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:
- A major disjuct in Mediterranean history, leading to famine, population decline, migration, warfare, the disappearance of whole civilisations, etc, etc, or
- 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.