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Book Review: 1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed
#1
I just finished this book this morning so this review is quite fresh.

So the central problem of the book is as follows - between 1500 and 1200 BC there existed a flourishing and thriving series of Bronze Age empires across the Med sea and Fertile Crescent - Egyptians, Minoans, Hittites, Myceneans, Cypriots, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites etc - which came a rapid and mysterious end. The classic interpretation of this era is the enigmatic phenomenon that scholars call 'The Sea People', who seem to lurk in the background of every empire's collapse and are the go-to explanation for archaeologists to explain the collapse.

Eric Cline sets out to show that the late Bronze Age world of the Near East was in fact a complex globalised system which relied on international trade, commerce, diplomacy, warfare, communications networks and intelligence webs. Each empire was linked together to form a metropolitan civilisation which was above and beyond the individual empires themselves. He then shows that each empire suffered a violent and mysterious collapse over a short period of time which resulted in Bronze Age palace economies being reconfigured as Iron Age city states with limits to power on Kings and Emperors.

The first half of the book is Cline marshalling his evidence to show exactly how interconnected the late Bronze Age actually was. Some of the archaeology is truly astonishing as scholars have recreated whole worlds from fragments of fired clay tablets and spent decades carefully documenting trade ship wrecks under the Aegean. The main players in the history come with some bewildering names - eg Niqmaddu III, Ammurapi and Suppiluliuma I - but fall into roughly the main empires I mentioned at the start, all of which were trading and fighting. Cline shows that the struggle to import tin and copper to build bronze weapons was crucial to the security of the State and a quote from another scholar shows the resonance with today:

" The strategic importance of tin in the Late Bronze Age...was probably not far different from that of crude oil today... the availability of of enough tin to produce... weapons grade bronze must have exercised the mind of the Great King in Hattusa and the Pharaoh in Thebes in the same way that supplying gasoline to the American SUV driver at reasonable cost preoccupies an American President today!"

Cline succeeds I think in showing that scholars have enough evidence to be able to confirm or deny the truth to stories from that era such as the Seige of Troy or the Exile of the Hebrews, and he shows documentation for major battles, marriages, letters between diplomats and kings as well as the importance of different products in trade. He also manages to assess the evidence for the Sea Peoples in a calm impartial way and points to actual evidence for their existance in battling the Egyptians in the early 13th Century but not towards the collapse point.

The later part of the book highlights the sheer chaos and destruction which overwhelmed the near East towards the 12th Century. Almost every city in every empire seemed to have suffered some sort of hideous end. Fires, invasions and death on a mass scale. Just as an example from the Greek mainland, the cities lost to disaster include: Mycenae, Tiryns, Katsingri, Korakou, Iria, Lakonia, Messenia, Pylos, Phokis, Thebes, Gla and Krisa. One example, the city of Pylos suffered fires so hot that the very stones were converted to lime. The list of cities and regions continues and forms compelling evidence for a total drawdown and collapse circa 1180. The reasons given are unclear, even to the experts, but some places seem to have suffered invasions, others earthquakes and others just some sort of cataclysmic event. Cline notes that the Sea Peoples are invariably used in the scholarship as the reason for each city's demise, but from the lists they must have been an unprecedented force of nature to collapse so many cities in such a short space of time.

The final section of the book deals with the possible causes. Cline dismissed the Sea Peoples as a good reason, but does return to them at the end. Several causes are listed including earthquakes, climate change, the rise of decentralised mercantile trade, internal rebellions and invasions. Each argument has its merits and Cline deals with each in turn. Earthquakes are considered as a nuisance but not enough to collapse the system. Climate change and drought are a major factor and research using paleoclimatology shows that the region suffered from both droughts and temperature fluctuations. The move away from central economies via uncontrolled merchants is an appealing argument but there is little support for it among academics as a serious force. Rebellion and invasion do exist for various places but again, not enough for a general collapse.

At this point Cline turns to Systems and Complexity theory. Academic work on complex systems have highlighted the interdependent nature of the late Bronze Age and how such systems respond in a non linear fashion to disturbances. Any cutting of trade, esp if it concerned the flow of tin is seen as a serious fluctuation which, when combined with drought and conflict, can cause a general systemic collapse. Cline looks at the use of complexity as a tool and considers new evidence for the Sea People as migrants into new areas as opposed to warriors, which strengthens the argument for a complex systemic change as opposed to a linear reason for collapse.

Overall Cline does a fantastic job of simplifying what is a baffling level of detail and jargon down into something engaging and readable. The parallels with todays globalised world are not lost on him or other scholars and he mentions this in his closing. The picture painted of a interconnected system which collapses rapidly and suddenly is eerily similar to today - one point he highlights again and again is there is evidence for trade and communication right up to the point of collapse in many cities, showing how abruptly the status quo can come to an end.

An important work in showing that civilisation has collapsed before, some general features that are similar to today and that it can collapse again.
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#2
Wow. The comparison between tin and oil is intriguing.

Very interesting read. I'm really happy to see this type of stuff being posted here, so thank you so much for the write-up!
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#3
I'm glad people have read the review and got something out of it, I'll write another one soon on Sex at Dawn which I've finished as well.
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#4
Nice review. Thanks. There are also some good youtube videos by the author Eric Cline on this book:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRcu-ysocX4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyry8mgXiTk
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