Book review: 1177, the Sea Peoples, and all that.

I finished reading Professor Eric H Cline’s new book last night. Its subject is the end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean region and it is entitled “1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed“. It is a timely new bestseller which summarizes new research, emanating from several different scientific sources and archaeological sites, into the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’. The Sea Peoples have been fingered as the culprits who brought chaos to the east Mediterranean coastline and Egyptian Delta at the turn of the 12th Century B.C., and helped turn the international Bronze Age period into the more insular Iron Age.

Sea Peoples from the temple of Ramses III in Thebes

Sea Peoples from the temple of Ramses III in Thebes

I have some good knowledge of this subject as it formed the backdrop to the earliest period included in my PhD research. I also taught an introductory class in Egyptology that covered this subject area for 5 years running and I am going to be teaching a night class at the University of Vermont OLLI institute later in the year which will focus on this subject and this book. My knowledge of the period is pretty up to date, so I was keen to read this new book and hear what conclusions another scholar had reached. The book has been pretty widely acclaimed and seems to be aimed at the popular armchair historian audience rather than the full blown academic, so it has sold well.

Overall, I found it pretty readable and solidly researched. It is well presented in an attractive cover decorated with an old painting of the sack of Troy, but it seemed rather on the thin side. It remains interesting throughout and is quite concise at 176 pages plus references in a largish font, but as a result of its brevity it does seem to jump from one major subject/event/civilization to another quite rapidly. It doesn’t ramble, except perhaps when it tries to introduce a theoretical structure against which to interpret the data. That doesn’t work in this type of short book, beyond a summary of the conclusions reached by experts elsewhere. In fact, this is not a work that introduces any really new perspectives or new information on the period. Its forte is summarizing the conventional perspective at its broadest level, and it should have concentrated on that aspect rather than attempting to cloak itself in a serious academic robe, or attempt to lead the reader into an extensive, judicious, evidence weighing session. More overview maps and photos of artifacts or sites would perhaps have helped achieve that objective more effectively than the extensive referencing included at the back of the book.

The book can be summarized as follows:

  • Demonstrate that elites in many areas, from Egypt to Greece, were in very close contact at the end of the Bronze Age.
  • Demonstrate that most of their palatial sites were destroyed or abandoned over a shortish period of time.
  • Attempt to problematize the basic conclusion that the Sea Peoples were to blame.
  • Discuss different possible reasons for the destruction and rise of the Sea Peoples.
  • Attempt to show that none of the evidence allows 100% certain conclusions to be drawn.

The book thus conveys uncertainty where, in my opinion, there no longer is uncertainty. It may seem like this is good academic practice; weighing all the facts carefully and examining all contrasting viewpoints, but that is not where the specialists and experts are at now. Most of the experts in the field have already concluded that the evidence is more than strong enough to accept the reality of the Sea Peoples. The challenge now is to authentically portray who they were, where they came from and what they did. The book remains rather bogged down in the academic uncertainties of the previous generation of scholars, and misses the significance of the weight of new scientific evidence that has been brought to bear in recent years. C14, pollen samples and sediment core analyses techniques have brought new levels of precision to the picture. The best archaeologists now speak with confidence about the Sea Peoples and Philistines and their maritime routes taken across the Mediterranean Sea. I would advise the reader to follow this readable but rather conventional summary with efforts to locate more ‘serious’ academic works, some of which are equally readable.

The works of [1] Israel Finkelstein, Trude Dothan, Bill Dever, Alexander Fantalkin, Yasur Landau and Marian Feldman, to name just a few off the top of my head, are inspiring and vivid, and for me they do something that is most important in archaeology. The authors bring the people they write about alive. We can experience their world and feel their presence in the work because the authors have a depth of knowledge of the subject that brings a familiarity with, and proximity to, their subject matter. This is a feature of good, confident, archaeology. When you have all the evidence, you draw the conclusions.

Evidence never allows a 100% certain conclusion to be drawn. Archaeologists understand that but in my opinion archaeologists must move on from describing and listing evidence to interpreting and understanding the evidence. An uncertain list of contrasting information does not help anyone, least of all the armchair historian.

Here is what I wrote in my PhD on this subject, two years ago, after I had reviewed all of the latest evidence for myself. I think you will find it rather less equivocal than 1177 the book:

