Navarino Environmental Observatory: Drought ended Mycenaean era in ancient Greece

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Navarino Environmental Observatory: Drought ended Mycenaean era in ancient GreeceStudy was carried out by researchers Martin Finne and Karin Holmgren of the Navarino Environmental Observatory (NEO) in collaboration with archaeologist Shari Stocker

An extended drought after the destruction of Nestor’s Palace in Pylos is likely to have brought an end to the Mycenaean civilization in the western Peloponnese. That conclusion was reached after analysis of a stalactite from a cave in the area that provided a clear picture about the climatic conditions in the eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age, Greek daily Kathimerini reports.

The study was carried out by researchers Martin Finne and Karin Holmgren of the Navarino Environmental Observatory (NEO) in collaboration with archaeologist Shari Stocker. NEO is the product of a collaboration between Stockholm University, the Academy of Athens and TEMES SA, the company behind the Costa Navarino resort.

The researchers reached their conclusions from the analysis of a stalactite from a cave on the islet of Schiza just off the Peloponnesian coast. By studying the layers of the stalactite, the team was able to establish the climatic conditions that existed in the region from around 1200 to 1180 BC with a high degree of precision.

The goal was to establish the climatic conditions that existed during the period when the palace was destroyed, as the predominant theory is that this was triggered in large part by a preceding period of drought. The new research adds complexity to that theory. While the researchers discovered that about 20-80 years before the destruction of the palace there was indeed a dry period, this lasted no longer than 20 years. However, a much more profound period of drought – lasting about a century – occurred after the palace’s destruction.

“Evidently the centralized administrative system controlled by the palace could survive a relatively short-term dry period and remain in control. Some 50 years later, nevertheless, when the pronounced period of aridity started to develop, the system would crumble,” the researchers write in their paper presenting their results.

“The period of drought nearly 3,200 years [ago] could have contributed to the destabilization of the political and economic order. Increased aridity could have led to reduced agricultural output affecting the finely tuned economic system of a society that was close to, or already, overextended, rattling the very foundations of the fragile palatial economy.”

The researchers believe that the long drought following the palace’s destruction led to the end of the “Mycenaean way of life in Pylos,” as agricultural surpluses were eliminated, thus making it difficult “for social elites to re-form and for the palatial system to be re-established.”

While they admit that the collapse of the Minoan civilization cannot be attributed to one single factor, the researchers conclude that climate change was certainly a “critical component.”

About the Mycanean civilization

Mycenaean Greece (or Mycenaean civilization) was the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece, spanning the period from approximately 1600–1100 BC. It represents the first advanced civilization in mainland Greece, with its palatial states, urban organization, works of art and writing system. Among the centers of power that emerged, the most notable were those of Pylos, Tiryns, Midea in the Peloponnese, Orchomenos, Thebes, Athens in Central Greece and Iolcos in Thessaly. The most prominent site was Mycenae, in Argolid, after which the culture of this era is named. Mycenaean and Mycenaean-influenced settlements also appeared in Epirus, Macedonia, on islands in the Aegean Sea, on the coast of Asia Minor, the Levant, Cyprus and Italy.

The Mycenaean Greeks introduced several innovations in the fields of engineering, architecture and military infrastructure, while trade over vast areas of the Mediterranean was essential for the Mycenaean economy. Their syllabic script, the Linear B, offers the first written records of the Greek language and their religion already included several deities that can also be found in the Olympic Pantheon. Mycenaean Greece was dominated by a warrior elite society and consisted of a network of palace states that developed rigid hierarchical, political, social and economic systems. At the head of this society was the king, known as wanax.

Mycenaean Greece perished with the collapse of Bronze Age culture in the eastern Mediterranean, to be followed by the so-called Greek Dark Ages, a recordless transitional period leading to Archaic Greece where significant shifts occurred from palace-centralized to de-centralized forms of socio-economic organization (including the extensive use of iron). Various theories have been proposed for the end of this civilization, among them the Dorian invasion or activities connected to the "Sea Peoples". Additional theories such as natural disasters and climatic changes have been also suggested. The Mycenaean period became the historical setting of much ancient Greek literature and mythology, including the Trojan Epic Cycle.

