Confronting “Collapse”

An anarchist perspective on the end of the Bronze Age

The publication of a new edition of Eric Cline’s book 1177 BC causes Josho to think about how we frame “collapse”, and whether the end of hierarchical societies is really as bad as many scholars seem to suggest.

Josho Brouwers

A new, revised and updated edition of Eric Cline’s book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, has appeared. I’ve bought the slightly (!) cheaper ebook version. The new edition is 40 pages longer, but most of the changes are generally subtle, especially for the first four chapters. For example, the final section of chapter 1 has a different title, and some details and further explanations have been added here and there (e.g. in the section on the Trojan War in chapter 3).

The largest changes involve chapter 5: this has now been split into two chapters – 5 and 6 – and some of the sections have been reordered. The new chapter 5 now ends with the section on climate change, the text that has been reworked into chapter 6 has been partially rewritten and new paragraphs have been added. But on the whole, the changes and additions are relatively minor: hence “revised and updated”, rather than a full-blown “second edition”.

1177 BC offers a good overview of the many questions surrounding the events that marked the end of the Late Bronze Age, but I have always found the treatment of the topic a little unsatisfactory for reasons that are only now becoming clear to me.

And despite the criticisms that I will level at the book in this article, I certainly want it to be clear that 1177 BC still offers the best treatment of the subject that is currently available. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do. And perhaps some of the criticism that I present herein can perhaps be taken into account for a future revision of the book.

In any event, 1177 BC has consistently been pushed as something that is very “relevant” to the modern age; a book from which lessons may be drawn. In the new preface, Cline writes (p. XVII):

After nearly a lifetime of studying the Bronze Age, it is my belief that taking a closer look at the events, peoples, and places of an era more than three millennia distant from us is more than merely an academic exercise. It is especially relevant now, considering what we have all been going through recently in our own globalized and trans-national society, where we also find complex diplomatic embassies (think North Korea) and economic trade embargoes (think China); magnificent royal marriages (William and Kate; Harry and Meghan); international intrigues and deliberate military disinformation (think Ukraine); rebellions (Arab Spring) and migrations (Syrian refugees); and, of course, climate changes and pestilence (COVID-19).

There is no mention here of the Black Lives Matter protests, nor of the increasing disparities between the rich and the poor – these omissions are not accidental, as we shall see later on.

At the end of the preface, Clines writes that (p. XIX):

we would do well to heed what happened to the flourishing kingdoms of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean […] at the end of the Bronze Age. We are not as far removed from those days as one might think; COVID-19 has just exposed a vulnerability of modern societies to one of those forces of nature.

But what are we to heed? Indeed, who is the “we” that is being referred to here? Can regular people do anything other than living as best they can, vote for politicians who seem to be willing to make the world a better place and take part in demonstrations when political leadership fails?

A lack of human agency

One of the things that struck me about 1177 BC when I was re-reading parts of the first edition, and which is also true for the new edition, is how little human agency seems to play a role in the events that mark the end of the Bronze Age. The fifth chapter, “A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Calamities?” discusses different things that may have all contributed to the end of the Bronze Age.

These “calamities” include earthquakes, climate change, drought and famine, invaders from areas outside of the territories of the great kingdoms, and the “collapse” of international trade, decentralization and the “rise” of the “private merchant”. The sections that dealt with “systems collapse” and complexity theory have been moved to a new, sixth chapter in the revised edition, and that does make more sense structurally, even if I don’t think mapping historic events and processes to abstract models actually explains anything.

It is after the discussion of systems theory that, in both the original version of the book (chapter 5) and this new one (chapter 6), Cline eventually settles on all of the foregoing issues as reasons for the “collapse”. He suggests that complexity theory – a way of modelling and analysing complex systems (in this case, societies), with a focus on interaction and feedback loops – provides the answer to understanding what happened at the end of the Bronze Age: a suitably sterile solution to a complex problem.

With all the talk about systems theory and its derivative, complexity theory, I was reminded of what I read in Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley’s important book, Re-Constructing Archaeology (second edition, 1992). They deal with systems theory on pp. 52-53 (emphasis theirs) and note that:

The system is to affirm, agree with immediate fact, which is pre-defined as having primacy. […] But the concept of “system” is not part of the object of study; it is proposed in advance and cannot be empirically confirmed or refuted. […] This whole is pre-defined as an organic unit whose natural state is stability or equilibrium. […] Any component of the system functions to maintain a desired state of affairs – social stability, a condition postulated in advance of any particular society. The system and its components adapt to the objective given – usually the external environment. Conservative values of persistence and stability become the norm. Change is always a contingent state of affairs while harmony is universal.

