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Notes on Eric H. Cline, 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed

(Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014).

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
January 2015

The impression you get from the article which Eric Cline has published in Bible and Interpretation is that the appearance of Israel is a major theme in Eric’s book. As a matter of fact it is not. The exodus is discussed in a short paragraph (pp. 89-96) in combination with a general review of the historical developments in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century B.C.E. Here Eric will place the exodus within the context of the dissolving political and economic system during the 13th century – especially the second half of this century. This is a little surprising as he also stresses that this political and economic system was mainly still functioning at the beginning of the 12th century – after all Eric’s “magical” year is 1177, when the navy and army of Ramses III defeated the Sea People in a sea battle and probably simultaneously in a land battle.

The discussion of the exodus should be seen in connection with a similar interest in showing the basic historical background of Homer’s Iliad, according to much later Greek tradition composed by a blind “singer of tales” living around 800 B.C.E.

These discussions stand out because the book is otherwise not concerned with speculations based n much later written sources as preserved in the Old Testament and in Homer’s epics. You, the reader, might feel entitled to say that this is a clear example of traditional “Bible and spade” archaeology. I do not think so; rather it is an example of an archaeologist’s problem reading ancient texts without the proper hermeneutical training for such a reading. You could also say that it has to do with the modern obsession with history, that everything must have a historical background. Thus the many discussions embedded in this book on the fall of Troy are related to this idea of texts in relation to history. Then it is not so important whether Heinrich Schliemann did really find Troy at Hisarlik in Western Turkey. Hisarlik is not the most impressive of remains from the Late Bronze Age found in Turkey. Rather, standing on Hisarlik, you are reminded of the small tells of Palestine. Happily the Turkish tourist authorities have put up a huge wooden horse in the parking lot: Thus everyone can see that this is glorious Troy which it took the combined Greek forces ten years to subdue! Personally I would like to know if a proper survey of the area in the fashion of the Israeli surveys of central and northern Palestine has ever been conducted. From a strategic point of view there are some places in the vicinity of Hisarlik that seem more promising for such a major city as Troy was supposed to be.

Homer knew almost nothing concrete about the time of the Mycenean sea empire. The only object directly linked to Mycenea is not to be found in the Iliad but in the Odyssey: The helmet hanging on the wall in the house of the chief of the Phaiacians, a helmet put together with teeth from a wild boar, a feature well known from Mycenean archaeology (but not mentioned by Eric, who concentrates on the Iliad).

But, as a matter of fact, this is not an important part of this book. In spite of its somewhat sensationalist title, the book is a welcome résumé of what we know about the economic and political developments in the Late Bronze Age, culminating with the collapse of the international system that was the foundation of Eastern Mediterranean civilization from c. 1500 to c. 1150 B.C.E. This is very well done, apart from some aspects which I will return to in a moment. Personally I have always liked the LBA period, simply because we know so much about this period and come very close to many of the people living in those days because of the extensive amount of written sources that has been preserved in many archives. Of course, what we have is only a fraction of what may have been in existence. Still, no other time in Antiquity, including even the classical Greek and Roman ones, allows you to get close to leading personalities of the time. It is also, as duly noted by Eric, a time of globalization and accordingly displayed both the advantages and disadvantages of globalization (without having to resort to cheap generalizations). But where else do you find texts like that of, e.g., El-Amarna (EA) letter 1 where the king of Egypt is discussing the exchange of women with his colleague in Babylon with all kinds of evasions and hidden agendas?

And contrary to the impression the title of the book makes, there is nothing sensational here. Eric has his ideas (of course) of what happened but they are presented in a scholarly discussion with many modern scholars. Nobody is ridiculed because of disagreements. It is a most sober and scholarly discussion of a subject that is rather intriguing and definitely not yet solved, and the author of this fine book is certainly aware of the lack of definitive answers to the many questions still around.

Thus Eric’s final discussion does not center on only one simplistic solution to the question; that is, why the collapse of the LBA civilization was so total – and was it really? As properly admitted, we know probably too little about the fate of the Phoenician cities at the end of the LBA, perhaps mostly due to the lack of modern excavations – which are simply too dangerous because of the political circumstances in places like Sidon and Tyre. However, it is interesting that the Phoenician cities seem all to have survived the transition from the LBA to the EI I (Early Iron I) and moreover in very good shape. The ruler of Byblos was, according to the Wenamun novel, in a position to decline the request from Egypt for supplies of wood. That was not the answer the Pharaoh would have expected during the 18th and 19th dynasties! Placing all the money on one bet like the importance of the Sea People for the collapse would probably not be wise. It is hard to see how the Phoenician cities along the coast could have escaped the widespread destruction said to have been caused by the Sea People.

