The close of the bronze age brought about one of the most tumultuous, important, and influential periods in our human history. It was a time of drastic transitions marked by the brutal falls of imperial powers operating in the region for centuries. It was also a time in which many hallmarks of civilization were lost for hundreds of years after. This period was known as a stretch of dark times before the dawning of the Iron Age and the formation of new, more powerful empires in the Mediterranean. There was another element operating during this traumatic period, a force known only as the Sea Peoples: a dreaded confederacy of unknown pirates and warmongers whose incursions into the coastal strongholds of the Minoans, Hittites, Egyptians and Canaanites proved devastating.

nile battle sea peopls.jpg

The story surrounding the Sea Peoples begins with the epic collapse of the world's most prolific civilizations in Egypt and Greece. The Hittites, Minoans and Canaanites among others collapsed for reasons still unknown, or at least in partially unknown. What truly makes the mystery of the Sea Peoples so fascinating is the fact that new evidence keeps surfacing, making a true identity of leadership over this ancient pirate confederacy a mystery. Historians do not know who their true leaders were, however, they do know that the Sea Peoples were fierce warriors. These invaders arrived without warning for most and battled against ancient Mediterranean communities from 1276-1178 BCE. All, except the Egyptians, would fall to the scourge of the Sea Peoples.

Around 1200 BCE, Egyptian records recall waves of attacks on the empires of Egypt and the Hittites in modern day Turkey, as well as the Minoans and the Mycenaeans to the North. Under the rule of Ramesses II and III, the Egyptians were the only empire to successfully survive the waves of attacks that lasted decades. The Egyptians identified nine distinct factions of the Sea Peoples that came in successive waves, which appeared to have distinguishable differences in appearance, but were fighting together as a coalition. Egyptian hieroglyphics and images depict how the first waves came with round, leather shields with short spears, or scimitars, for fighting. The spears in particular were interesting because before then, their function was primarily for hunting, not war, which suggests these seafaring fighters were using what was available at their disposal.

The style of attack from these marauders was effective and organized, leading their contemporaries to assume they had come from an advanced civilization, while others hypothesize that these forces could they have come from within, the amalgamation of mercenaries gathered from the distant corners of the mediterranean. Ironically, it was at sea that the Sea Peoples were weakened while fighting. In an impressive move, Ramesses III made the decision to meet the invaders on the mediterranean, and successfully beat them back, destroying many of the Sea Peoples ships. The event is recorded at Medinet Habu, which serves as the temple and final resting place of the Ramesses III, recorded alongside the rest of his many conquests. Ramesses the Great was one of the most effective rulers in the history of ancient Egypt; among his many accomplishments was the securing of borders against invasion by nomadic tribes. Interestingly, it appears as though the Egyptians incorporated the Sea Peoples into their own royal guard, although there is no mention of the origins of these fighters in the records left behind.

Evidence of human migrations away from the fertile coastline strongholds witnessed seen across the Mediterranean. Some of the most convincing evidence exists on the island of Crete, where significant structures were discovered by Polish archeologist Krystoff Nowitzki in1983. Nowitzki mapped and reconstructed the site at the summit of the extremely high, rugged Mount Karphi, situated approximately 1,100 meters above sea level. Nowitzki discovered a small village that never existed until the end of the Bronze Age. Arrangements of large blocks of stone suggested to Nowitzki a permanent settlement, not a temporary one as suggested by previous scholars. At first glance, this arrangement was very strange owing to the extreme difficulties of such a location, especially in the winter. The height of the summit and its position makes for a very windy, cold environment in the winter months. Excavation revealed an estimated 20 to 30 separate buildings. Remnants of walls and foundations were present on the mountain top settlement, housing approximately 600-1200 people

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Pottery and other evidence dates this to 1200 BC, right when the Aegean apocalypse happened. So what forced people to move to the mountains from the coast? Nothing to definitive has been found in the archeological record, however some suggest that the migration could be caused by drought or and repetitive earthquakes. There is a phenomenon known as an earthquake storm that can occur on a fault line in seismically active zone, possibly causing a series of earthquakes could have taken place lasting 60 years. Experts refer to the gradual tremors as a process of ‘unzipping’ the fault line, so ancient peoples could have interpreted this as a sign from the gods. Some advocates of the earthquake theory have suggested that if you line up the fall of many cities with the active fault zones, they do roughly match up. However, many dispute the ‘neatness’ of this theory and argue that many aspects do not add up - such as the idea that if these earthquakes were occurring why would populations move to the mountains a more hostile volatile area. It seems more plausible that the site at the summit of Karphi suggests that people were running not from Nature but from a human threat, most likely.

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Nowitzki also found more evidence on Mount Calimata of settlements, pottery in a precarious location that none would go to unless running and hiding from something. In 1990 American Archeologist Donald Haggis accompanied Krystoff Nowitzki to the site. In order to get to this site one must enter through a gorge from a high mountain path invisible from the ground below. The path scales a cliff face using foot holes carved into the rock, clearly suggesting that this was clearly a route to be hidden away. The crops and areas for livestock were located below, and only tended to when it was safe. The location also had great visibility of the sea and the entrance port to the mainland, giving them plenty of time to prepare to fight or flee if invaders appeared on the horizon. All in all, Nowitzki has identified over 80 sites across the Crete that were places of permanent refuge. After a period of about 100 years, it appears that populations migrated back to coastal areas again, coinciding with the disappearance of the Sea People incursions.