Shanks and Tilley’s particularly bone-chilling conclusion about systems theory is that (p. 53; with my emphasis in bold):

Systems theory, as pre-defined method based on immediate objective appearance, is a theory of conservative politics, conservative in that it will lend support to anything that is, the immediate “reality” of any social form. In this sense, systems theory is not only conservative, it is immoral in its acceptance of any empirical state as a slate for the good. For the sake of an abstract value of equilibrium, systems theory implicitly justifies oppression. In identifying what is with what should be, it creates a tidy, ordered and timeless world. […] Naturally so-called “social anarchy” is not in the interests of the ruling classes.

Now, nestled within the fifth chapter of Cline’s book is a very short section, consisting of three paragraphs, with the heading “Internal rebellion” (pp. 147-148 in the original edition; in the new edition, this section is unchanged). Blink and you’ll miss it. Cline writes that “some scholars” (p. 147) suggest that such “revolts” could have been triggered by a number of factors, including the aforementioned famines, caused by any number of natural disasters, or indeed the “cutting of international trade routes”.

Cline writes that “any and all of which could have dramatically impacted the economy in the affected areas and led dissatisfied peasants or lower classes to rebel against the ruling class” (pp. 147-148). But while “peasants” may have caused some of the destruction, Cline suggests that for much of it, “there is, quite frankly, no way to tell whether revolting peasants were responsible” (p. 148).

Cline adds that many “civilizations” – itself a troublesome, value-laden term that is in my opinion best avoided – “have successfully survived internal rebellions, and often flourished under a new regime” (p. 148). My immediate response would be that if a rebellion caused a change in “regime”, then how is this not significant? When reading an earlier draft of this article, Joshua Hall correctly pointed out to me that a change in regime need not affect society at large, or indeed impact the existing networks of social power: same wine, different bottles. Still, I would have liked to have seen Cline expand on this point a bit.

Anarchist theory offers a different way of looking at things. Anarchist anthropology has been gaining momentum for a few decades at least, and anarchist theory has since also found its way into archaeology. It’s still new and/or niche enough that for example Matthew Johnson’s newest edition of his Archaeological Theory: An Introduction, published in 2019, doesn’t mention it even once.

Anarchist theory, fittingly, doesn’t have any leading proponents, and it is perhaps difficult to speak of a unified theory at all; it is more properly a collection of ideas. A useful introduction is David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004), which outlines some of the ways in which anarchist theory is useful. There is also this “Community Manifesto”, which outlines the main characteristics of what an anarchist archaeology could be.

If I were to point to one aspect of anarchist theory that is particularly useful in understanding the end of the Bronze Age, it would be a focus on interrogating hierarchy. And at this point I should emphasize that anarchist theory is not just about interrogating our interpretations about the past, but also about the discipline itself and the wider world around us. It is ideally suited as a jumping off point for those of us who not only want to study and understand change, but bring change about ourselves.

The social dimensions

But back to the Late Bronze Age. One key characteristic of the kingdoms that existed then is that they were all hierarchical and patriarchal. They were, in a sense, ordered: there were the rich and powerful at the top, and the poor and downtrodden at the bottom. Within a hierarchical system, “peasants” – to use Cline’s term – are seemingly of little consequence to the people at the top.

Cline glosses over the social dimensions of the “collapse”. However, it is those social dimensions that I think are worth examining in much greater detail. After all, one of the key discussions to be had in our modern world is how we are going to solve the vast disparities in wealth that currently exist. For example, Jeff Bezos is taking a step back from his role as CEO of Amazon. He is the richest man in the world, currently worth close to $200 billion – an amount of money that is unfathomable. The pandemic may have affected millions of people in a negative way, but the world’s richest billionaires have only seen their wealth increase.

Currently, an example doing the rounds on social media and various news websites demonstrates just how wealthy someone like Bezos is: if he had given each of his 879,000 Amazon employees a $105,000 bonus at the start of the pandemic, he would today be as rich as he was at the start of last year. Bezos has not engaged in this level of altruism. Instead, the lowest rungs of Amazon workers have had to pee in jars in order to not harm their “efficiency”, and they continue to struggle to make ends meet on a minimum wage.

Could similar disparities have fueled the vaunted “collapse” of the kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age? I am thinking of the previous occupant of the White House literally being fenced in to protect him and his cronies from the angry protestors outside. As someone who has studied ancient fortifications, one of the points that I usually strive to make – like here or here – is that walls are not just meant to defend something from outside threats.