Grace Circle B at Mycenae Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons Copyright: K beard License: CC-BY-SA


Initial decline of Mycanean Greece

In c. 1250 BC, the first wave of destruction apparently occurred in various centers of mainland Greece for reasons that cannot be identified by archaeologists. In Boeotia, Thebes was burned to the ground, around that year or slightly later. Nearby Orchomenos shared the same fate, while the Boeotian fortifications of Gla were deserted. In the Peloponnese, a number of buildings surrounding the citadel of Mycenae were attacked and burned.

These incidents appear to have prompted the massive strengthening and expansion of the fortifications in various sites. In some cases, arrangements were also made for the creation of subterranean passages which led to underground cisterns. Tiryns, Midea and Athens expanded their defences with new cyclopean-style walls. The extension program in Mycenae almost doubled the fortified area of the citadel. To this phase of extension belongs the impressive Lion Gate, the main entrance into the Mycenaean acropolis.

It appears that after this first wave of destruction a short-lived revival of Mycenaean culture followed. Mycenaean Greece continues to be mentioned in international affairs, particularly in Hittite records. In c. 1220 BC, the king of Ahhiyawa is again reported to have been involved in an anti-Hittite uprising in western Anatolia. Another contemporary Hittite account reports that Ahhiyawan ships should avoid Assyrian-controlled harbors, as part of a trade embargo imposed on Assyria. In general, in the second half of 13th century BC, trade was in decline in the Eastern Mediterranean, most probably due to the unstable political environment there.[62]

The final collapse of Mycanean civilization

None of the defence measures appear to have prevented the final destruction and collapse of the Mycenaean states. A second destruction struck Mycenae in ca. 1190 BC or shortly thereafter. This event marked the end of Mycenae as a major power. The site was then reoccupied, but on a smaller scale. The palace of Pylos, in the southwestern Peloponnese, was destroyed in c. 1180 BC. The Linear B archives found there, preserved by the heat of the fire that destroyed the palace, mention hasty defence preparations due to an imminent attack without giving any detail about the attacking force.

As a result of this turmoil, specific regions in mainland Greece witnessed a dramatic population decrease, especially Boeotia, Argolis and Messenia. Mycenaean refugees migrated to Cyprus and the Levantine coast.[64] Nevertheless, other regions on the edge of the Mycenaean world prospered, such as the Ionian islands, the northwestern Peloponnese, parts of Attica and a number of Aegean islands.[59] The acropolis of Athens, oddly, appears to have avoided destruction.

The Grave Circle A, and the main entrance of the citadel (left), at Mycenae Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons Copyright: Andreas Trepte License: CC-BY-SA


Hypotheses for the collapse 

The reasons for the end of the Mycenaean culture have been hotly debated among scholars. At present, there is no satisfactory explanation for the collapse of the Mycenaean palace systems. The two most common theories are population movement and internal conflict. The first attributes the destruction of Mycenaean sites to invaders.

The hypothesis of a Dorian invasion, known as such in Ancient Greek tradition, that led to the end of Mycenaean Greece, is supported by sporadic archaeological evidence such as new types of burials, in particular cist graves, and the use of a new dialect of Greek, the Doric one. It appears that the Dorians moved southward gradually over a number of years and devastated the territory, until they managed to establish themselves in the Mycenaean centers. A new type of ceramic also appeared, called "Barbarian Ware" because it was attributed to invaders from the north. On the other hand, the collapse of Mycenaean Greece coincides with the activity of the Sea Peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean. They caused widespread destruction in Anatolia and the Levant and were finally defeated by Pharaoh Ramesses III in c. 1175 BC. One of the ethnic groups that comprised these people were the Eqwesh, a name that appears to be linked with the Ahhiyawa of the Hittite inscriptions.

Alternative scenarios propose that the fall of Mycenaean Greece was a result of internal disturbances which led to internecine warfare among the Mycenaean states or civil unrest in a number of states, as a result of the strict hierarchical social system and the ideology of the wanax. In general, due to the obscure archaeological picture in 12th-11th century BC Greece, there is a continuing controversy among scholars over whether the impoverished societies that succeeded the Mycenaean palatial states were newcomers or populations that already resided in Mycenaean Greece. Recent archaeological findings tend to favor the latter scenario. Additional theories, concerning natural factors, such as climate change, droughts or earthquakes have also been proposed. The period following the end of Mycenaean Greece, c. 1100-800 BC, is generally termed the "Greek Dark Ages".

 

 

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