Lesson 28: Narrative

The Collapse of Mycenaean Palatial Civilization and the Coming of the Dorians

  1. Introduction
  2. Signs of Trouble within Mycenaean Greece During the LH IIIB Period
  3. The Horizon of Descructions and Abandonments at the end of the LH IIIB Period and the Very Beginning of the LH IIIC Phase
  4. A Selection of Theories as to the Cause(s) of the Mycenaean Palatial Collapse


Any attempt to reconstruct the course of events on the Mycenaean Greek Mainland in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. and to determine therefrom the probable causes of the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces and the collapse of the highly centralized political and economic system based upon them must rely on a sound and detailed chronology. Since no historical documents were produced locally during this period and since the absolute chronology of the LH IIIB and LH IIIC ceramic phases is rather “fluid” (still being essentially dependent on cross-dating with the relatively solid absolute chronology of New Kingdom Egypt, although there is now hope that dendrochronology may ultimately provide an independent and more precise series of dates), the dating of events within the Aegean during the period in question is primarily relative, depends largely on ceramics, and lacks great precision. Despite major advances since the mid-1960’s which have, for example, resulted in the distinction of two phases within the LH IIIB period and up to as many as five in the following LH IIIC period, such a system of dating is still inadequate for anything more than a very broad outline of events in southern Greece from ca. 1320/1300 to 1050/1030 B.C. The dates of destruction or abandonment of altogether too many important sites are either unreliable or unknown, for a wide variety of different reasons. Although slow progress is being made, it will be a long time yet before the numerous local catastrophes of the two centuries between ca. 1250 and ca. 1050 B.C. can be placed with some degree of confidence into the order in which they occurred. The summary which follows is therefore a preliminary report at best – and a selective one at that! – on work still very much in progress.

Aside from problems with dating, there is in addition the problem caused by the constant proliferation of theories which purport to explain the Mycenaean collapse. Relatively few of these theories have been couched in terms whereby they can be tested by future programs of excavation and survey. To the extent that they cannot be tested, such theories are now, and will always remain, no more than vague possibilities. Aegean prehistorians future need to couch their hypotheses about the collapse in terms that are susceptible to testing in the field. Only in this fashion will the number of possibly valid theories be reduced in number and the probable causes for the collapse be restricted and, in the end, specifically identified.


Signs of Trouble within Mycenaen Greece During the LH IIIB Period

The evidence cited below with regard to both destructions and construction is limited to those sites where dating of major architectural remains is relatively secure. Numerous sites are abandoned or destroyed either within or at the very end of LH IIIB, but the pottery from the final levels of occupation cannot be accurately dated because it has been inadequately published.

Significant Destructions

(1) The so-called “houses outside the walls” at Mycenae (House of the Oil Merchant, House of Shields, House of Sphinxes, West House), located on a series of terraces south of Grave Circle B, were destroyed by fire in LH IIIB1. Wace concluded, from the evidence of stirrup jars filled with oil whose necks had been smashed off, that the fire was purposefully set after oil had been poured over the basement of the House of the Oil Merchant.

(2) The so-called “Potter’s Shop” at Zygouries, probably a country mansion or even a small palace, was destroyed by fire in the LH IIIB1 period.

(3) The “palace” and citadel of Gla were destroyed by fire. Recent excavations at the site by Iakovides have confirmed that this destruction occurred early in the LH IIIB period, at which time the Copaïc Basin may well have been reflooded.

(4) There are some grounds for believing that part, if not all, of the later or so-called “New” Palace at Thebes was destroyed at this time, although not by fire.

Significant Constructions

(1) The fortifications at Mycenae were strengthened and an underground water supply system was added, presumably to allow the defenders to withstand a protracted siege (Phases 2 and 3 in the evolution of the citadel at Mycenae).

