The Late Bronze age: A ‘pleasant’ collapse?

by Edward Pegler on 25 June, 2016

I listened to ‘In Our Time’ the other day, as they discussed the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was nice to hear about something so dear to my heart as they rambled through the usual stuff and some stuff I didn’t know. It was a shame that they didn’t spend a bit more time on some of the more offbeat theories of collapse, (e.g. military tactics, germ warfare, plague, drought, earthquake storms, bad dating of the archaeology) even if just to give them a beating. Whatever, I’d like to hear an In Our Time on ‘Collapses, dark ages and myths’ at some point.

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, occurring between about 1200 BC and 900BC, is – depending on which serious academic you talk to – either:

  1. A major disjuct in Mediterranean history, leading to famine, population decline, migration, warfare, the disappearance of whole civilisations, etc, etc, or
  2. A minor affair resulting from the failure of despot kings and their retinue to prevent history moving on, resulting in the freeing up the oppressed masses, and the rise of the small capitalist.

I’d say the opinions were evenly split in this episode of In Our Time, with Prof John Bennet tending more to view 1, Dr Simon Stoddart firmly in view 2, and Dr Linda Hulin accepting a bit of both. Melvyn Bragg definitely wanted 1 to be true. If the long view is taken, then I think it’s reasonable to see aspects of both views as quite reasonable.

However, where I take issue is with the part about the ‘freeing up of the oppressed masses’, or a ‘more pleasant way of living’ as expressed by Simon Stoddart 28 mins 33 seconds into the program. To be fair, his view is from the central Mediterranean, where the collapse wasn’t centred.

Whatever, I’ve read this view elsewhere. It’s been expressed about the end of the Roman Empire and the end of the Classic Maya. Joseph Tainter’s ‘Collapse of Complex Societies’ summed up the argument best. Complex hierarchy leads to increased workloads for the majority of the population. Further increase in complexity leads to diminishing returns and finally to a catastrophic reverse. The hierarchy collapses and the people at the bottom, relieved of taxes, return to simple farming and having more fun.

For me, what this argument fails to take into account is the evidence for notable population declines during collapse events (as can be seen in both Greece and Turkey during the Late Bronze Age). These imply that either people are dying or that they’re moving out. Neither situation suggests that life is better in the area once collapse has happened (Syria anyone?). Personally, I’d take my chances on being rich during a collapse rather than poor; at least I could afford to escape with an armed guard.

I do sometimes wonder whether some archaeologists simply find it difficult to get over their basic Marxist beliefs as they search the dirt for a fairer, more egalitarian world. Perhaps we should just strive for that world in the future rather than trying to find it in the dirty old past.





Does the peculiar tendency of the first farmers in Greece to settle near certain bands of ophiolitic rocks hint at the strange fascination Early Neolithic farmers had for copper.

Location of Early Neolithic sites (black dots) and possible Early Neolithic sites (pink dots) in Greece, as well as contemporary sites in neighbouring lands (after Perles, Ruzi, Brami et al) (click to see full image).

Farming first appeared in Greece in the first half of the seventh millennium BC, around the time of the discovery of pottery in Western Eurasia. Although there is much debate, it appears that it spread as part of a seaborne settlement of lands around the Aegean, by migrants from modern day Central Anatolia and, perhaps, the Levant (NOTE 1).

Settlement around the Aegean was not simultaneous. Ulucak in Western Turkey, Knossos in Crete and Franchthi in the Peleponnese were settled by around 6800 BC. By around 6400 BC farming had spread to other parts of Western Turkey, as well as the Greek mainland. Migrants may well have mixed with small local populations to varying degrees to create various hybrid cultures, but probably not everywhere.

Patterns of Greek Early Neolithic Settlement

It has long been known that the distribution of Early Neolithic farming sites across Greece is not uniform. The smaller Greek islands (except the Sporades) show no settlement. Crete’s early settlement may have been abandoned. Euboia is the only island that was extensively settled. On the mainland, sites are almost entirely centred in the east of the country, extending from the easternmost Peloponnese in the south to the massive concentration of sites in the Thessaly Plain in the north, with odd sites further north into Albania.

The limited sites found to the west often show hybrid or variant qualities (e.g. very poor quality pottery and unusual stone tools), perhaps suggesting that farming here was adopted by aboriginal foragers, not migrants. Finally, there is little or no sign of settlement on the Macedonian mainland further northeast. It appears as though most farmers were rather particular about where to settle (NOTE 2).

