Was the dark age a myth?

The dark time

The world broke up and nothing was the same as before. The great power on the Nile was the only one able to save itself from the turmoil with difficulty. "Those who came to my limit," says Pharaoh Ramses III. around 1180 BC Carved in stone, “have no offspring. Your heart and your life force are destroyed forever ... "

The sinister opponent, the ominous "Sea Peoples", was stopped for the time being. But the rumor continued: Between 1200 and 800 BC The advanced civilizations of the old world - from Babylon to Anatolia, from Greece to Egypt - were deeply plowed. The Ramses III inscription further reports: "No country stood up to their (the invaders) armies, ... (they were) ... destroyed ... in one fell swoop."

But other tangible news of this secular upheaval is rare. British archaeologists in particular therefore proclaimed the "Dark Ages" in the 1970s. In fact, the first advanced civilizations sank into a largely still misunderstood "Dark Age". Nevertheless, Prof. Hartmut Kühne, archaeologist at the Free University of Berlin, judges: “The dark centuries are a chimera.” What happened around 1200 BC. Actually?

- The powerful Hittite Empire (Hatti) in Central Anatolia, after all an opponent of Egypt and Assyria, is overrun by attackers who have no history and is going under. - Babylonia and Assyria in the Middle East suffer a phase of weakness and largely withdraw to their areas of origin. The Egyptian urge to expand towards Palestine and Syria is stopped. - The final Trojan War - if it ever happened - ended around 1180 BC. The power and the glory of the Bronze Age metropolis on the Dardanelles. - The palace empires, for example Mycenae and Tiryns in the Peloponnese, Knossos in Crete, break up and disappear as a power factor.

These power-political upheavals go hand in hand with far-reaching social and cultural cuts: highly organized agriculture is falling apart, hunting is becoming more relevant for meat procurement than cattle breeding. The diplomatic relations of the royal courts have been severed, the routes of long-distance trade destroyed. The skill of forming porcelain-thin ceramic vessels on the potter's wheel is being forgotten, as is the technique of building multi-storey houses. The palace administrations - once effective supraregional through centralized organization - disintegrate into the management of individual royal courts.

But above all: the writing disappears - including the memory of it. Not until 800 BC According to the previous reading, written evidence appears again in the Aegean-Greek region - but then immediately with Europe's second original myth, Homer's Iliad.

According to research and teaching, the trigger for this cultural blackout for almost four centuries was initially “the sea peoples”. They are known from Egyptian sources, but are not archaeologically tangible - a scientifically unsatisfactory situation. The empires went under due to internal state disruption and subsequent social unrest, so another thesis - also not very convincing in view of the simultaneous and extensive events. After all, natural disasters are said to have dealt the fatal blow to cultures - but that should have been lasting earthquakes over 50 years.

The archaeologically tangible findings of the cultural break and the missing - written and archaeological - news after the decline remained worrying. "But it is utter nonsense when it is still being propagated that nothing happened in these regions," summarizes Prof. Hartmut Kühne, who is digging in Syria. "After the collapse of the central powers, you can no longer find historical data in the metropolises, but in the provinces."

And not in bombastic legacies, but in many small finds and findings that you have to look at together. There is still a lack of that. After all, research can now pose the questions more precisely and introduce initial clues into the scientific debate. Some examples:

The largest gaps are in the Anatolian area after the fall of the Hittite central power. However, excavations in Karatepe or in Kusakli by Prof. Andreas Müller-Karpe from the University of Marburg prove the continued existence of regional Hittite kingdoms. Local centers of power - admittedly without luxury and hinterland - can also be found in the Peloponnese, for example in Messinian Nichoria, in the 10th and 9th centuries BC. Prove.

The struggle for power in Palestine can be read very well in the Old Testament. Assyria again reaches the borders of the 12th century in the 9th century. Hartmut Kühne excavated a provincial metropolis of the late Assyrian Empire in Dur-katlimmu, which was bursting with power and wealth.

Even with the disappearance of the writing, the considerations have become more nuanced. After 1200 BC it is undisputed that there are No more early Greek linear B clay tablets. However, according to the scribe Dr. Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum from the ancient oriental seminar of the Free University of Berlin, introduced the further development from sharp-edged cuneiform to rounded letter writing. "Clay was no longer the right medium for this," says Cancik-Kirschbaum. “The writing medium changed, for example leather was used - and that did not survive.” The cultural scientist is certain that the Greek alphabet of the 8th century stretches its roots way back to the 11th century. Only: there are no tangible finds about it.

The most burning mystery of the so-called Dark Ages is the identity of the "Sea Peoples". They left no clear archaeological traces. In once “Mycenaean” places in Greece, Asia Minor, the Aegean and on Crete, ceramic vessels (humpbacked goods), jewelry, weapons and utensils (vestments), similar to those found in the northern Balkans, the Adriatic and the Danube region, can be found. Did they come from normal trade, were they gifts - or were they left behind from the new masters who had come to the country, especially to Greece, peacefully or in a warlike manner? The experts are still arguing.

Linguists are following another trail to the Sea Peoples. Based mainly on Egyptian sources, they see at least some of the invaders coming from the Sardinia-Sicily area. Linguistic affinities also seem to exist to Etruscan. The traces of language remain just as exciting as the work of spade archeology. A generally accepted overarching explanation of the "Dark Ages" does not yet exist. The findings from the last 20 years, however, have shaken a raw teaching building - question marks remain.

June 1, 1998

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