(2) The fortifications at Tiryns were strengthened, the citadel was substantially enlarged by the addition of the Unterburg (Lower Citadel), the storage facilities within the fortified area were enormously expanded with the construction of the East and South Galleries, in addition to numerous vaulted chambers within the thickness of the Unterburg’s fortification wall, and an underground water supply system was again added in a final stage of construction to give the fortress adequate resources in the case of a prolonged siege (Phases 2 and 3 in the evolution of the citadel at Tiryns).

(3) Cyclopean fortifications were constructed around the Acropolis in Athens, and in a late stage of the LH IIIB period a subterranean water supply system was added to this citadel as well.

(4) A massive program of fortification was initiated at the Isthmus of Corinth in the form of a wall which was evidently intended to seal off the Peloponnese from invasion by land forces from the north. The surviving evidence suggests that this enormously ambitious project was never completed.

Evidence from the Linear B Tablets

(1) The “watchers-by-the-sea” tablets from Pylos have been interpreted by some as showing Mycenaean concern over the possibility of a seaborne invasion of Messenia.


The Horizon of Destructions and Abandonments at the End of the LH IIIB Period and the Very Beginning of the LH IIIC Phase

The Argolid and Corinthia

(1) A major destruction level within the citadel walls at Mycenae defines the end of the LH IIIB2 ceramic phase. The entire area within the walls appears to have been destroyed by fire and the palace was never rebuilt. The evidence for an earthquake at nearby Tiryns (see below) has led some excavators at Mycenae to attribute this destruction at Mycenae to a contemporary earthquake that had a major impact at all the sites ringing the Argive plain (i.e. at Midea as well; see below).

(2) A major destruction by fire took place within the walls at Tiryns at the end of LH IIIB2 or just possibly in the very earliest stages of LH IIIC. Since the palace was completely excavated by Schliemann and others before modern archaeological practices became standard, it is difficult to be sure that the palace area was not reconstructed and reoccupied in the LH IIIC period. However, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that a Mycenaean palace functioned at Tiryns after this destruction.

The most recent excavations in the Unterburg at Tiryns have provided masses of data for the nature and date of this destruction. The associated pottery seems to be slightly later in date than the pottery from the equivalently massive destruction at Mycenae. Of even greater potential significance is the strong conviction of the German excavators that the destruction at Tiryns was caused by an earthquake rather than being due to human agency. The Greek excavators at Mycenae, Mylonas and Iakovides, have long championed the view that the destruction of terminal LH IIIB at Mycenae was also due to an earthquake. It may be, then, that both Mycenae and Tiryns were destroyed at the same time by a natural disaster, although no final consensus has yet been reached on this point.

Zangger has dated the destruction by flood of the lower town (Unterstadt) at Tiryns to the transition between LH IIIB and LH IIIC. It is as yet unclear what the date of this event should be relative to the citadel’s destruction by fire.

(3) At least part, and probably all, of the walled citadel of Midea was destroyed by fire in or at the end of LH IIIB2. This destruction has been connected by Demakopoulou with the earthquake to which roughly contemporary destruction horizons at nearby Mycenae and Tiryns have been attributed.

(4) The small settlement at Iria to the southeast of Nauplion was destroyed by fire in the earliest recognizable stage of LH IIIC.

(5) Both Berbati and Prosymna appear to have been abandoned either late in LH IIIB or early in LH IIIC.

(6) The latest material of Bronze Age date from both Nemea-Tsoungiza and Zygouries is in each case a small amount of LH IIIB2 pottery, but the two sites appear to have been markedly less intensively occupied in this phase than in the preceding LH IIIB1 stage. Both appear to have been abandoned by the beginning of the LH IIIC phase.


(1) Eutresis was abandoned very early in the LH IIIC period.

(2) The bulk of the so-called “New Palace” in Thebes was probably destroyed by fire late in LH IIIB.


(1) Krisa was destroyed, although the precise date of the destruction within the LH IIIB to early LH IIIC periods is uncertain.


