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The fall of the Mycenaean Greeks

Updated on June 25, 2015

Did You Know!

-The name Homer, thought to be the Author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, may not have been a single person. The word Homeros (Homer) may have been an Ancient Greek term for a group of poets, authors, or other writers. Making Homer's work, a collective effort of a group of unnamed ghost writers.

-The Iliad's Troy was thought to be a myth until ruins were discovered in North-Western Turkey matching the age and description of Troy. These Ruins have been excavated off and on since it's initial discovery in 1865.

-In the mythology of the Iliad, Helen of Troy was actually a demi-god. She was a daughter of Zeus.

-Mycenae wasn't excavated until 1841. Years later in 1871, Heinrich Schliemann also conducted a dig there, illegally. This was one of the original excavators of Troy.

The Mycenaeans

The Mycenaens of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey was a real culture that ruled the Greek Peninsula for approximately 500 years from 1600-1100 BC. They are most known for the legend of the Trojan War. Despite their prowess in warfare, they were also great traders, scholars, and explorers.

Mycenaean pottery was traded throughout the Aegean Sea and has been found as far as the southern coast of Spain. Although their sphere of interests goes from Sardinia in the West to the Levant in the East.

Their recovered murals were detailed and beautiful, sculptures were ornate, buildings were tall and solid. It is a shame that little is actually known of much of their culture and that they are known for a single savage act.

They like many other civilizations fell in time but due to a lack of knowledge, it is uncertain how they came to their demise. Scholars argue whether it was a quick death or gradual decline, Due to internal or external forces, or was it a result of man made or natural pressures.

This article explains a few leading theories to the natural disasters route. Even if it was the result of natural disasters, it is likely that we may not be able to to attribute it to a single cause but a series of events.

Drought

The first theory covered is more than just plausible, but highly viewed as likely. Professor Harvey Weiss of Yale concluded that the droughts in Syria in 1972 had distinct similarities to evidence collected from late bronze age sites. This could have caused a famine across the Eastern Mediterranean, leading to unrest, war, and ultimately collapse.


Although this is a leading theory, drought may not have been the actual root of the collapse. Droughts can be brought on by climate change, which in itself can be created by a number of natural factors. The only one that can likely be ruled out is human induced climate change, as the late bronze age civilizations did not have the footprint required to cause such a massive shift.

Earthquakes

Whereas the first theory is supported by a Professor at Yale, the second is highly supported by Professor Nur of Stanford. His theory is supported by the ruins of Mycenae itself. Upon excavation, they found crushed skeletons under ruined buildings. This indicates that the city was abandoned after a single isolated event.

Further excavation has shown that the ruins of Mycenae had offset walls, cracked columns, vertical fissures in walls, and collapsed arches. All of this is seen as evidence of ancient tectonic activity.

How does this tie to the other civilizations of the Bronze Age Collapse?

Professor Nur believes that an earthquake of 6.5 in the vicinity of Greece could have set off smaller earthquakes in neighboring fault lines. This is what could have lead to the destruction of the Bronze Age.

The problem with this theory is that the initial earthquake would have to have been on the sea floor. This is because new studies have shown that even massive earthquakes do not produce aftershocks more than 600 miles away from the epicenter, not to mention the more distant ones do not have equal force to that of the original.

Once you take into account the distances, To affect all three empires, the 6.5 earthquake would have had to come from an area called the Strabo trench. This makes the earthquake theory less likely as there is a lack of evidence of Tsunami's in the ruined cities along the coastlines of Greece, The Levant, and Egypt from that period. It could have been the downfall of a single city, but it would have been unable to affect an entire region of Earth.

Hekla
Hekla

Hekla III Eruption

The final theory is a massive volcanic eruption that took place over 3000 years ago. It seems unbelievable that Mt. Hekla, a volcano in Iceland, could have ruined civilizations over 2,500 miles away.

Although this may seem outlandish, it's the ash produced by the volcano that's important. The Hekla III eruption was among the most violent in history. In the Volcanic Explosive Index (VEI) it rated as a 5. To put that in perspective, Mount St. Helens and Vesuvius were rated as 5. In fact, the only volcanic eruption that has been rated higher was Krakatoa in 1883.

