moved elsewhere.

In the dark centuries that followed the end of the Bronze Age, romantic myths grew of how wondrous the world had once been. Homer sang of Achilles, Troy, and Odysseus. Those myths inspired the Classical Age that eventually emerged.

Cline wonders, could the equivalent of the Bronze Age collapse happen in our current Age?

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