(1) The Menelaion was destroyed by fire at or near the end of the LH IIIB period.

(2) The site of Ayios Stephanos shows no evidence of occupation after the very early LH IIIC period.


(1) The palace at Pylos was burnt either late in the LH IIIB period or at some point fairly early in the LH IIIC phase, subsequently never to be rebuilt. Mountjoy (1997) has argued that the pottery from destruction contexts in the palace can be dated quite closely in Argive terms to the transition from LH IIIB to IIIC (her freshly coined “Transitional LH IIIB2/LH IIIC Early” phase).

(2) Nichoria was destroyed late in LH IIIB.

(3) The evidence for massive depopulation in the LH IIIC period is more striking in Messenia than in any other area of southern Greece.


There is an apparent population influx into this area during the LH IIIC period, although Papadopoulos’ 1978-79 review of the evidence suggests that this may have been somewhat overemphasized by Desborough in 1964. The primary evidence for this influx consists of an increase in tombs in the area during the LH IIIC phase, precisely the reverse of the situation observed in Messenia, Laconia, and even the Argolid at this time.

Ionian Islands

As in Achaea, large numbers of newly constructed LH IIIC tombs, on the island of Kephallenia in particular, suggest a population influx into this area during this period.


(1) Although the later Athenians were very proud of the fact that they had escaped conquest at the hands of the invading Dorians, a case can nevertheless be made for the violent destruction of the Mycenaean citadel on the Acropolis in the earliest sub-phase of the LH IIIC period, contemporary with the destruction of Iria in the Argolid. Although the archaeological evidence for such a destruction is good, the agent(s) of the destruction cannot be precisely identified and thus the later Athenian boast that they defeated the Dorians may well be true.

(2) The extremely crowded conditions in the LH IIIC cemetery of Perati in eastern Attica suggest that there was probably at least a significant nucleation of population at, if not necessarily a population influx into, this coastal site in this period. The settlement associated with the Perati cemetery may well have been located on the rugged Raphtis island in the middle of Porto Raphti bay, an indication that a settlement on the Mainland itself (as at the nearby site of Brauron in the preceding LH IIIA-B periods) was somehow not safe. Indeed, it is tempting to identify the population buried at Perati as migrants from Brauron and their descendants, since both the settlement and the cemetery at Brauron go out of use at just about the same time as burials begin at Perati.


Although the settlement in quantity of Mycenaean “colonists” on Cyprus during the LH IIIA and IIIB periods is considered doubtful by most scholars, there is no doubt but that the LH IIIC period witnessed at least two major incursions of Mycenaean “refugees” into the island. The first of these is dated early in LH IIIC at the sites of Enkomi, Kition, Palaeokastro Maa, and Sinda, while the second took place perhaps a couple of generations later in advanced LH IIIC.


The areas suffering the violent destruction of major administrative centers in the late LH IIIB period and massive depopulation in the subsequent LH IIIC phase lie along a roughly north-south axis (Boeotia, western Attica, Corinthia, Argolid, Messenia, Laconia). Population influxes, where these have been detected, are in evidence both west (Achaea, Ionian Islands) and east (eastern Attica, Cyprus) of this major north-south axis and have also been claimed further south on Crete. It is, however, too early to establish coherent patterns with any confidence from the limited amount of data currently available. Above all, more information is needed on the course of events in Thessaly and Macedonia at this time. Recent excavations at Assiros and Kastanas in central Macedonia will go some way toward filling the gaps in the evidence, but western Macedonia and Thessaly still remain blank. Evidence from stratified settlement sites occupied during this period in such areas as Achaea, the Ionian islands, and eastern Attica is also highly desirable. Full publication of the long LH IIIC sequence at Lefkandi in Euboea will be very informative, but this site is unlikely to provide much useful information on the transition from LH IIIB to LH IIIC in this area.