Greek Early Neolithic sites (black) and possible sites (pink) superimposed on a Greek soil map. Brown and salmon pink areas are those with good soil. Most sites lie on areas of good soil but many areas of good soil have few sites.

There are, of course, differences in the geography and climate of Greece that make some areas preferable for farming. As pointed out by Catherine Perlès, small islands often have intermittent water sources. The west coast may have been too wet for traditional near-eastern farming styles and the north too cold. Understandably farmers would settle in open plains rather than the mountains.

Sites superimposed on rainfall map, showing sites generally located in areas of lower rainfall.

Sites superimposed on rainfall map, showing sites generally located in areas of lower rainfall.

Catherine Perlès argues that rainfall could be a significant factor, which is reasonable. Regardless, some areas were inhabited by Early Neolithic Greek farmers whereas other areas with similar rainfall levels, soils and climate show little or no occupation.

So what’s going on here? Despite the Catherine Perlès’ comment that ‘the pattern seems to be too systematic to be explained by geological factors’ there is a possibility that she is, at least in part, wrong. I want to use one particular kind of rock as an example.


Ophiolites are a strange kind of rock formation; these pieces of ancient ocean floor have been caught in the mangle of colliding landmasses and now rest, boiled and shredded, in mountain ranges north of the eastern Mediterranean. Ophiolites of the Mediterranean are largely the result of stages in the closing of an ancient ocean, the Tethys, during the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods. The Mediterranean is all that remains of this ocean. These stages were also instrumental in the formation of the mountain ranges which now occur around the Mediterranean, such as the Alps, Carpathians, Atlas and Taurus.

Ophiolites are made of igneous rocks, both intruded as magma and extruded as lava. These rocks are basic and ultrabasic (mafic and ultramafic), which means that they are lack much silica and are often rather heavy. They weather to a dull brown colour, with occasional flashes of dark bluey-green, but are instantly recognisable to a geologist for all that (see here, for example). Geologists like them because of the history they reveal about the Earth and its ancient oceans. Capitalists sometimes like them too as they can contain chromium, platinum and gold.

Distribution of Greek and other nearby ophiolitic rocks (multiple sources). Sites of known Greek VMS mineralisation (dark blue) and PGE mineralisation (white) are also indicated (based on Melfos & Voudouris 2012).

The distribution of the majority of ophiolites in Greece is along the edges of a geological band called the Pelagonian Zone, which runs NNW-SSE across the eastern part of the mainland. This zone represents small landmasses and slices of ocean which were sandwiched together during the closure of the Tethys (NOTE 3).

With some notable exceptions (e.g. parts of the south-eastern Peloponnese), the ophiolites occupy the same band as that inhabited by most of the early Greek Farmers.

Farmers don’t eat ophiolite

The farmers of Early Neolithic Greece did not tend to live on the thin soil of mountains, so naturally didn’t live on ophiolite. They sensibly chose to farm the thick alluvium of the plains instead. However, they were generally close to ophiolitic rocks. It’s true that many of the farming sites are above deeply buried ophiolites, but I doubt that the farmers would have known or cared.

Distribution of ophiolites compared to EN sites.

Faults at the edge of the plains would have exposed shattered fault-faces of ophiolitic rocks. These appear to have been the source for pieces of serpentinite, a relatively soft, green metamorphic rock. Farmers made small axes out of this, which may have been prized, but are only useful for light cutting jobs (or murder).

Other rocks, often derived from further away, were used for harder cutting edges. Perhaps the most valued of these cutting edges was obsidian, which came from apparently uninhabited volcanic Aegean islands such as Melos. As such, a rock’s usefulness for tools doesn’t seem to control settlement patterns.

Speculation – ophiolites and minerals

At this point I want to make a huge leap from data to conjecture.

Cyprus also includes significant ophiolite rocks, generated at the boundary of the African and Eurasian Plates. The ophiolites of Cyprus are, at present, mined for chromium. However, historically, they were mined for copper ores. This is also true for the ophiolites of of the Bitlis-Zagros Suture Zone (BZSZ) in south-eastern Turkey, defining the boundary between the Arabian and Eurasian continental plates. Both of these areas were  centres of occupation for Early Neolithic farming communities during the Pre-pottery Neolithic B, shortly before the settlement of Greece.

Ophiolite distribution in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the location of Cayonu/Ergani marked in red. The Bitlis-Zagros Suture zone runs through here and toward Cyprus.

Ophiolite distribution in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the location of Cayonu/Ergani marked in red. The Bitlis-Zagros Suture zone runs through here and toward Cyprus.