Concerning evidence for the Sea Peoples at a southwest Cypriot coastal site, I wrote: “…..The earliest detailed phase covered by the scope of this study begins towards the end of the Bronze Age, LCII, in the 13th century B.C., when a new monumental temple was constructed on the prominent ridge overlooking the coastal plain at Palaepaphos. Towards the end of that century, a new coastal settlement was also established on a peninsula 25km to the west of the Late Bronze Age temple, at Maa Palaekastro. Karageorghis and Demas (1988b) concluded that the settlement was probably established by people from the Aegean (Steel 2004: 187; Yasur-Landau 2010: 150). Possible reasons for settling there are that the people were refugees, traders or raiders in the east Mediterranean region, and perhaps all of these, and the peninsula provided excellent anchorages near to useful agricultural and mineral resources. The postulated relationship of these people to groups referred to as the Sea Peoples as well as to the traders of the final years of the international period and the Philistines needs to be considered as plausible. Their pottery was characteristic of the Mycenaean LHIIIB style, and included bell shaped bowls with antithetical spiral motifs (Steel 2004: 192), separated by a vertical band. These bowls were also common in Philistine pottery (Dothan 1982: 99), and the typical designs of both assemblages included pictorial scenes. The fact that these people existed at Maa is undisputed. The reasons for what happened at the end of the century are less clear. The coastal settlement went through two phases of occupation during the last 30 years of the 13th century B.C., from ca. 1230 to 1200 B.C. It was burnt down once, and then rebuilt, and then abandoned again around the same time as multiple Bronze Age settlement sites around Cyprus were destroyed or abandoned. This phase, which impacted on settlements all around the northeast Mediterranean region, has been attributed to the Sea Peoples and has recently been C14 dated to ca. 1220 to 1190 B.C. on Cyprus (Kaniewski et al. 2011: 6). There is now hard scientific evidence to support the historical evidence from Hittite texts (Guterbock 1967: 73), the Ras Shamra texts (RS 34.129, RS 20.238, RS 20.18)(Yasur-Landau 2010: 110), the relief texts on the walls of the Medinet Habu temple of Ramesses III in Thebes (Dothan 1982: 4), and the Harris Papyrus, all of which refer to rogue ships which were attacking the ports of the east Mediterranean in the early 12th century B.C. Egyptian sources refer to them as a collective of peoples while the Hittite sources describe fighting with ships based on Cyprus (Guterbock 1967)………   ……The earliest part of the Iron Age is characterised by continued hybridisation of these new Aegean influences with local Cypriot traditions (Steel 2004: 193), and not in a way that would support any claim of widespread Mycenaean invasions and independent Mycenaean foundations of city kingdoms. The people who settled were significantly mobile and relatively wealthy. There is even evidence of Egyptian techniques in the rich cloisonné gold work from this period (Catling 1968; Maier and Karageorghis 1984: 67). A likely scenario is that many of the remnants of the Sea Peoples, migrants and the traders mainly coming from the Late Bronze Age Aegean, but who were used to travelling down to the southern Levantine coasts and even into the Egyptian Delta, stayed on the coasts of Cyprus as the dust settled on the 12th century B.C., and interacted with the relatively small local populations. At this time the hinterlands of Cyprus were abandoned, and the majority of the population gathered and consolidated around a few defended south coast urban centres (Steel 2004: 190)”

Philistine Pottery

Philistine Pottery (Wikip. CC attrib: Hanay)

Although I wrote that a couple of years back, I would still stand by it as a good summary of the current understanding of the evidence. One specific issue that I also think is worth mentioning is that the book never really factored the significance of plague into the equation of why the Bronze Age collapsed. There is a substantial body of textual evidence that suggests plague was a feature of the International Period, and it was surely worth considering the impact this might have had during a period of extensive contact, and its potential relationship with the apparent abandonment of many towns. Why Eric Cline sidelined or ignored that issue remains a mystery to me.

The book attempts to draw parallels between this ancient collapse and modern civilization in a way familiar from Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond and Persian Fire by Tom Holland. The latter compared Ancient Greece and Persia to modern terrorism and revolution against empire. 1177 seems to do this only in passing, however, in a hasty attempt to make the research seem relevant and current, and in fact the metaphors in the books all seem superficial, such as employing ‘domino effect’ as a key concept to explain what was more like a situation where there were simply ‘too many holes in the boat’; the holes being earthquakes, drought, famine and plague which together undermined the complex economic and political system that had been developed over many centuries.

That’s my take on this book. Readable, solidly researched, but a little superficial. A good introductory text. By the way, the title of my review here pays homage to a famous little satirical book about English history, which was entitled ‘1066 and all that’, and which concluded that 1066, the year of the invasion by William the Conqueror, was the only date actually worth remembering in English history:)


Dever, W. G. (2005). Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Ancient Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Cambridge (US), Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Dothan, T. (1982). The Philistines and their Material Culture. New Haven and London, Israel Exploration Society & Yale University Press.

Fantalkin, A. (2006). Identity in the Making: Greeks in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Iron Age. Naukratis: Greek Diversity in Egypt. Studies on East Greek Pottery and Exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean. A. Villing and U. Schlotzhauer. London, British Museum Press: 199-208.

Feldman, M. H. (2006). Diplomacy by Design. Luxury Arts and an “International Style” in the Ancient Near East, 1400-1200 BCE. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Yasur-Landau, A. (2010). The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Bronze Age New York, Cambridge University Press.

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