A Selection of Theories as to the Cause(s) of the Mycenaean Palatial Collapse

Andronikos (1954)

The collapse came about as the result of extreme social unrest within Mycenaean society and in the form of revolts of the peasantry against the ruling class.


While it is possible to believe in social revolutions at isolated sites such as Mycenae or Tiryns or even within a province containing one or more such kingdoms (e.g. the Argolid or Messenia), it is far more difficult to believe that more or less simultaneous revolutions took place throughout most of the Peloponnese as well as central Greece. In any event, this Neo-Marxist theory of internal social revolution as a the cause of the Mycenaean collapse fails to explain the ensuing widespread depopulation of large and fertile areas such as Messenia and Laconia.

Vermeule (1960)

“This disruption of commerce in the late 13th century may have been more disastrous for Greece than direct invasions and this followed inevitably on the coming of the Sea Peoples whose hunt for land and subsistence threw the Aegean into chaos.” The theory posits that the Sea Peoples crippled Mycenaean commerce by severing the normal trans-Aegean trade routes. Since the palaces, according to this view, depended on external trading contacts for their continued existence, the widespread elimination of such commerce led directly to the destruction of the palaces, although at whose hands is uncertain and perhaps ultimately not very important.


The activities of the Sea Peoples are securely attested only through Egyptian sources which mention battles against them on the frontiers of Egypt fought by the pharoahs Merenptah and Ramesses III at the end of the 13th and early in the 12th centuries respectively. The Egyptian sources specify that these raiders had also caused havoc in the Levant, Cyprus, and Anatolia. Most scholars are therefore willing to see in them the destroyers of such prominent Levantine city-states as Ugarit. However, there is no sound evidence for their presence as far north and west as the Aegean. In fact, the limited amount of archaeological evidence available from the central and southeastern Aegean islands (Naxos, Melos, Rhodes, Kos) in the century ca. 1250-1150 B.C. suggests that these areas survived the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces on the Greek Mainland relatively unscathed. Only at the site of Koukounaries in northern Paros has a major early LH IIIC destruction level of a flourishing Cycladic settlement been documented. Vermeule’s theory is a better response to the question of why the palaces were not rebuilt than it is to that of who destroyed them and why.

Desborough (1964)

Desborough cautiously suggested the possibility of an invasion by land from the north, although at the time he wrote he was acutely conscious of the fact that there was virtually no evidence, except for the destruction levels and widespread abandonments themselves, for the presence of such invaders. He did point out that a few new classes of bronze objects, the {fibula} [or safety-pins] and the cut-and-thrust swords of the so-called “Naue II” type, make their first appearance in the Mycenaean world ca. 1200 B.C. However, these objects always appear in “good Mycenaean” contexts such as chamber tombs with otherwise standard Mycenaean funeral assemblages. They consequently do not appear to have belonged exclusively to an intrusive, non-Mycenaean population element. As a result, Snodgrass (1974) concluded that objects of these kinds need not be taken as evidence of the invasion or immigration of northern peoples from the western Danube basin into the Aegean (as argued by Grumach, Milojcic, and Gimbutas, among others) because they could be considered simply as “good ideas” which “caught on” in the Aegean area at much the same time as similar objects first appeared in northern Italy and in the early Urnfield cemeteries of the Danube basin. All such objects, Snodgrass argued, could have been imported initially and locally copied thereafter by peoples indigenous to the areas in question, rather than necessarily being the belongings of invaders.

