Putting the life back in science fiction

News and Dark Age Apophenia
July 9, 2016, 10:59 pm
Filed under: climate change, fantasy, fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

Sorry about the long silence, but I’ve been researching a new story setting, just for fun.

The news is that I’ve got another guest blog up on Charlie Stross’ Antipope. It’s about the possible consequences of Mark Jacobson’s plan to power the US using only renewable electricity.

And now for something completely different, what I’m doing on my summer “vacation.”

I’m playing with yet another fantasy world.  In part this is just for relaxation and fun.  While I’m glad I did Hot Earth Dreams, that was a grim three years, and I wanted to do something fun and distracting for a bit, indulge my penchant for world-building in a way that might result in a salable trashy novel, rather than an important book.  Still, I’m revisiting some things I learned doing Hot Earth Dreams, and one of them is the “Greek” Dark Age, or more generally, the collapse that ended the bronze age in the Near East sometime around 1177 BC, as Eric Cline put it in his book 1177 B.C., The Year Civilization Collapsed

I’m reading 1177 B.C., and it’s a fun book.  The thing is, I’ve read a bunch of other archaeology, because the bronze age collapse is often mentioned as a model for the collapse of modern civilization.  The more I read, though, the more I suspect that the comparison is due in part to something like apophenia (which is the word for people finding meaning in random patterns).  It’s not that the evidence is so random, it’s just that it’s so sparse that people love to impose their own ideology or latest, most glamorous theories onto the evidence that does exist.  Worse, the archaeologists don’t always agree with each other on the evidence, so it’s hard for an outsider like me to tell which are mistakes (I’m pretty sure that one book that claims the Dark Age didn’t happen got it wrong), which are minor errors propagated by either lack of knowledge or careless source citing (which I can sympathize with, even though it’s fracking annoying), and what is generally accepted as true, even though it might not be.

So many articles seem to be the imposition of favorite theories on the evidence.  For instance, the Bronze Age is often claimed as an example of “an international system,” as we see today.  The evidence of long range trade is sound, in that Bronze Age artifacts made (or at least designed) in the Middle Eastern City states show up in Scandinavian chiefly tombs.  But is widespread trade in artifacts between city-states and chiefdoms the same as global trade today?  Also, Romans paid to get Chinese silks via the Silk Road.  Isn’t that a bit more international than those Bronze Age routes that only made it to the Indus and Britain?

The other thing is that the cause of the Bronze Age collapse isn’t clear.  This is a normal problem for all collapses, as people living through a collapse normally don’t create enduring dairies.  Indeed, the Bronze Age Collapse is unusual in that a letter on a clay tablet from the last king of Ugarit survived the destruction of his kingdom, possibly because the fire from his burning palace baked it to ceramic and safely buried it for the archaeologists to find.  The text is fairly famous, and leads to the idea that the so-called Sea Peoples were the cause of the collapse.  The text translates as:

“My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?…Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.” [note, the kings routinely referred to each other in familial terms.  Older patrons were fathers, peers were brothers.  He wasn’t blood kin to the person he was begging help from].

Were the Sea People (“the enemy” in the above text) corsairs, migrants, displaced people, or some combination of all three?  If they were displaced, what displaced them?  Most of the evidence on the Sea People comes from Ugarit (which fell to them), and Egypt (which beat them back at great cost).  No archaeological site has been unambiguously identified with the Sea People, but it’s thought that the Philistines (the ancestors of the Palestinians) were initially Sea People.

It’s possible that a climate variation like the Medieval Warm Period was the ultimate cause, with cold years causing crop failures in the eastern Mediterranean, while warmer, better conditions further west produced a wave of roving young bucks looking for new lands to conquer.  In the well-attested Medieval Warm Period, things were great for Medieval Western Europe, but the weather cooled in eastern Europe and apparently caused crop failures in the Middle East, crippling both the Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire, and probably set the stage for the Crusades, as people spilling out of a burgeoning Western Europe set out to conquer a weakened Middle East (reference).  The sudden invasion of mysterious Sea People who came from the “West” might have been caused by a similar weather fluctuation two millennia before.  Or not.  There’s no evidence for such a regional climate change in the 12th century BC, simply because no one (to my knowledge) has a good proxy record for the climate in the eastern Mediterranean at that time.

