Mysterious Marauders – The Sea Peoples – do we need them?

The years around 1200 B.C. are, for the Eastern Mediterranean, a period of turmoil and crisis during which significant Aegean, Cypriot, Anatolian and Levantine centres are all devastated and Egypt is under attack by a coalition of people known through literary and epigraphical sources as the Sea Peoples (Dothan & Dothan 1992; Drews 1993; Gitin et al. 1998; Oren 2000). Numerous sites and formerly important centres in the Aegean and Levant are either destroyed or abandoned. The Mycenaean palace states in the Aegean, Troy, and the Hittite empire all perish or are utterly transformed. These transformations are accompanied by a series of innovations in social organisation and material culture, heralding the transition from Bronze to Iron Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, especially where the Aegean and Anatolia are concerned, the events lead to a long period of cultural stagnation and decreased social complexity, conventionally called the Dark Ages (1200-800 B.C.), a period of several hundred years during which literacy, monumental and figurative art and complex socio-political systems almost entirely disappeared from the Aegean. The Sea Peoples are in a sense blamed for forcing civilization to re-boot, a haunting perspective even in our own days.

Simplified Chronological Table and Terms of LBA (Late Bronze Age) and EIA (Early Iron Age)

Currently the evidence for the Sea Peoples is mainly textual and iconographic. Egyptian sources (especially at Medinet Habu; Papyrus Harris I) primarily dating to the reign of Merenptah (c. 1213-1203 B.C.) and Ramses III (c. 1184-1153 B.C.) speak about coalitions of islanders composed of peoples called Peleset, Sikila (Tjeker/Sikil), Sherden, Shekelesh, Weshesh, Aqwesh, Turesh, Lukka and Denyen, explicitly said to be ‘living on ships’ and having insular origins (Lunadusu letter found in Ugarit (RS 34.129). Moreover, it is stated that these destroyed several regions (including Hatti, Karkamish, Arzawa and Alashiya) before attacking Egypt in the 8th year of the reign of Ramses III (c. 1180 to 1175 B.C.) from where they were expelled after fierce land and sea battles. Ugaritic tablets also speak about enemies arriving by sea, shortly before the city’s destruction, which took place soon after the solar eclipse of 1192 B.C. (Loretz 2002). Recent C14 analysis (Kaniewski et al 2011) gives a 1192-1190 B.C. date for the destruction at Gibala/Tell Tweini close to Ugarit by the Sea Peoples. A new inscription found in Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria also seems to confirm the destruction of the Hittite empire around 1190 B.C. (Jung 2009b: 33), about 10 to 15 years before Ramses III’s encounters. Even earlier, pharaoh Merenptah had to fight off an attack by a coalition of Libyans and Sea Peoples around 1205 B.C. Despite the use of this iconographic topos in pharaonic propaganda, the historicity of these attacks has been confirmed. Since the land battle reliefs at Medinet Habu show oxen-driven carts carrying women, children and non-combatant men, a migration rather than a regular battle seems implied and, indeed, in recent literature, migration is seen as the prime explanatory factor (Yasur-Landau 2010 : 282) : « The Aegean settlement should be seen as complex, co-occurring migration processes, with great variability between the different sites». Moreover, the chronology involved –from the very end of the 13th c. to well into the 12th c. B.C. – underlines that this may have been a long-term event, stretched over several generations.

Archaeological evidence from the Levant (present-day Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine) now exists to suggest that, after their repulsion from Egypt, the remains of the Sea Peoples established themselves along the coast and in large stretches of the hinterland. Moreover, some later texts (the history of Wenamon, the Onomasticon of Amenemope) inform us about the names of these newly established groups: Tjeker (Sikil), Sherden and Peleset, clearly linking these with the population groups involved in the raids on Egypt. Within their newly found homelands, they can be distinguished from local groups by specific pottery styles, loom weights, architecture and visual culture (Yasur-Landau 2010, Bretschneider & Van Lerberghe 2008). Some of this distinctive material culture of the new Sea Peoples settlements shows obvious Aegean, Anatolian and Central Mediterranean features. This observation evidently has fed the discussion on the potential origin of the Sea Peoples, a question which has not been satisfactory answered, but which has preoccupied scholars for more than a century, starting with work by De Rougé (1867). Attention increased following the publication of a monograph by Nancy Sandars (1978), and since then, the literature is plentiful (e.g. Ward & Joukowsky 1992 ; Drews 1993; Oren 2000 ; Bachhuber & Roberts 2008 ; Yasur-Landau 2010; Karageorghis & Kouka 2011).

Map of the Eastern Mediterranean

Most commentators agree that the ethnics given to the different constituents of the Sea Peoples have a connection with the Aegean and central Mediterranean, hence Aqwesh/Aqaiwasa with the Ahhijawa/Achaeans, Sherden/Sardana/Shardana with Sardis or Sardinia, Lukka/Luku with the Lycians, Denyen/Danu with Danaja (Danaans), Sikila/Shekelesh/Tjeker/Sikil with Sicily, and the Turesh with the Tursoi/Etruscans. Moreover, the Bible (Am. 9,7 ; Gen. 10,14) explicitly links the Peleset/Philistines with Crete. Still, many of these identifications have been questioned, and although there is general agreement on Aegean and Anatolian prototypes for the material culture of the Sea Peoples, previous attempts to trace back their route through the Mediterranean have been unsuccessful and, more importantly, there is no agreement on what set these peoples and events in motion.

At least some of the groups that made up the Sea Peoples, in particular the Sherden, had been known to the Egyptians since the time of Akhenaton (c. 1340-1330 B.C.) and Ramses II (13th c. B.C.) when they served as mercenaries and auxiliaries. They carry military equipment identical to what they are depicted with around 1200 B.C. which suggests that the same ethnic group was intended. The number of Sherden implied may suggest a long-term process which became exacerbated at the end of the 13th c. B.C.

Unfortunately, simplistic approaches to cultural history that either wholly accept or reject the longstanding “pots = people” equation still dominate much of current Ancient Near Eastern research. Indeed, a recent study (Yasur-Landau 2010), although applying theoretical and anthropological approaches to migration processes and presenting a more nuanced analysis of the push-and-pull factors behind such a migration, seeks to disassociate said migrations from the wave of destructions and collapse of societies at that time, seeing them (the migrations) as a consequence rather than as indicators of a potential cause.

Other scholars have blamed severe earthquakes for the downfall of the Mycenaean palace states on the Greek Mainland, especially those in the Argolid region, but this explanation seems entirely gratuitous in view of the almost contemporary (but not simultaneous) disappearance of all Mycenaean centres throughout Greece and the changes observed elsewhere including the destruction of Troy, the elimination of the Hittite empire, the disappearance of the Ugaritic kingdom, the regionalisation of Crete etc.

In this regard, recent sedimentary and palaeo-ecological research linked to a pollen-based reconstruction of the ecosystem (Kaniewski et al 2010) tend to suggest some climatic developments and a period of drought, which might contextualize certain historical events. However, if climate change seems to have occurred between 1200 and 850 B.C., there is as yet no convincing evidence for such a change before 1200 B.C. (cf. Drake 2012). The idea that climate change prompted societal transformations does not, therefore, rest on solid ground – although Moody (2005) has been working towards such an explanation where Crete is concerned. The current position is that that the ‘Sea Peoples symbolize the last step of a long and complex spiral of decline in the ancient Mediterranean world’ (Kaniewski et al 2011: 1, our italics). The main questions are 1. “can all the changes observed in the Eastern Mediterranean be related to each other?”, and 2. “do we have evidence to link these changes to the migration of peoples?”