Mylonas (1966)

Mylonas felt that too much emphasis had been placed on the supposed contemporaneity of the palatial destructions. In his view, specialists had been too busy looking for a single cause for what were a large number of distinct localized destructions. That individual Mycenaean centers were destroyed by quite different people for a variety of distinct reasons is supported by the destruction sagas associated with a number of these centers in the body of Greek myth: Thebes and the Epigonoi, the sons of the more famous “Seven against Thebes”, a group of Peloponnesian heroes who had themselves failed, under the leadership of the Theban renegade Polyneices and the Argive king Adrastus, to sack Thebes a generation earlier; Mycenae and the House of Atreus which destroyed itself in a series of intrafamilial squabbles (Atreus vs. Thyestes, Aegisthos and Clytemnestra vs. Agamemnon, Orestes vs. Aegisthos and Clytemnestra); etc. Documentary evidence of a different sort, contemporary Linear B tablets as opposed to later mythological tales, appears to show that Pylos may have been destroyed in a surprise piratic raid by the people(s) against whom the “watchers-by-the-sea” mentioned in the O-KA tablets had been posted.


Mylonas’ approach fails to take sufficient cognizance of the remarkable coincidence of the complete collapse of palatial civilization on the Greek Mainland within a relatively short period of time, arguably no more than a generation at most in the Peloponnese. It is unclear from his explanation why the palaces should never have been rebuilt. The myths concerned with the Dorian invasion of the Peloponnese and other disturbances at this approximate time are summarized by Buck (1969).

Carpenter (1966)

Carpenter suggested that in the years around 1200 B.C., that is, around the end of the LH IIIB period, there was an extended drought which disrupted agriculture in the areas of Crete, the southern Peloponnese, Boeotia, Euboea, Phocis, and the Argolid but which did not particularly affect Attica, the northwest Peloponnese, Thessaly and the rest of northern Greece, or the Dodecanese (e.g. Rhodes, Kos, etc.). Since Carpenter was not a meteorologist, many scholars felt that he lacked the requisite expertise to substantiate his theory. In 1974, a group of meteorologists evaluated Carpenter’s thesis from two points of view: (a) was a pattern of drought such as that postulated by Carpenter in fact possible? (b) did such a drought in fact occur ca. 1200 B.C.? In response to the first question, their answer was that the proposed pattern was indeed possible and had in fact occurred as recently as 1954-55. While in that particular instance the drought lasted for only one year, it was perfectly possible for such a drought pattern to persist for the longer period of time required by Carpenter’s theory. In response to the second question, the meteorologists’ response was less definite, for the simple reason that relatively few data presently exist from the Aegean which can be brought to bear on the problem in question. Most recently, studies by Kuniholm and his associates of tree-growth rings from Turkey suggest that there may have been a drought in central Anatolia at the time in question which may be connected with the collapse of the Hittite Empire ca. 1200 B.C.


This theory has the virtue of being a hypothesis for which objective tests can be quite easily devised. Further meteorological data concerning the climate of Greece in the 13th and 12th centuries may result in the partial or total confirmation of the postulated drought. The question as to who destroyed the palaces is not specifically addressed by this theory, although presumably it would have been the work of Mycenaeans seeking to gain access to the agricultural surpluses kept in palatial storerooms rather than that of non-Mycenaean outsiders.

Iakovides (1974)

The Mycenaean palatial economies were dependent on trade with Cyprus and the Levant. When the trade routes connecting Greece with these areas were cut as the result of the activities of the Sea Peoples, Mycenaean palatial civilization fell apart in a short space of time.


This theory, a slightly revised version of Vermeule’s hypothesis of 1960, takes cognizance of the fact that the Sea Peoples’ activities are only well documented in the easternmost part of the Mediterranean and therefore postulates a collapse of Mycenaean trading mechanisms at their eastern termini rather than within the Aegean. Like Vermeule’s theory, Iakovides’ thesis accounts for the disappearance of the Mycenaean palatial system after the destructions of ca. 1200 B.C. but fails to address the widepread depopulation of the Peloponnese in the LH IIIC period or to identify who actually destroyed the Mycenaean palaces. A decline in contacts between the Mycenaean Greek Mainland and both Cyprus and western Anatolia begins to be noticeable in the latter part of the LH IIIB period, a fact which suggests that the disruption of Mycenaean commercial activities with the east was a gradual and potentially rather drawn out process rather than the relatively sudden result of a small number of closely spaced events. The scarcity of raw materials, and of copper in particular, for specialized workers within the kingdom of Pylos is clear from Linear B texts found at that site. Although no comparable documentary evidence has been found at other Mycenaean centers, this shortage of imported raw materials and the breakdown in exchange networks which such a shortage implies is usually considered to have existed throughout the southern Aegean by the end of the 13th century B.C.