Greek ophiolites show the same mineralisation patterns as those in Cyprus. They contain small quantities of copper, chromium and other rare elements, locked up as sulphides and oxide minerals, either in ‘Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide (VMS)’ or ‘Magmatic Ni-Cu PGE (Nickel-Copper, Platinum Group Element)’ type ores. Strabo’ miracles aside, they are not, and historically never were, economically workable for either chromium or copper ores. (NOTE 4).

This is all, arguably, irrelevant. The archaeological evidence strongly suggests that techniques for the extraction of metals such as copper from the oxides and sulphides in these rocks (by smelting) would not be invented for more than a thousand years after the time that we’re discussing. In fact, copper artefacts are unknown from Greece before the fifth millennium BC.

However, people of the Early Neolithic still knew about copper. Despite the fact that not one artefact of copper has ever been found in Early Neolithic Greece (or Cyprus, for that matter), I reckon that those farmers still knew about copper. Native copper.

‘Supergene’ processes and native copper

Within the top few metres of the land surface (the supergene zone) metallic ores, exposed to air and rain water, can experience oxidation, leaching and enrichment. In the case of copper ores this often produces small concentrations of copper metal (native copper) within cracks in the rock.

Such surface rocks are thought to be the source of the oldest copper artefacts known, those from Çayönü Tepesi in south-eastern Turkey, dated to around 8200 BC, over two thousand years before the Greek Neolithic. Based on trace elements within these copper artefacts (e.g. occasionally high arsenic levels), this copper is generally thought to be derived from the Ergani Maden (Kızıldağ) mining region, a short distance to the north of Çayönü. The host rock is ophiolite (part of the above mentioned BZSZ).

I say that these copper artefacts are ‘thought to be’ derived from Ergani Maden (and there is some debate) because there is no evidence of this early mining. Perhaps this is because Ergani is now a hole in the ground. The evidence of early mining is always rare if other miners came afterward, clearing away the earlier diggings to dig deeper. Perhaps it is because early sources of copper were derived not from the host rocks themselves but from streams which eroded similar host rocks to the west of Ergani Maden.

(I should add here that there would have been no particular reason for ancient peoples not to collect gold as well as native copper from streams or out of rocks. However, there is even less evidence for that, so I won’t push that).

Discussion – we need more evidence

So is it possible that ophiolites, with their dull brown, dusty look, could have been sought out by early farmers as being associated with native copper? If this is so, was Cyprus also first settled by farmers in the ninth millennium BC for the same reason? Did running out of native copper cause Cyprus’ disconnection from the world around 7000 BC? Did this have a knock on effect on the Pre-pottery Neolithic cultures of the mainland?

This essay cannot be conclusive. Too much evidence is missing. There are clearly problems with some areas, such as the Peleponnese, where settlements occur away from ophiolite (this is also true for the Bosphorus region in NW Turkey). Obviously, the lack of a single copper (or gold, for that matter) artefact from Early Neolithic Greece seems damning.

If artefacts of native copper ever turned up either Early Neolithic Greece (7000 to 6000BC) that would help. Personally, I suspect that it’s unlikely, but not necessarily because the ideas above are wrong. As for native copper artefacts turning up in Early Neolithic Cyprus (around 8200 to 7500BC) I still wait and hope.


P.S. Long ago, in the early days of writing this blog, I wrote a post comparing the distribution of historically mined copper ores in Europe to the locations of early Neolithic settlement. The post was just based on a few published maps, no-one took much notice and I soon forgot about the idea. Two major problems with it were that the first farmers in Europe, those of Greece, settled in an area with no copper mines and that northern Turkey, which has extensive copper deposits

But certain things kept bringing the idea back. The first was the discovery that the coast of north Africa only has copper ores in the far west, the only place where there is any evidence of Early Neolithic farming settlement. The second is that copper-rich Cyprus had a much earlier Neolithic than once thought, fully as old as that of Anatolia, but that this Neolithic went downhill.

It was for that reason that I looked at Greece again. I’m still not convinced, but I think that I’m groping around the edges of a real story.


1) The settlement of Greece from Cyprus seems unlikely. This is because Cyprus appears to have been without Cattle by the time of settlement of Greece (early to mid seventh millennium BC), whereas cattle are present in the fauna introduced into both Crete and mainland Greece.

2) To add a further complication to this, radiocarbon dating of sites around the Aegean is patchy and the pottery is surprisingly undiagnostic.