The massive fortifications that defended Mycenae, for example, were modified in the later thirteenth century BC to encompass a larger area of the citadel: the walls were extended to include Grave Circle A, the Lion Gate was built, and a water supply was secured within the area of Mycenae’s citadel. The reasons offered to explain this massive building program, undertaken perhaps mere decades before the citadel would be destroyed, are varied, ranging from prestige (e.g. status rivalry with other fortified centres in the Argolid) to fear from attack.

But at this point it’s good to point out that the citadel did not house the vast majority of the population of Mycenae. It was the residence of the ruler – wanax, in Linear B tablets – and his family and dependents. What if the massive fortifications weren’t built out of vanity or fear from enemies from without, but primarily to secure the position of the local ruler? What if the “peasants” of Mycenae were getting fed up with having to live off scraps while their wanax was organizing ever more elaborate feasts up there on his shining hill?

I don’t think there is a way to know whether or not this was the case because the lower town of Mycenae, where most of the people lived, has not yet been extensively excavated. Indeed, none of the lower towns around the major Bronze Age centres in the Aegean, at least, have been the subject of archaeological investigation until relatively recently. This highlights another problem: the interest of modern scholars, often operating in a more or less secure environment, in understanding the upper echelons of society rather than the lower ones. Who cares about “peasants”?

Society’s best and truest form?

Indeed, most scholars, consciously or not, assume that an ordered, hierarchical society is the only true form in which humans can flourish. Hence, when the kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age “collapse”, the result is something undesirable – a “Dark Age” in the pejorative sense of the phrase, in which the glorious kingdoms and empires of the previous age have made way for a large number of small communities that do not produce the frescoes, gleaming palaces, and intricately wrought jewellery that look so good in photographs and on book covers.

In the introduction to his Geometric Greece, 900-700 BC (second edition, 2003), Coldstream writes (p. XXII):

The Dark Ages in Greece had been a time of poverty, isolation, and illiteracy, when representational art was virtually unknown. Many memories were handed down orally, to be preserved in later literature; but these refer to the heroic splendours and downfall of the Mycenaean civilization, and tell us virtually nothing about the impoverished life of the eleventh and tenth centuries. Until the rise of archaeological research, very little could be known about this long and obscure period […].

Jonathan Hall, in his History of the Archaic Greek World (second edition, 2014), writes of the Dark Age that (p. 60):

while it would be futile to deny that some continuities are traceable across the centuries of darkness, such information as has come to light serves only to confirm a general picture of isolation, introversion, and instability for mainland Greece and the islands of the Aegean (Cyprus and, to a lesser extent, Crete weathered the crisis with more resilience).

But what of the people who lived through this experience? What of the people who lived in these supposedly isolated, introverted and unstable communities in mainland Greece and elsewhere? Were they as miserable as modern scholarship suggests they were?

In other words: can people only be expected to flourish when they are part of large, hierarchical societies with extensive trade networks? Is this, to put it differently, a defence of disparities in wealth, power, and social status?

Using such value-laden terminology to describe historical situations does little to advance understanding. The inherent question I want to ask is if the disintegration of a hierarchical society is necessarily a bad thing. Would a world in which disparities between the rich and poor are severely reduced, possibly even eliminated, truly be as wretched as modern scholarship suggests was the case after the end of the Bronze Age, or following the demise of the Roman Empire in the west?

Anarchy is usually interpreted in the negative sense of “chaos”, but that is not the true meaning of the word. Anarchy comes from the Greek anarchos, “having no ruler”. This doesn’t mean that an anarchist society is rudderless; it merely rejects the notion of a fixed hierarchy. Experts are still sought after; informal leadership can still be a feature (e.g. entrusting an experienced builder to construct something). But an anarchist society is organized along the principles of free association.

The societies that emerged after the destruction and disappearance of the hierarchical kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age were smaller. They were different. They were undoubtedly, in many respects, more fair. No longer did the “peasants” have to bow before a ruler who lived behind the mighty walls of his fortress on the shiny hill. Of course, the ruler who was deposed – and presumably killed during the upheavals – may have had a different opinion.

Indeed, for the common people, who never had much to lose in the first place, not a lot might have changed with the disintegration of the kingdoms. These people were not, after all, the beneficiaries of the predatory systems that the upper echelons of these kingdoms exploited to enrich themselves. They did not have thrones of ivory or pet monkeys. All they tried to do was to make ends meet.

Lessons from history

In my opinion, this is where possible lessons can be learned from the “collapse” at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Cline and most other scholars who study the end of the Late Bronze Age see chaos and destruction, a disintegration of social order. Cline is used to living in a strictly hierarchical world, going so far as to introduce scholars in his book in ways that underline established hierarchies.

Here is a sentence from p. 161 of the original edition of 1177 BC:

Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University, one of the most respected scholars ever to study the prehistoric Aegean region, had already suggested the idea of a system collapse back in 1979.