Rutter (1975, 1990), Walberg (1976), Deger-Jalkotzy (1977, 1983), Small (1990, 1997), Pilides (1994), Bankoff, Meyer, and Stefanovich (1996)

Rutter, following in the footsteps of E. French, identified a non-Mycenaean handmade and burnished class of pottery in early LH IIIC contexts at Korakou, Mycenae, Lefkandi, and a few other sites in central and southern Greece. Since this pottery was locally made, it constituted evidence for the presence of a non-Mycenaean population element within Mycenaean Greece in the period immediately following the destruction of the major Peloponnesian centers. This handmade and burnished pottery, in Rutter’s view, had its closest parallels in the “Coarse Ware” of Troy VIIb1 and in the pottery of the Final Bronze Age Coslogeni culture of southeastern Rumania. Rutter therefore suggested that there might be a connection between the makers of this non-Mycenaean pottery and the destroyers of both Troy VIIa and of the Mycenaean centers in the Peloponnese.

Deger-Jalkotzy, publishing similar non-Mycenaean ceramics from early LH IIIC contexts at the coastal site of Aigeira in Achaea, argued that similar pottery was to be found not only in Troy and Rumania but also in Sicily and southern Italy. In all cases, this pottery had no local ancestry and was presumably evidence for intrusive population groups. Such groups were probably not large (i.e. not comparable in scale to the migrating tribes who contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.), but rather small bands of pirates, freebooters, and unemployed mercenaries. The original homeland of these groups, from which they filtered down into various areas of the Mediterranean by a number of different routes, was the central Danube. These warrior bands, comparable in terms of their activities and organization to the Vikings of the 7th to 10th centuries A.D., may indeed have constituted the nucleus of the raiders known later to the Egyptians as the Sea Peoples.


Despite the discovery of considerable amounts of handmade and burnished pottery at both Tiryns and the Menelaion since Rutter’s and Deger-Jalkotzy’s original publications, far too little of this pottery has yet been published for any sort of reliable estimate of its significance. Kilian has suggested that the closest parallels for this material come from northwest Greece (Epirus) and has maintained that the earliest examples of such pottery from Tiryns come from contexts immediately predating the major destruction at that site at the end of the LH IIIB period. It is also apparent from Tiryns that, at least at that site, the handmade and burnished pottery persisted in use throughout the LH IIIC period, while at Korakou and the Menelaion such material seems to be restricted to early LH IIIC levels. Moreover, at Tiryns standard Mycenaean shapes are imitated in the dark-surfaced, handmade and burnished fabrics. It thus appears that there is considerable local variability in the manner in which this intrusive class of ceramics manifests itself. Technologically comparable material has recently been identified at the sites of Kommos and Chania in Crete. That from Kommos dates from the LM IIIA2-B periods and has its closest parallels on Sardinia; that from Chania, on the other hand, appears to be later in date and has better parallels in southern Italy. In both cases, the pottery in question is imported rather than locally made and consequently need not represent resident pottery producers of Italian origin at the sites in question.

Perhaps most significantly, the pottery of this technologically inferior variety constitutes precisely the sort of material for which Desborough searched in vain to bolster his theory of northern invaders in 1964. Deger-Jalkotzy has connected the fibulae and “Naue II” cut-and-thrust swords identified long ago as evidence for northern intruders into the Mycenaean world at this time with the much humbler, dark-surfaced, handmade-and-burnished pottery and views all three artifactual classes as representative of a single phenomenon. But most authorities see no compelling reason to accept such a connection. The pottery has nevertheless often been categorized as “Barbarian Ware”, or even “Dorian Ware”, especially in German scholarship on the subject. The larger topic of Mycenaean contacts with central Europe at this time has been most recently summarized independently and with quite different conclusions by Harding (1984) and Bouzek (1985).

