Fatal Flaw in Quake Theory: Science Reveals What Brought Down Mycenaean Palaces

Debris and bodies crushed under fallen walls had led archaeologists to think Mycenaean civilization was brought down by quake. Can't be, geophysical study reports

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A laser scanner operating on top of the Cyclopean wall at the Lower Castle of Tiryns, Mycaenae
A laser scanner atop the Cyclopean wall at the Lower Castle of Tiryns, Mycaenae, measuring every slight motion in the ground.Credit: Klaus-Gunter Hinzen
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The abrupt collapse of the Mycenaean palaces 3,200 years ago has been bedeviling historians ever since. Come the 1980s, when archaeologists were excavating the fortress-palace of Tiryns, a major warrior kingdom situated in the eastern part of the Greek Peloponnese, they discovered numerous clay pots and ceramic vessels on the ground, evidently swept from tables, and human bodies crushed under collapsed walls.

The archaeologists concluded that a large quake had brought down the palace-citadel on the heads of its inhabitants, who had no chance to escape.

The theory that its palace-citadels were destroyed by quake became popular, although Mycenaean culture had staggered on for about 150 years more. However, new research published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America casts doubt on the role of earthquakes as central culprit.

The study, by researchers  Klaus-Günter Hinzen from the University of Cologne and archaeologist Joseph Maran from the University of Heidelberg, concludes that the collapse was not caused by quake after all, but resulted from a chain of cataclysmic events, including bad harvests and definitely including human nature: dynastic disputes, imperial overstretching, and peasant uprisings.

Finding Troy, and its conquerors

In 1870 a German businessman named Heinrich Schliemann sold his billion-deutschemark enterprise in indigo, by correspondence acquired a Greek wife who was guaranteed to be acquainted with the Homeric poems, and set off for northwestern Turkey to find Troy. He put his shovel in the ancient mound of Hissarlik and there it was.

A few years later, religiously following instructions in the Iliad, he went to the area where Troy's destroyers were said to have come from, and dug up "golden Mycenae" and “wall-girt Tiryns”, home of King Agamemnon and his forces.

Almost 150 years later, archaeologists have verified Schliemann’s controversial claims: warrior kingdoms all across the Greek peninsula, of which the most important are Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos and Thebes, have been located. We call their civilization Mycenaean.

Southern curtain wall of Tiryns: Mycenaean curtain-walls were built as two megalithic "skins" filed with rubble and earth. At 8 meters or more thick, they were impregnable.
Southern curtain wall of Tiryns: Mycenaean curtain-walls were built as two megalithic "skins" filed with rubble and earth. At 8 meters or more thick, they were impregnable.Credit: Joseph Maran

The Mycenaeans were sailors, soldiers, raiders and traders who among other things conquered Minoan Crete in around 1,490 B.C.E. and overran its colonies in the eastern Aegean and in Anatolia (Turkey). They fought with the great eastern kingdoms of the Mediterranean and their goods reached as far away as Scandinavia, Egypt, Canaan (Israel, Syria, Lebanon) and Iraq.

In the 12th century B.C.E. they joined the wave of marauders known as the Sea Peoples, who settled in Canaan and became known as the Philistines.

Yet the flourishing early Grecian warrior culture came to an abrupt end in the early 12th century B.C.E. (around 1190/80 B.C.E.). A wave of destruction overwhelmed the major centers of the Greek mainland, including Tiryns and Mycenae. 

Much the same happened to palaces throughout Turkey, Cyprus, Canaan and Mesopotamia. Egypt alone weathered the storm, defeating an invading armada of Sea Peoples that landed in the Nile Delta in the early 12th century B.C.E., but it too was buffeted.

Fatal flaw in the quake theory

Archaeology has shown that in Mycenae, life in some centers continued for a time. But the palace fortresses with their massive Cyclopean walls (thus called because the ancient Greeks thought only the giant Cyclops could move the huge stones) were never properly rebuilt, and with them went the warrior lords and their courts, the administration, and the scribes.

Turkey and Greece both periodically suffer from devastating earthquakes as the African and Eurasian plates move. From the 1980s, archaeologists embraced the theory that the monumental citadels were shattered by massive earthquakes that shook the eastern Mediterranean coast. The Trojan horse, which helped the Greeks capture Troy in the Iliad, was even postulated to be a poetic metaphor for an earthquake rather than a machine of war. (The logic was simple: Poseidon was the Greek god of earthquakes, and was usually represented by a horse.)

