1177 B.C.: A Graphic History of the Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History, 4)

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Release Date: 
April 16, 2024
Princeton University Press
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“provides a solid, thorough introduction to the Bronze Age world in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

1177 B.C. uses the graphic novel format in ingeniously inventive ways to present the complicated history of the end of the Bronze Age. Pel and Shesha, ancient characters from two different cultures, guide the reader through the many theories that have developed over the decades to explain the broad collapse of Aegean and Mediterranean societies around the year 1200 BCE. An astonishing amount of information is packed into these pages, drawing on a vast range of sources, from inscriptions to archeological evidence to literature, including the Iliad and the Bible.

The book opens with a map illustrating the theme that echoes throughout these pages:

"Across the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean swept a wave of destructions! The great powers of the late Bronze Age—the Hittites, Mycenaeans, Canaanites, Cypriots, and others—have all fallen and civilization as we knew it came to an end."

Introductions to each of these peoples and their achievements follow, revealing a world of trade, cultural exchange, battles, conquest, and intermarriage. Ancient letters are quoted, as are inscriptions. Art is also "read" for the information it reveals:

"Representations of foreign peoples in tombs in New Kingdom Egypt attest to diplomatic and transactional networks in the 15th and 14th centuries BC. . . . For instance, the walls of Senmut, Hatshepsut's architect and advisor, depict an embassy from the Aegean."

The first half of the book describes the interconnected powers of the region. The second half tells the story of their destruction and explores possible causes:

"So far we've seen three hundred years of globalized economy in the late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean—and it's all about to change. In the 12th century BC, this world begins to fall apart."

Different theories are offered, from an invasion by the mysterious "Sea Peoples" to earthquakes to massive droughts, each carefully examined and explained.

"There is no scholarly consensus, and precise causes remain undetermined. Now we will reconsider, as scholars have done for the past 80 years, the evidence that supports or fails to support each hypothetical possibility."

Archeology provides the basis for most of these theories, but new scientific methods have allowed for a different kind of proof:

"Until recently, the Ugaritic and other textual documents provided the only potential evidence for climate change or drought, and even that was indirect. However, new research by scholars studying ancient pollen in Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus—isotopic signatures in lake sediments in Turkey and Syria—oxygen isotope studies from stalagmites and mineral deposits within caves in Greece and Israel—and more research . . . all add up to evidence for a drought lasting 150—possibly 300—years, beginning around 1200 BC."

The authors show how many separate events could combine to create "ripple effects, both direct and indirect, across the region." In the end, they don't offer a single explanation, but a question sparking more investigation. And no clear-cut solution is needed. What is more important is that the book provides a solid, thorough introduction to the Bronze Age world in the Eastern Mediterranean. More than that, it shows how the study of history happens, what kind of evidence is sifted through and how it can be brought together. These pages are a primer in how to research the ancient world, what kinds of questions to ask, and how to look for answers.

The graphic format makes all this complexity attractive and accessible. It allows the authors to present much of the story through images. Maps, scenes of homes, palaces, temples, as well as hieroglyphics and pottery—all provide evidence as well as essential context. Together, the words and pictures show how history is made.