An alternative approach to the interpretation of this pottery, which may be best referred to in an abbreviated as well as neutral fashion by the term HMBW (= HandMade and Burnished Ware), has been to view it as the result of a new mode of production: due to the collapse of the palaces and the centralized industries which they supported, production at the household level by non-specialized, indeed relatively inexperienced personnnel was required for the first time in centuries (Walberg 1976, Small 1990). This approach, however, fails to take cognizance of two very important aspects of the available evidence: first, the typological peculiarities of HMBW in shape and decoration [e.g. the recurrence of non-Mycenaean shapes like the deep wide-mouthed jar with multiple lugs of three or four characteristic varieties interrupting a finger-impressed plastic cordon below the rim at a number of sites spread over a wide area including the Corinthia (Korakou), the Argolid (Mycenae and Tiryns), Laconia (the Menelaion), and even northwestern Anatolia (Troy)]; and second, the fact that standard wheelmade Mycenaean cooking and table wares continued to be produced in quantity throughout the Mycenaean period, thus showing that the long-established technological norms of indigenous ceramic production on the Greek Mainland continued in be operative with respect to the vast majority (probably 90% or even higher) of pottery being manufactured after the palatial collapse (Rutter 1990).

The most recent review of all HMBW material so far published has extended its distribution to Cyprus (Pilides 1994), where it seems to make its appearance at much the same time as Mycenaean refugees are aupposed to have colonized the island in substantial numbers at the beginning of the LH IIIC period (see above). An attractive recent suggestion for how HMBW ought to be interpreted has invoked the analogy of the creolized ceramic products of slave societies of the 16th-19th centuries A.D. in the Americas (Bankoff, Meyer, and Stefanovich 1996). Appropriately acknowledging the heterogeneous typology, retrograde technology, and undistinctive intrasite as well as intersite distribution of HMBW, this analogy suggests that this pottery represents an intrusive population element in the 12th century B.C. Aegean playing a subservient rather than dominant role in the climactic events of that age.

Winter (1977)

Winter has made the important point, on the basis of analogies with the 3rd century B.C. Galatian invasion of Anatolia and the 6th century A.D. Slavic invasion of Greece, both of them undisputed historical events, that invaders on a lower cultural level than the inhabitants of the area which they invade often do not leave behind any sign of their presence other than destruction levels and evidence for drastic depopulation. Even when they remain in the invaded area, as both the Galatians and the Slavs did, they are often not archaeologically detectable or observable since they may wholeheartedly adopt the existing material culture of the population which they have conquered.


In other words, regardless of whether the handmade and burnished pottery and the new bronze types have any significance as indicators of the identity of a group of invaders, the destruction levels and depopulation evident in Greece during the period ca. 1250-1150 B.C. are themselves sufficient evidence to sustain the theory of invasion from outside of Mycenaean Greece as a rationale for the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial system. This thesis has not found universal favor with archaeologists and historians, as responses to Winter’s original article by Thomas (1978, 1980) show.

Betancourt (1976)

Betancourt has argued that the Mycenaean economy was so specialized that a short period of disruption of any kind, whether the result of internal social upheavals, invasion from outside, or a period of poor weather, would lead inevitably to the collapse of the major economic centers, the palaces, a phenomenon which would in turn cause the sort of internal chaos leading to the widespread depopulation of large areas of the Greek Mainland, even if they were agriculturally fertile and hence potentially productive.


