Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, I: Breaking Godwin's Law All Over the Place

I don't know why I find these girls so risible. I suspect that it's more than the "Celtic" thing, and I don't particularly want to explore the fact that on these girls, in this choreography, I want to make fun of their gowns, too. That ain't a nice thing for a boy to do. Especially considering that there are people I really don't want to offend, and what with the whole ear bud thing, it's not like I necessarily know what kind of music they like. So, hey, pre-emptive apology if that describes you, because it's not like my tastes are any more aesthetically advanced. (On the contrary....)

So, um, I'm making fun of some undoubtedly quite nice girls who make some very nice music, because somehow the kind of performance they put on rubs me the wrong way. Now that's pretty wishy-washy, but I do have a point, and it is that this whole "Celtic" thing bothers me. It's not the romanticism, but rather that race slips in through the back door. Our pretend ancient history validates racial essentialism. And it might well be that there's no better example of this than the Late Bronze Age collapse.

We know the story; we could practically make it up ourselves. The Late Bronze Age of the Mediterranean was a society of multiple high civilisations: Minoan Crete, ancient Egypt, Babylon, the Hittite Empire. Then, "about 1200BC," the Aryan nomads, who had invented chariots and battleaxes on the high Eurasian steppe years before, came up short when they arrived at the shore of the Middle Sea in Sardinia, Sicily, Greece, and coastal Turkey. They could hardly drive their herds across open sea. (Well, actually you can, at the Hellespont, but once you admit the details into this story, it begins to fall apart, so we won't go there.)

Nothing daunted, the Aryans hewed out longships from the ancient forest, crossed the seas, and fell upon the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean peoples with their battleaxes, killed everyone, and set in motion the next cycle of pastoralism-civilisation-decadence-collapse. Throw in some notion about the barbarians only being successful because the civilised states had reached a stage of "crisis," and you can even shoehorn the Reverend Malthus into the story.

Longships? Battleaxes? Am I making some kind of sarcastic comment about a thesis I disagree with? Well, of course. This is a blog, after all. But I'm not going too far out on a limb, here. Here's the Nineteenth Century Franco-Italian archaeologist Gaston Maspero, formulator of the Sea Peoples thesis, setting the scene for the onslaught (you'll have to scroll or search a bit to find this citation, as I lazily used an image search result as a shortcut):

"The new-comers had all been absorbed and assimilated by the country, but the generations which arose from this continual cross-breeding, while representing externally the Egyptians of older epochs, in manners, language, and religion, were at bottom something different, and the difference became the more accentuated as the foreign elements increased. The people were thus gradually divested of the character which had distinguished them before the conquest of Syria; the dispositions and defects imported from without counteracted to such an extent their own native dispositions and defects that all marks of individuality were effaced and nullified. The race tended to become more and more what it long continued to be afterwards,—a lifeless and inert mass, without individual energy—endowed, it is true, with patience, endurance, cheerfulness of temperament, and good nature, but with little power of self-government, and thus forced to submit to foreign masters who made use of it and oppressed it without pity."

Clearly, such people have a problem. Cats and dogs sleeping together! Once a Syrian has a baby with an Egyptian, much less a Nubian,  the resulting society could hardly defend itself against a great movement of peoples began in the west, led by the tribe that left its dolmens on the plains of the Maghrib:

"They were men tall of stature and large of limb, with fair skins, light hair, and blue eyes; everything, in fact, indicating their northern origin." 

Obviously dolmen-builders from Gaul! (Although I'll confess to having had a higher opinion of them before I learned that they wanted to extirpate ancient Egyptian civilisation.) One Pharaoh defeated them, but not decisively, and it was left to another bearing the ancient name of Ramses to finally defeat the Peoples of the Sea. But, first, he had to put the army into order. How to do this? 

"Ramses revived the system of classes, which empowered him to compel all Egyptians of unmixed race to take personal service."  

Good thinking! Almost reminds me of something. Somewhere about is the etching taken from Ramesses' victory mural at Medinet Habu showing the horned helmets of one of the ethnic groups in the "Sea Peoples" coalition. Seriously: these dudes were Berber-Viking-Prussians invading Egypt-France. The theory dates back to the 1890s, but don't think of it as decrepit. Or, I guess it is decrepit, but like some nice old fixer-upper that can still house a family. A Trekboer family, but a family.

So, yes, I'm sarcastic. Even if you accept the Sea Peoples hypothesis, turning it into a justification for any current political position is an abuse of history. And, substantively, it's ....unpersuasive.

Medinet Habu is reasonably a place where a Nineteenth Century Egyptologist might find history. We should not be so naive now. The memorial temples attached to royal tombs, "Houses of Millions of Years," represent, or construct, kingship. They do so within a stereotyped idiom that explains the famous inscription rather better than literal history. The tomb is built on a terrace probably representing the primeval mound rising out of the waters of chaos. Mural representations of pharaoh in amphibious battle of course reflect the fact that maintenance of order in any Bronze Age society was difficult, so  any rising Pharaonic regime will have to fight river pirates/rivals.  More than that, this victory is a victory over the chaos of the waters, both cosmologically and politically. This is why, specifically, Ramesses copies the inscriptions of a predecessor. Victory over "Peoples of the Sea" is part of his ideological programme.