The conclusion – or perhaps better, summary – of the discussion allows for a complex theory for the collapse of LBA society, including factors like the break-down of trade, earthquakes, famine, internal problems, and more. I believe that this is the only reasonable way to present the case of the collapse of the LBA civilization.

Personally I would have put a little more emphasis on internal problems within the system of palace-states which dominated the political scene of the LBA. Here a more sophisticated reading of the relevant texts from the period would have helped, especially in the fashion of a Mario Liverani (whose work is definitely not unknown to Eric, although he seems not to command Italian which is a handicap when discussing Liverani). Using a sociological reading of e.g., the Amarna Letters would probably have produced a more reflective and multi-colored picture of the status of the societies at that time. It is thus a surprising fact that the problem of refugees is never discussed, i.e., the Habiru problem. Liverani demonstrated, in an article from 1965, how important this problem was as an indicator of serious social and political problems in the LBA. Imention all of this not so that I can argue that the habiru were the main reason for the collapse; far from it, but the problem is an indicator that something was wrong. The letters of Rib-Adda of Byblos to Pharaoh also provides more information about societal disorganization, especially in the way he reproduces the ruler of Amurru’s propaganda directed towards Rib-Adda’s own subjects.

It is clear that Eric is a brilliant archaeologist with an exquisite control of his historical and archaeological material. Still, he lacks the training of a proper historian (who might, then, lack archaeological training), and textual hermeneutics are not his strong point. However, I do not say this to criticize the book as it is; I only want to say that a multi-disciplinary approach to this material may bring us closer to a more comprehensive idea of what happened in the Eastern Mediterranean in the LBA.

Comments (4)

Niels Peter, I appreciate that you liked the book and your kind words for the most part. I am a bit confused as to why you say that I lack "the training of a proper historian," for although I may not do textual hermeneutics to your liking, my Ph.D. is in Ancient History, from the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Last time that I checked, I and all of the others who have their graduate degree from that program are considered by most people to be "proper historians." I am also an archaeologist, as you note. In any event, thank you for your review. Cheers, Eric
#1 - Eric H, Cline - 01/21/2015 - 22:36

Dear Eric,

What I was really referring to was the traditional craft of the historian: Source criticism. It is the alpha and the omega of an historian’s craft. Then we can put everything else on top of that, also social history which was a latecomer to biblical studies. There are several other subjects like deconstructionism, and what do I know. But few archaeologists (including also people such as Israel Finkelstein) have had the training in textual analysis which has been a must in historical research since the days of Barthold Niebuhr c. 1810.

This is the old field of controversy between the Albright people and Alt and Noth and their students. Albright did not understand the problem. Therefore his approach was to a young student at the University of Copenhagen back in the 1960s seen as rather primitive. The Germans used the method, of course, and definitely sometimes abused it: Die grossen Hypothesenmacher as Rolf Rendtorff used to characterize them.

OK, it means that before people begin to combine archaeology with textual studies, the archaeologists must have done their work, and the text people theirs. When dealing with texts like the Book of Exodus there will be a lot of questions to ask and answers to be given before anything here can be used in an historical synthesis.

The major problem with the way North American historians have used sociology and social anthropology, well I have written about that in a number of places, including my “The Use of ‘System Theory’, ‘Macro Theories’ etc, reprinted in Charles Carter and Carol Meyers (eds.), Community, Identity, and Ideology (Eisenbrauns, 1996). My reservations are certainly also there in my Early Israel (Brill, 1985). I still stick to my conclusion that anthropology (you could perhaps also say interdisciplinary studies) does not provide answers; it provides possibilities. But, again, people in interdisciplinary studies should have understood, if their use of, say social anthropology is not ”arm-chair” anthropology. I suppose that you would also accuse many text people of arm-chair archaeology, which is a correct evaluation. I have far too little experience (have been digging in Israel), but had as a colleague, John Strange, for most of my career an archaeologist who began his career with Yadin at Hazor, and followed it up with Dothan at Ashdod, and Kenyn in Jerusalem, so I at least have a certain understanding of the problems involved.
#2 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/23/2015 - 18:47