Some keys to keep in mind to look for when examining reasons for migrations are certainly drought, famine, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and war. However, the only factor that seems to make sense in the case of these highland settlements is the fear of raids by coastal invaders. These port cities were highly dependent on trade from other parts of the Mediterranean, and so migrating away from these areas halted commerce and the basic economic structures of these civilizations. If these structures were already disrupted by increasing instability due to invasions leading to breakdowns of trade routes, it then makes sense why people would resort to retreating away from sources of water, food, and trade in order to seek safety, as the idea goes.

Dark Ages Crete Ruins

Dark Ages Crete Ruins



Another idea comes from Luwian Studies research group headed by Eberhard Zangger, claiming that the ‘Sea Peoples’ were a coalition of ‘Luwian-speaking’ peoples who joined together against a powerful common enemy: The Hittite Empire. The Luwians were known to originate from the Anatolia peninsula (now modern Turkey), and formed a coalition of many speakers of the same tongue, according to Zangger. However, these were many fragmentary petty states that were divided on the west arm of Asia minor, resulting in a delayed recognition of a cohesive ‘Luwian civilization’ tied together by language. Many still argue that this term is an oversimplification of what was really going on on the Anatolia Peninsula at that time. Zannger believes that the Luwians preceded the formation of the Hittites, citing evidence of hieroglyphic texts as early as 2000BCE:


“Since most Luwian hieroglyphic documents have thus far been found in Early Iron Age Syria and Palestine, the term Luwian is often used to denote people at the eastern end of the Mediterranean during the 10th and 9th century BCE.


“It [also] comprises the people who lived in western Asia Minor during the 2nd millennium BCE between the Mycenaeans in Greece and the Hittites in Central Anatolia, and who would not have regarded themselves as belonging to either one of the aforementioned cultures. ” (LuwianStudies.org)

Interestingly, as many nations lost writing during the collapse of the Bronze age, the Luwians “maintained this for roughly half a millennium.”  (Daily Mail) Zangger’s hypothesis extends to the idea that the Luwians were the ones responsible for the devastating Sea People attacks, beginning with the overthrow of the Hititte empire and continuing south towards Egypt. After the waves of attacks were over, it is theorized that the Luwians went on to form a powerful empire of their own stretching from Northern Greece to Lebanon until they were destroyed by the Mycenaean king coalition in the culmination of the Trojan War in Troy. Zangger has confirmed through satellite imagery that the Anatolia peninsula was heavily populated with over 340 settlements (the majority left un-excavated) not belonging to the Hittite empire. The research has also confirmed the existence of many pockets of ore and minerals, making the area strategically important in ancient times.

Mineral deposits Circa Bronze Age Era

Mineral deposits Circa Bronze Age Era

Many archeologists have considered Zanggers approach ‘bombastic’ however he is leading the way for bringing the bronze age civilizations  and collapse to the public’s consciousness, no doubt a positive thing for research initiatives in the area. The idea of a ‘international world war’ and the idea of cultural uniformity of a ‘Luwian’ civilization is questionable for many scholars in the field. However, many of Zangger’s ideas fit the bill for the collapse of many capitals and strongholds in the bronze age collapse, even the idea that the Mycenaean coalition was formed in response to the devastation brought about by the Sea People invasions


The Significance of the Battle of Kadesh and the Economy of War

There is a possibility that at least some of the massive powers of the Mediterranean were already partially weakened due of an epic battle between the the Egyptians and the Hittites. The mighty Hittites led by King Muwatalli (1295 – 1272 BC) and the equally powerful Egyptians led by Ramesses II (1279 – 1213 BC) faced each other at the Battle of Kadesh, located on the Orontes river on the border of modern Syria and Lebanon.The devastating battle and resulting 50 year peace treaty forged between the two largest empires in the mediterranean meant that there were thousands of mercenaries (perhaps including those who forged the Sea Peoples alliance) out of work.

Epic Battle of Kadesh

Epic Battle of Kadesh

Even more curious… we don’t know exactly who won the epic battle. Recently discovered were tablets that documented the war from the Hittite side that speak of spoils of the war and agreements afterwards in their favour indicating that the Hittites won the battle of Kadesh. The Egyptians claimed: “(King Ramesses II) cast them into the river like crocodiles, and he slew whomever he desired,” while the Hittite version reads: “at the time when King Muwatalli made war against the king of Egypt, when he defeated the king of Egypt.” Historians still debate both possibilities for the outcome.

 A fascinating aspect about this battle is that it was the first recorded history discovered that depicted Chariots as a major part of the Warfare. Historians have known that chariots were used but the record found was that they were, on both sides, and represented a source of great pride. The Charioteers were a part of a higher class of nobility, while the infantry were considered a lower, peasant class. The runners, as they were known, were responsible for cleaning up and finishing off the fallen enemy chariots - the dirty work, so to speak. Runners were generally mercenaries gathered from disparate corners of the ancient mediterranean world, and were foot soldiers that represented the lowest class of society. Some researchers theorize that it was these lower classes of soldiers that banded together to form the coalition of the Sea Peoples. The style of attack (foot soldiers) and their simple weaponry of animal skin shields and spears suggest that these fighters were most likely Mediterranean.


The debate continues to rage on about the origins and fate of the Sea Peoples. Most historians now believe that the Sea Peoples played an integral role in the dissolution of many Bronze Age empires, dissolved away into a temporary dark age, leaving power vacuum in their wake that provided spaces for new empires to rise up. The Etruscans are one significant example hailing from Sicily, a powerful group that would go on to produce some of the finest wines for import and have many representatives serve as emperors of Rome. The Sea Peoples wrought destruction, but seen in this light, arguably served a powerful historical function in the process, clearing thew ay for the rise of the Iron Age and new powers such as the rise of the Philistines, biblical enemies of Israel.


Written by Amber Rae Bouchard

Andrew McKay