3) There are tiny, scattered fragments of ophiolite throughout the Aegean, most of which are shown on the map. Many of these are metamorphosed to almost unrecognisability. Other, even smaller fragments occur in ancient melanges, ancient massive debris flows, preserved within the Pelagonian and other zones. The variability of published maps in showing these fragments is understandable.

4) Copper has been worked from Greek mines in prehistory, largely from Crete, the Cyclades and Lavrion. However, I think that these may be skarn deposits, associated with limestone and metamorphism, and I suspect that they would not have been worked or noticed until much later.


Adamides, N.G. 2010 Mafic-dominated volcanogenic sulphide deposits in the Troodos ophiolite, Cyprus Part 2 – A review of genetic models and guides for exploration, Applied Earth Science 119, p193-204.

Highlights two known mines, Mangaleni and Skouriotissa (Phoenix) as currently showing native copper in their supergene zones.

Akinci, 2009 Ophiolite-hosted Copper and Gold Deposits of Southeastern Turkey: Formation and Relationship with Seafloor Hydrothermal Processes, Turkish Journal of Earth Sciences 18, p475-509.

Discussing the VMS deposits of the Ergani-Maden mine.

Bakhuizen, S.C. & Kreulen, R. 1976 Etymology of the name Chalcis, In: Chalcis in Euboea: Iron and Chalcidians Abroad, Brill, p58-64.

Bamba, T. 1974 Ophiolite and related Copper Deposits of the Ergani Mining District, Southeastern Turkey, p36-50+

Brami, M.H. & Heyd, V. 2011 The origins of Europe’s first farmers: The role of Hacılar and Western Anatolia, fifty years on. Praehistoriche Zeitschrift 86, p165–206.

A more traditional view of arrows spreading culture across Anatolia to the Aegean.

Bunguri, A. 2014 Different models for the Neolithisation of Albania, Documenta Praehistorica 41, p79-94.

Çilingiroğlu, Ç & Çakırlar, C. 2013 Towards configuring the neolithisation of Aegean Turkey, Documenta Praehistorica 40, p21-29.

Hejl, E. et al. 2000 Young Neogene tectonics and relief development fission-track dating
on the Aegean islands of Naxos, Paros and los (Cyclades, Greece), Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Geologischen Gesellschaft 93, 105-127.

Lichter, C. 2005 Western Anatolia in the Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic: the actual state of research, In: How did farming reach Europe? (Lichter, C. ed.) BYZAS 2, p59–74.

Melfos, V. & Voudouris, P.C. 2012 Geological, Mineralogical and Geochemical Aspects for Critical and Rare Metals in Greece, Minerals 2, p300-317.

Mining Atlas (online resource) – e.g. for Turkey

Perlès, C. 2001 The Early Neolithic in Greece : the First Farmers in Europe, Cambridge, pp356.

An excellent introduction, carefully thought out and well written, discussing the relationship of EN Greek farmers with foragers as well as farmers to the north and in Anatolia and the Middle East. A little out of date now but the main source of information for this post.

Perlès, C. et al. 2011 Melian obsidian in NW Turkey: Evidence for early Neolithic trade, Journal of Field Archaeology 36, p42-49.

Perlès, C. et al. 2013 Early Seventh-Millennium AMS Dates from Domestic Seeds in the Initial Neolithic at Franchthi Cave (Argolid, Greece), Antiquity 87, p1001-1015.

Reingruber, A. 2011 Early Neolithic settlement patterns and exchange networks in the Aegean, Documenta Praehistorica 38, p291-305.

Argues, based on Thissen’s dating, for strong influence of Foragers on the Earliest Neolithic.

Reingruber, A. & Thissen, L. 2009 Depending on 14C Data: Chronological frameworks in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic of Southeastern Europe, Radiocarbon 51, p751–770.

Questions the traditional dating for the Peleponnese Early Neolithic, putting it back a few hundred years, but see Perlès et al. 2013.

Ruzi, E. 201X Investigating Compositional Variability among Early Neolithic Ceramics from Korça Region, Albania, Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology, pp15.

Swiss world atlas version 1.0.1 – image of Aegean rainfall patterns.

Thissen, L. 2011 The Neolithic–Chalcolithic sequence in the SW Anatolian Lakes Region, Documenta Praehistorica 37, p269-282.

Yigit, O. 2009 Mineral Deposits of Turkey in Relation to Tethyan Metallogeny: Implications for Future Mineral Exploration, Economic Geology 104, p19-51. (image from this)

Ophiolite maps of Greece – are all slightly inconsistent. The maps used here are composites from a large number of sources, including this and this.




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