The way that Renfrew is introduced here is intended to fill us with awe. He’s from Cambridge University, which is widely regarded as a prestigious institution. He is also “one of the most respected scholars”. It is an appeal to authority – a form of argument, a rhetorical trick in essence, that I was taught in my first year at university to avoid at all costs. The excuse may be that the book is written to also appeal to general audiences, who might not know who this Renfrew fellow is. But this does little to assuage the argument. Matters are perhaps made worse in the new edition: the new chapter 6 now opens with this statement!

If there is a lesson to be learned from the end of the Bronze Age, it is that we should look to those who have the most to lose. In our modern world, young people are suffering from relatively high levels of unemployment; they earn less than their parents and are more and more unlikely to ever be able to “own” (i.e. mortgage) a house or put away significant savings. After the financial crash of 2008 and the pandemic that started in 2020 and still rages on, large parts of modern society – the “have-nots” – have little to nothing to lose if the current hierarchies – that mostly benefit the “haves” – break down. In fact, they have everything to gain.

The gap between the rich and the poor is continuously increasing, not only within societies, but also between them. The current problems with the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine are a case in point: wealthier countries are ordering more than they need, to the detriment of poorer countries. When Madonna appeared in a video to proclaim from her bathtub that the virus was “the great equalizer” and we are all the same now, people rightly mocked her for making this statement: the virus, as all things, does not affect all people in the same way.

There have been many movements in the past two decades that show that society is under severe stress. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations erupted to protest against wealth inequality. Black Lives Matter protests sought racial justice, which also necessitates socio-economic equality.

But unfortunately, change itself progresses only slowly. We see opportunistic politicians stoking the fires of hate in an attempt to ensure that the rage of the common people is turned towards each other, to foreigners and refugees, rather than aimed at the wealthy elites who exploit the system for all its worth.

Climate change, military and political disinformation, trade embargoes, international intrigues, migrations, pestilence – these may all be factors that contribute to the “collapse” of hierarchical societies. But the root cause, I would argue, is social. It is human action or, indeed, inaction that causes the “collapse” of hierarchical societies. And maybe “collapse” is the wrong word to use here; perhaps “transformation” is the more appropriate, neutral term.

The destruction of kingdoms and empires at the end of the Bronze Age may have been dramatic, but it was not necessarily bad. Cline himself suggests that it may have been necessary to pave the way for new city-states and the cultures of Athens and Sparta.

“From them,” he writes (p. 176), “eventually came fresh developments and innovative ideas, such as the alphabet, monotheistic religion, and eventually democracy. Sometimes it takes a large-scale wildfire to help renew the ecosystem of an old-growth forest and allow it to thrive afresh.” The Dark Ages are transformational only in the sense that they hurry along and make way for a new, hierarchical order.

But the problem is Eric Cline’s line of thinking here is clearly teleological: the collapse happened and from the supposed ashes rose new societies to take the place of the old ones. (Contrariwise, see this talk by Dimitri Nakassis.) To my mind, it begs the question: for human beings to “thrive”, do we need to function as part of a hierarchical society? Or is there a better way?

Certainly, the Greeks experimented with different forms of societies, but in the process created other forms of hierarchical societies that relied on slavery to such an extent that to say these were improvements goes too far. The marble temples of Classical Athens were built with the money extorted from Athens’ presumptive “allies”, and the silver hauled from the mines by slaves who were literally worked to death. How differently should we view such systems from the exploitative kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age?

Closing thoughts

1177 BC provides warnings, but no solutions. This is because the book doesn’t seem interested in understanding potential social issues. Hence, there are no references to movements that seek social justice – no Occupy Wall Street, no Black Lives Matter. (The new edition still contains the statement in the epilogue, on p. 175 of the original edition, that some people warned “something similar” to the Bronze Age collapse would happen “if the banking institutions with a global reach were not bailed out immediately”!)

Throughout 1177 BC, it is obvious that hierarchical societies are presumed to be the ideal; the Dark Ages are to be abhorred. The implicit solution is that political leaders must seek to maintain a rather obscure, almost sterile “balance” that ensures that the “peasants” do not disrupt the status quo too much. As Shanks and Tilley put it in the passage cited earlier, such a position “implicitly justifie[s] oppression.”

To confront “collapse”, we must strive to build a better world. That begins by understanding that the playing field is not even and we must all work together. If the history of the Late Bronze Age teaches us anything, it’s that wealth cannot be hoarded by the few to the detriment of the many. That all human beings should be treated equally and fairly. In other words, a better world is one that is socially equitable and ecologically sustainable.

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