This isn't to say that there was no battle, and no victory. On the contrary, Late Bronze Age civilisation, even at its height, was unstable and unsettled. The very existence of Ramesses' mortuary temple tells us that he imposed order on Egypt, and even if he did so through pure, sweet reasonableness, he would have denied it. The issue here is the vision of alien peoples from the far side of the Mediterranean landing on the "Asiatic" and "Libyan" sides of Egypt, joining with local peoples, and then advancing into Egypt with the herds and oxcarts they either obtained in the Levant or brought by sea in a massive conspiracy. Call me a Whig if you will, but I don't see a bunch of illiterate nomads out-organising the Ninth Crusade!

And it happens that there is an alternative theory, put forward by the late Alessandra Nibbi. Now, Nibbi was iconoclastic as all heck, and I'm certainly not persuaded by her later book, but her earlier one on the Sea Peoples is convincing. It starts from the position that vaguely-defined foreign places tend to change locations over time. Ancient Egyptians from before the largescale reclamation of the Delta, lived for the most part in times when the state was all loosey-goosey. The chaos and disorder of foreign parts started north of where the Nile broke free from its banks and began to flow in multiple streams through an amphibious landscape of islands, mudflats, water, and reed beds. It was the "Great Green." In more ordered eras, the Egyptians got on boats, sailed through the Delta waters, and out into the Mediterranean Sea, and called that the "Great Green," instead. I'm reminded of being confused about just where a Venetian thought "the Levant" might be.

In the "Great Green," as narrrowly defined by a state-builder in the early stages of establishing a new pharaonic reign, he will encounter strange people, especially when the burning heat of summer dries up the forage on the open plains. There will be "Libyans," who bring their flocks from the west; "Nubians," who come up the oasis chain from the far south; and "Asiatics," who come via Sinai. Or, anyway, these are convenient ordering labels. And there will be the marsh folk of the delta, living on their "islands in the Great Green." Such people are disorganised and fractious, and inevitably demand more grazing than the land will support. It is up to Pharaoh to mediate between them, knock heads, and, when necessary, disperse armed opposition.

And that's what Ramesses is telling us that he did. What is interesting is that he raises the rhetorical stakes, telling us that Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya have all been "cut off" by this menace. Only Egypt stands. The Viking thesis stands if "the foreign people on their islands" stands for just the "Sea Peoples," but it sure looks like we've got Libyans invading western Anatolia here. And, for that matter, it's a little hard to imagine sea raiders attacking Boğazköy. That's a lot of rowing upstream! But, then, with Vikings, we've already had to swallow a lot of that. It's not vastly more unbelievable than 800 ships carrying an army to besiege Paris ascending the Seine. And, as has been frequently pointed out, Pharaoh is wrong, here. Carchemish certainly wasn't "cut off." (And it has finally been opened to archaeological excavations by the Turkish army, hurrah!) A Neo-Hittite state flourished there almost to Herodotus' time, and vaguely in his awareness. In fact, a diversion through the old Catholic Encyclopedia takes me to a time when the history of the "Hittites" was brought to an end when the Assyrians claimed to have conquered them in the 800s!

Nor does it  seem likely that there was even a state of Alashiya to "cut off." Perhaps it was a diplomatic fiction, or the other monarchs of the Late Bronze Age Great Power system sent their ambassadors to whichever Cypriot princeling had the most copper at a given time. As far as we can tell archaeologically, the worst thing that happened in Cyprus was that demand for copper fell; that being said, there was an old argument that proposed a "Mycenaean" invasion specifically. Unfortunately, people get a little weird when you start talking about whether ancient Cypriots were more Greek or Asiatic. History. Why can't it stay in the past? But it seems more likely that Ramesses was claiming that he had imposed law and order, where others had failed.

Now, the failure of the "Late Bronze Age" collapse clearly occurred. It's probably, after the fall of Rome, the best known example of an early historic state system collapse. Modern taste shies away from pseudo-Nazi invaders, and I'm wandering into dangerous territory indeed in pointing out just who in the modern world is keeping that thesis alive. 

So what's mainstream scholarship's explanation? That it was a political-social thing. Marc van de Mieroop offered a brief explanation in his survey textbook, which I've just finished so that I can move on to do justice to this, and then elaborated on it here, and his lapidary summary has all angried up my blood. Mieroop concludes that the economic system of the Late Bronze Age depended on ordinary subjects taking on ever greater debt loads to the elites at the centre, until they just finally gave up on being citizens of a state and headed off into the buffer zones and wildernesses that existed at the margins of the LBA states. It is flight to the mountains, or the marshes, not a return in arms from them, that brings down the LBA states.

My supplement to this explanation? Obviously, we're just imposing up-to-the-minute considerations of ancient history. If you look at the latest unemployment numbers from the States and you get a little blood in your eye and think about burning something down, it's easy to project that anger on the past. And you can go a little further. There's a theory about the LBA collapse that, paired with Mieroop's, makes the final failure sound like a sudden shift in demand from one kind of financial instrument (bronze) to another (iron). It's a demand-driven monetary crisis, just like ours, and it resulted in all of civilisation walking away from its underwater mortgages (burning down Wall Street on the way out of town)!

Well, not quite. But it's an interesting place for a historian of technology-as-quotidian to start.

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