The scientists measured seismic activity in the region and assessed how earthquakes would likely affect two Mycenaean palaces in the eastern Peloponnese: Tiryns and Midea.

At both, excavators had previously found skeletons that they interpreted as victims of an earthquake. Now they believe these were bodies laid in pits that were cut into the destruction deposit, Maran tells Haaretz.

Other evidence supporting the earthquake theory were undulating walls (warped into S-shapes), Maran explains to Haaretz – but such distortions could equally have been caused by pressures within the ground or uneven subsidence.

To test the reasonability of quake destroying the palaces, the scientists placed ten mobile seismometers including on top of Tiryn's curtain walls - the hallmark walls of the Mycenaeans. Over nine months, they recorded every slight vibration in the soil in Greece. They then used the data to assess how quakes of varying intensities would have affected Tiryns and Midea.

Altogether the researchers compiled a set of 25 earthquake scenarios, involving events along the subducting African plate, the Gulf of Corinth and at local faults closer to Tiryns.

No question: based on their simulations of ground motion, local geological faults in the Argive basin could have badly damaged Tiryns and Midea, they wrote. But that evidently isn't what happened.

In Tiryns, the data indicated that the flimsily built homes in the lower town would have suffered much more damage from quake than the massive stone buildings in the upper city. But no quake evidence was found in the lower city.

Not only was the Lower Town built of inferior stuff: “Our study of the subsurface conditions showed that the Lower Town would suffer more severe shaking in case of an earthquake than the acropolis,” Hinzen explains.

They conclude that the fatal damage to the palace had not been caused by earthquake.

To be sure, some earthquake-type damage is evident in the Mycenaean palaces, but excavations have showed that the cracks were repaired and life continued.

However, in 1190/80 the heavily fortified palaces were destroyed once and for all. If it wasn't seismic shock that caused them to crumble, or divine lightning bolts – it had to be the human hand, be it through invasion, war between states or internal uprising.


Scapegoating the Sea Peoples?

A different school of thought blames the general collapse of the Bronze Age societies on the Sea Peoples. A relief in Ramses mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, Luxor, indicates as much.

Medinet Habu reliefs portray the Battle of the Delta, a great struggle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples at the mouth of the Nile at around 1177 B.C.E. Signs of fiery destruction discernable in the Mycenaean palaces led excavators to suspect that the palaces had been torn down by marauding invaders.

More recent research has suggested that the seafaring population did not consist of foreign invaders, but homeless migrants seeking new land in the chaos that followed a climate-induced collapse.

Geologist G. Schweppe preparing seismic stations for deployment in Mycenae; excavation dog Dida is helping
Geologist G. Schweppe preparing seismic stations for deployment in Mycenae; excavation dog Dida is helpingCredit: Klaus-Gunter Hinzen

Core samples from Cyprus and Syria show the 13th century B.C.E. was marked by intense cooling, little rainfall and prolonged drought. In Anatolia, shortly before 1200 B.C.E., grain was running short, as shown by a letter from the Hittite king begging the Egyptian pharaoh to send corn because famine had struck his kingdom:  “There is famine in our house. We will all die of hunger. May you know it!"

Climate change may have struck Greece as well. Grain found in Tiryns showed that the grain size had decreased. Mycenaean Linear B inscriptions found in Pylos (in the western Peloponnese) also complains about the extreme shortage of bronze in the 1,200s B.C.E.

Goods for trading may have run short in some places, but elsewhere, such as at Tiryns, business evidently went on as usual, at least for a while.

“In Tiryns, there is clear evidence that the palaces had intense trade connections with other parts of the East Mediterranean until their very end. So it is highly unlikely that their destruction was linked to a shortage of metal," Maran explains.

Nonetheless, the disruption of important resources could have pitched the warrior kingdoms against each other.  

In the end, it was probably a combination of factors that ended the Bronze Age and plunged the world into a maelstrom. Wars ruined long-distance trading, bad harvests and famine caused widespread unrest, and the highly complex administrative systems of the Mycenaeans, Hittites, Mesopotamians and Syrian trading cities collapsed.

The Greek songs of the wars abroad and the tales of trouble at home in the Iliad and the Odyssey hint at the violence that struck the Mycenaean palaces. Greeks fleeing the catastrophes that brought down Mycenaean civilization kept memories of the disastrous years alive. And eventually these memories found their  way to the compositions of the Greek bard Homer, who sang about the heroes of the Trojan War.