During this erupition, Hekla expelled upwards of 7.3 cubic kilometers of material, higher than even Mount St. Helens. This massive ash cloud drifted toward Europe. It is Theorized that the decreased sunlight from this eruption could have taken decades to clear from the atmosphere leading to a world wide climate shift. It is possible that this could have caused a drought that resulted in the destruction of the New Kingdom, The Hittites, and of course the Mycenaeans. The reason it didn't effect other cultures as much, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians is because of the immense irrigation networks they used to work their already arid land.

Other extinct Iron Age civilizations

-The New Kingdom of Egypt fell after the death of Ramses III. It actually fell due to infighting from potential heirs to the thrown but during that time Egypt had already been suffering from environmental hardship. Droughts, abnormal flooding of the Nile, and famine only worsened conditions for the Egyptians, leading to civil unrest.

The Egyptians did not fall as a society, but were separated into upper and lower Egypt during this period, which coincides with the fall of other empires.

-The Hittite empire controlled what is now western Turkey. It too, like the Egyptians to the south and the Mycenaean to the west, fell during the same period. The surviving settlements splintered into Syro-Hittite city states, which also fell after a couple centuries.

-The only civilization in Eastern Mediterranean to survive nearly intact was the Assyrian Empire.

-The Babylonian Empire fell at around the same time, but it's demise was due to warfare, not environmental pressure. Although, it's fall to the Assyrians could have been a result of the migrations of people from other areas effected or Assyrian aggression due to a relatively sudden lack of rivals in the region.

-This Period of destruction, is called the Bronze Age Collapse.

Bronze Age Collapse

The Bronze Age Collapse was a period of approximately 100 years near the year 1100 BC in which multiple dominant Bronze Age Cultures declined to the point of near extinction to extinction itself. Its results on world history was a power vacuum in Modern Greece, Turkey, the Levant and a division of power in Egypt. During this period cities fell, empires were ripped apart, many starved, while others migrated away from the Eastern Mediterranean. It brought human culture back a step due to a reduced literacy rate and a loss of information. A second term for this period is the Ancient Dark Ages.

A final theory is simple economic collapse. As populations rose and soil degraded the cost of raw materials may have increased considerably. In the socio-political structure of the Empires of the late Bronze Age, this could have led to the ancient depression that led to unrest and the eventual disintegration of the Mycenaean Empire.

It's cause is largely unknown, in this article we have gone over the "natural causes". Although to affect such a large area of land and such a diverse set of people suggests that there was an environmental cause.

A non environmental theory involves mass migration. After the collapse, new ethnic groups began to take rise in the east, such as the proto-armenians, the Medes, or the Scythians. Also other cultures moved into the areas previously inhabited by the old empires, such as the Dorian Greeks.

A second theory is the advent of the iron age. Iron is a weaker metal than bronze but is more plentiful. This could have resulted in larger armies that then usurped the thrones of the Mycenaeans.

Modern Eruptions

Weirdly enough, Icelands volcanoes are still effecting us to this day. Here is footage of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010 that shut down air travel throughout much of Europe.

This eruption was rated a 4 on the Volcanic Explosive index but only released .25 cubic kilometers of ash. Only a handful of recorded eruptions have amounted to more, such as Mount St. Helens, 2.9 cubic kilometers.

Now compare this to the more violent eruption of helka (5 VEI) and the massive amount of estimated ash (7.5 cubic kilometers).

Many travelers were stranded due to the eruption. It affected us, even with our modern technology and far more advanced understanding of our world.

This may pale in comparison to the Eruption that could have taken place more than 2 thousand years ago. It's absolutely plausible that this could have affected the environment in the Mediterranean, leading to the end of several civilizations in the region.

Future Eruptions

In 2010, Hekla gave Iceland, and travelers, a scare. Snow on the peak of the volcano had melted and the pressure from the magma chamber had reached the same levels of Hekla's last eruption.

In 2011, international media reported that to volcano was near eruption, although Iclandic media and scientists denied the claim.

In 2013, a series of micro-quakes were recorded only 11 km below the north eastern edge of the mountain. Iclandic authorities released a State of Uncertainty, warning travelers to stay away from the mountain. Most recently the northern side of the mountain grew a rapid bulge, leading may to believe an eruption is imminent.

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