Both Betancourt and Hutchinson (1977) focus their efforts on establishing how fragile the Mycenaean palatial economy was and hence address more the issue of why palatial civilization disappeared from Greece after 1200 B.C. than that of what the initial shock or shocks may have been which led to the destructions of the palaces in the first instance.

Drews (1993)

In a wide-ranging review of the relatively sudden demise of numerous kingdoms and empires throughout the eastern Mediterranean region in the later 13th and early 12th centuries B.C., Drews suggests that these collapses occurred as the result of a fundamental change in the nature of warfare in this period. In his view, what is at issue is the replacement of the massed chariotry that had been dominant on Near Eastern battlefields since the introduction of the horse-drawn chariot in the 18th-17th centuries B.C. by light-armed and highly mobile infantry who relied principally on the javelin as a weapon. The success of these new troops against chariot forces of the traditional type on 13th-century battlefields dealt a fatal blow to militaristic polities whose power had been based on chariots and on the socially and economically privileged warrior elite who manned them (e.g. the Hittite Empire, the Mycenaean kingdoms, the city states of coastal Syria and the Levant, the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni, the Kassite kingdom of Babylon, etc.). Since the new mode of warfare entailed the abandonment of an entire social order based on the prominence of horse-drawn battle-cars, traditional forms of kingship were likewise either altogether scrapped or at the very least greatly modified.


The virtue of Drews’ treatment of the Mycenaean collapse is that he places it in the context of a much larger series of military, economic, and political changes that affected all of the “civilized world” of western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age. But in identifying a single cause for a very complex and multifaceted combination of events that involved a very large area over a century or more of time, Drews has unquestionably been guilty of the same kind of oversimplification that characterizes all of the “single-answer” approaches to the widespread “systems collapse” in question. Liverani (1994) has provided a brief critique of Drews’ approach from a Near Eastern perspective. From an Aegean point of view, what is surprising is how popular the chariot continues to be in post-palatial Mycenaean art of the 12th century B.C., especially in view of the contemporary disappearance of such unambiguous totems of Mycenaean royalty as the figure-of-eight shield and the boars’-tusk helmet. In fact, rather than disappearing from the pictorial vocabulary of the LH IIIC vase painters who decorated the kraters used at male drinking parties, chariots are not only as popular as they ever were, but are now more often explicitly connected with warfare through the warrior garb of their occupants than was the case in the palatial era. Since many specialists have difficulty imagining chariot-borne warriors playing any significant role on Aegean battlefields in the first place because of the region’s highly irregular topography, there is understandably a good deal of skepticism in this particular part of the eastern Mediterranean as to the significance of the supposed passing of massed chariotry from the military scene.


The theories outlined above can be roughly categorized as follows:

(a) Economic Factors: Vermeule, Iakovides, Betancourt.

(b) Climatic Change: Carpenter.

(c) Internal Social Upheaval: Andronikos, Mylonas.

(d) Invasion from Outside the Aegean World: Desborough, Rutter, Winter, Deger-Jalkotzy.

(e) Changes in the Nature of Warfare: Drews.

In fact, the relatively sudden, extensive, and thorough eradication of Mycenaean palatial civilization is likely to have been caused by a combination of factors. In any case, no one of the theories outlined above addresses all of the questions inherent in a reconstruction of the Mycenaean collapse. These questions include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

(1) How stable was Mycenaean palatial civilization in the first place? Was it flexible enough to withstand substantial “shocks”?

(2) Were there certain “shocks” which affected Mycenaean palatial civilization as a whole? Were these in every case ultimately responsible for the destruction of individual palatial centers or were such destructions often the final links in highly localized chains of causation?

(3) Why were the palaces never rebuilt?

(4) Why were large areas of the Peloponnese, including some of the richest agricultural zones in southern Greece, so thoroughly depopulated during the century following the destruction of the palaces? What percentages of the population which disappeared died in Greece of famine and disease or in battle, and what percentage migrated south to Crete, east to Cyprus, or west to Achaea and the Ionian islands?


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