I know how it all began! A new king, Tsipras the First, took over in Pylos and attempted to renegotiate his debts with the Hittite Monetary Fund - to the ruin of both parties. The rest is history. Or maybe imagination.
To my mind Professor Cline's book will be remembered a) as an essay in moderate catastrophism b) as a modest but unequivocal restoration of the Israelites to record of ancient history. Certain 'Popperian' comments are in order, I think.
As to moderate catastrophism - hte idea of catastrophe is sudden and overwhelming forms is disclaimed at many points in EHC's text. 'No single incident' we read on p.176 after a reminder of relevant evidence 'can really be imagined' - note, not even imagined - 'to have brought about the end of the Bronze Age'. On p.158 Finkelstein is cited with approval as suggesting that, despite all the Egyptian propaganda, the arrival of the Sea Peoples was a lengthy process, not a sudden calamity. The same passage reaffirms the distinctive Aegean links brought to Palestine by Sea Peoples and so implies that connectivity between elements of the international system actually increased, rather than was completely shattered, by their agency.
What I would, with all due respect as one whose background is in philosophy ('philosophical crap' as NPL has so woundingly called it) is more attention, Karl Popper-style, to what might seem to falsify rather than verify the idea of 'collapse' in any form. There is a map of sites destroyed: a map of sites that survived would be a mightily helpful companion.
All the more so because though moderate statements are made the language and vocabulary of catastrophe are often, even prevalently, used. The Israelites come forward as on 'the archaeological identifiable group present in Canaan' (p.95). 'It is their culture, along with that of the Philistines and Phoenicians, that rises up out the ashes'. 'Ashes' here supplements the words 'destroy' and 'destruction' which seem to me to be repeated over and over so as to form a leitmotiv of the book. The Israelite destroyers appear as a characteristic element of an age of destruction - constructive destruction perhpas.
On p.175 we find, courtesy of William Dever, the statement that 'the Dark Age was nothing of the sort...[with] a cultural heritage [from] the Phoenicians and Israelites of which we are still the benefactors'. (Actually we are not the benefactors of our ancestors.) The idea of 'constructive destruction' is applied here both to Canaan and to Greece, though two pages before the picture of Greece is much less positive, much more suggestive of prolonged 'darkness' - 'the use of writing as well as all administrative structures came to an end'. An unrelenting picture of a Dark Age or at any rate, surely, 'sonmething of the sort'.
EHC is extremely and admirably careful about attributing specific events to Israelite invaders - but the changes that occurred seem to him to necessitate their presence. Yet he dismisses - is this entirely consistent? - the alleged Dorian invaders from the scene in Greece, even though the changes on that scene were, on the showing of the book, even more drastic. There is no way of attributing specific events to the Dorians but they are in many ways the Israelites of the Greek traditional story, a projection on to the past by talented writers of a power, Sparta, operative in their own time. The apparently shocking behaviour of these ancestors of cultured peoples was in part explained, as was that of the Israelites, by the idea of violent reclamation of a patrimony.
#3 - Martin Hughes - 02/17/2015 - 22:34

If you'll forgive a second comment - the books combination of rather strong language with rather moderate statement is defended by analogy with 'the academic shorthand' which posits 476 as the end of 'the glory days' of the Roman Empire in the West. I find this analogy disturbing rather than reassuring, showing how (unless I misunderstand the words used) that it is easy to take something as conventional shorthand when it is really somewhat misleading.
476 is surely not regarded as the end of the glory days of the long-declining empire but as the end of its existence as a distinct legal entity: and this is not shorthand but longhand description of an event whose occurrence is certain thought its significance is, as ever, doubtful. Odoacer was not an invader and absolutely not one of the 'Ostrogoths' who killed him a dozen years later, who were invaders of a sort, though all concerned were deeply involved in Roman imperial politics.
The most pressing analogy between 1177 and 476 is surely that the Philistines etc. are said to have become, in effect, Egyptian foederati as Odoacer and his like were in the Roman system. But 'federation' in this sense may be continuation and adaptation of a system of indirect rule, revitalisation rather than catastrophe.
#4 - Martin Hughes - 02/17/2015 - 22:47

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