Then there’s the confusion about when “The Bronze Age” ended.  Bronze Age Tutankhamen was buried with an iron dagger, but it turns out the thing had a blade of meteoritic iron.  Despite the anachronistic material, it was extremely well made, as were most of the items in his tomb.  The point here is not that Bronze Age craftsmanship was shoddy (some of it was really cool and better than modern replicas*),  but that they were working with iron during the Bronze Age for centuries, perhaps 1,000 years, before the Iron Age started, even in the ancient Middle East. Iron was the titanium of the Bronze Age, if that makes sense. Part of the reason iron didn’t catch on fast is that they didn’t understand iron’s metallurgy, which is the opposite of copper and tin.  Moreover, a soft iron blade really isn’t any better than a good bronze one, but it is a lot harder to make, as they learned to forge iron rather than casting it as they did with bronze (the Chinese took the cast iron route into their Iron Age.  Europeans only got into cast iron much, much later).  Iron did apparently take off with the Bronze Age Collapse in the Middle East, but that may simply have been because the bronze trading network had collapsed.  Without readily available bronze, people turned to the more annoying iron because iron ore was more available (among other things, as red ocher), and they started using it exclusively for blades once they figured out how to temper it, to control the amount of carbon that got into it as they worked it, and then to make steel.  Despite iron’s ultimate advantages, it very gradually replaced bronze in western Europe (especially on the Atlantic coast), so the European transition from iron to bronze was gradual, not abrupt.  The switch from iron to bronze didn’t obviously cause the collapse, although some people seem to think it did, and I speculated about it in Hot Earth Dreams.

Speaking of the Atlantic Bronze Age, it’s not at all clear whether the western bronze trading network collapsed at the same time that the Near East did.  The archaeologists seem divided on the issue, with some seeing a collapse around 1200 BC, some defining the “Atlantic Bronze Age” as lasting from 1300 BC to 700 BC, when the Phoenicians finally convinced everyone that iron(y) was a better choice than bronze (being brazen?).

I can go on, but the main point is that the Bronze Age collapse is one of those fascinating mysteries that, like the Mayan collapse is neat precisely because you can project your favorite theories and fantasies onto the scanty and sometimes contradictory evidence left behind.  If you’re willing to read some fairly tedious archaeological texts, as well as fun books like 1177 B.C., you can go ferreting into a deep intellectual rabbit warren.

I’m playing with the idea of a fantasy world partly based on the European bronze age (and no, it’s nothing like Glorantha), and partly based on The Art of Not Being Governed.  I’ll leave you to figure out how these two go together.  Hope you’re having fun this summer as well.

*About the inherent coolness of Bronze Age artifacts.  Many years ago now, I saw Neil Burridge’s really gorgeous bronze swords and fell in lust with them.  For awhile I’d hoped to travel to England and make my own (Neil used to hold workshops where people did that), but that didn’t work out.  Then my wonderful wife surprised me with one of Neil’s Limehouse swords for Christmas.  Neil’s blade is a work of art and one of my favorite weapons, but he claims it doesn’t hold a candle to the original, and he may be right.   For me, the draw of the Bronze Age is caught up with the sword: it’s beautiful, complex, mysterious, and exotic.  In any case, with the BRexit turmoil, if you want to take advantage of an honest craftsman, Neil’s selling his creations in British pounds, so from the US there’s a good exchange rate if that’s your kind of thing.  My wife’s grumbling about me drooling over that website, so I won’t get another one.  Honest honey.



3 Comments so far
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I’ve recently read your post on Antipope! I don’t quite understand why geothermal would become less used, but I can see the other things being a possibility. Makes me wonder if in this “Cyberpunk 2.0” scenario, the western part of the Sun Belt will be better known as the “Dust Belt”, a place of bankrupt and indebted cities and ghost towns. California would probably do better though.

Also, while this is unrelated, I was curious if in your research for “Hot Earth Dreams”, did you research anything over the Amazonian tipping-point? Because, to be honest, that has always confused me; if humidity is going to increase globally, why would an extremely humid place well suited to tropical rainforests became less well suited in a warmer climate?

Comment by Whachamacallit

So far as the Amazonian tipping point goes, I’m a bit confused by it too. Three things I have read are:
–The models all predict a drying Amazon,
–There have been severe recent droughts in the Amazon recently. What I don’t know is how much of this is due to deforestation, and how much of this is due to the climate alone.
–As I understand it, it’s not clear to me that there are low latitude tropical rain forests when Earth is in hothouse mode. There were certainly what we’d consider tropical rainforests at middle latitude (as in Oregon), but what happened near the equator seems to be harder to figure out. However, there was tropical rainforest during the Paleocene at Cerrejon (5oN), but it’s not clear what happened in the PETM a few million years later.

Comment by Heteromeles

[…] I’ve finished reading 1177 B.C., The Year Civilization Collapsed, as I mentioned in the last post.  It’s a good book, and it’s also a good lesson in why I might want to wait until […]

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