The "Sea Peoples" and Bronze Age Propaganda
Ramesses III's mortuary temple that in part depicts his battle with the Sea Peoples. (Source: National Geographic)
At the end of the Bronze Age, approximately 1200 BCE, human civilization had reached new heights. Technological advancements allowed for the alloying of copper and tin to produce bronze, creating new tools and weapons. Complex writing systems blossomed as trade networks between the dominant civilizations along the Mediterranean sprang up. But in a small window of a few decades, the Bronze Age states collapsed, the great cities reduced to modest villages.
As with any disaster of this scale, the cause of the Bronze Age collapse is multifaceted. Climate disruption brought on by an Icelandic volcano eruption severely disrupted the environment, causing widespread famine. Coupled with the advancements in warfare brought on by the advent of bronze and this disaster seems inevitable. But importantly, the collapse was not slow rolling; the largest projections put it within a few decades. There must be an x-factor to account for the speed of the Bronze Age's end.
Towards the end of the Bronze Age, across different civilizations separated by great distances, there are mentions of attacks by sea-faring people. In Egypt they are first mentioned by pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BCE when “countries of the sea” attacked. Beyond Egypt, they also menaced the Mycenaeans in Greece, the Hittites in Anatolia, and the Canaanites in Palestine. Despite their widespread appearance, little is known of the Sea Peoples beyond that they were a large union of a number of different tribes.
A closeup look at the Sea Peoples as depicted on Ramesses III's temple. (Source: Texas A&M University)
The best surviving records of the Sea Peoples come from Egyptian sources, their primary target. The Sea Peoples waged two campaigns against Egypt, first against pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BCE, and then thirty years later against Ramesses III. It is from these sources that we know the names of the tribes that made up the Sea Peoples. The Shardana originated from Sardinia, while the Lukka came from Lycia in what is now Turkey. Other tribes came from different points across the Mediterranean.
With the Sea Peoples, a natural question arises: how did such a union form out of a mass of different groups and tribes? It is best to remember the wider context of the Bronze Age collapse. In the wake of the famines sweeping across the globe, desperate people united together in the hopes of surviving the instability of the time. An image of Ramesses III fending off a Sea Peoples invasion depicts the union not simply as marauding soldiers, but arriving with families and cattle, in hopes of migrating.
When the “Sea Peoples” theory first originated, the Bronze Age collapse was entirely laid at their feet. Now the Sea Peoples are accepted as a symptom of the collapse, not the origin point. This is a common bias of history. It is easy to look at a relief of a massive battle of the Sea Peoples and accept them as the villains of this chapter of history, harder to comprehend the wider forces that lead to the battle in the first place.
The Sea Peoples, while a real group, can be seen as a bit of Bronze Age propaganda, propaganda so effective that it was taken up by modern archeologists as a fact of history. Those fleeing their homes after a disaster are often portrayed as dangerous outsiders, while the truth is always more complicated. The Sea Peoples didn't bring about the end of the Bronze Age so much as they were trying to weather the storm along with everyone else.
Ben-Dor Evian S. The Battles between Ramesses III and the “Sea-Peoples”: When, Where and Who? An Iconic Analysis of the Egyptian Reliefs. Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde. 2016;143(2):151-168. doi:10.1515/zaes-2016-0010
Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. - Third Edition. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996. Web.
Spier J, Potts TF, Cole SE. Beyond the Nile : Egypt and the Classical World. (Spier J, Potts TF, Cole SE, eds.). The J. Paul Getty Museum; 2018.