Tel Aviv University: Dramatic Discovery in Sea of Galilee - Ancient Near
East Empires Collapsed as a Result of Climate Crisis
Tel Aviv, 22 October 2013
TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY DRAMATIC DISCOVERY IN SEA OF GALILEE:
ANCIENT NEAR EAST EMPIRES COLLAPSED AS RESULT OF CLIMATE CRISIS
A study of fossil pollen particles in sediments extracted from the bottom of
the Sea of Galilee has revealed evidence of a climate crisis that
traumatized the Near East from the middle of the 13th to the late 12th
century BCE. The crisis brought about the collapse of the great empires of
the Bronze Age. The results of this study will be published in the coming
days by Dr. Dafna Langgut and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Institute of
Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Thomas Litt of the Institute of
Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn, Germany. The
results appeared today (October 22nd 2013 ) in Tel Aviv: Journal of the
Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University
and can be read online at IngentaConnect.com
Prof. Mordechai Stein of the Hebrew University also participated in the
"In a short period of time the entire world of the Bronze Age crumbled,"
explains Prof. Finkelstein. "The Hittite empire, Egypt of the Pharaohs, the
Mycenaean culture in Greece, the copper producing kingdom located on the
island of Cyprus, the great trade emporium of Ugarit on the Syrian coast and
the Canaanite city-states under Egyptian hegemony – all disappeared and only
after a while were replaced by the territorial kingdoms of the Iron Age,
including Israel and Judah.
The researchers drilled through 300 meters of water in the heart of the Sea
of Galilee and retrieved a core of sediments 20 meters long from the bottom
of the lake. The goal was to extract from the sediments fossil pollen
grains. "Pollen is the most enduring organic material in nature," explains
palynologist Dr. Dafna Langgut, who carried out the actual work of sampling.
"Pollen was driven to the Sea of Galilee by wind and river-streams, was
deposited in the lake and was embedded in the under-water sediments. New
sediments that are added annually create anaerobic conditions which help
preserve the pollen particles. These particles tell us about the vegetation
that grew in the vicinity of the lake in the past and therefore testify to
the climatic conditions in the region." The chronological framework of the
sediment core was established by radiocarbon dating organic materials that
were preserved in the sediments. The counting and the identification of the
pollen grains revealed a period of severe droughts between ca. 1250 and 1100
BCE. A core of sediments from the western shore of the Dead Sea – also
studied by the research group – provided similar results.
"The advantage of our study, compared to pollen investigations carried out
at other locations in the Near East, is in the unprecedented resolution of a
sample about every 40 years," says Prof. Finkelstein. "Pollen is usually
sampled in a resolution of several hundreds of years, and this is indeed
logical when one is interested in prehistoric matters and glacial and
inter-glacial cycles. Since we were interested in historical periods, we had
to sample in denser resolution; otherwise a crisis such as the one at the
end of the Bronze Age would have escaped our attention".
Another novelty in the current research is in the chronological correlation
between the pollen results and two other records of the past. At the end of
the Bronze Age many Eastern Mediterranean cities were assaulted and
destroyed by fire. The dates of these events indeed fall between ca.
1250-1100 BCE. The same holds true for ancient Near Eastern written
documents that testify to severe droughts and famine in exactly the same
period. Such documents are known from across the entire region – from the
Hittite capital in Anatolia in the north, via Ugarit on the Syrian coast and
Aphek in Israel to Egypt in the south.
Reduction in precipitation in the "green" areas of the Near East should not
be expected to cause the collapse of great empires. So what had happened?
Prof. Ronny Ellenblum of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem studied written
documents that describe similar conditions – of severe droughts and famine –
in the 10th‒11th centuries CE. He showed that in the northern parts of the
Near East, such as northern Iran and Anatolia, shrinkage in precipitation
was accompanied by devastating cold spells that destroyed crops. Langgut,
Finkelstein and Litt propose a similar process for the end of the Bronze
Age: severe cold spells destroyed the crops in the northern parts of the
ancient Near East and shrinkage in precipitation damaged agricultural output
in the eastern steppe parts of the region. This brought about the droughts
and famine so well-described in the ancient texts, and motivated "large
groups of people to start moving to the south in search of food," says
Egyptologist Shirly Ben-Dor Evian of the Department of Archaeology at Tel
Aviv University. These groups, including the Sea Peoples known from the
texts of the period, moved by land and sea, assaulted cities and disrupted
trade routes. All this caused a severe economic crisis which developed from
north to south and reached Canaan. "It was an all-out war on dwindling
resources," says Ben-Dor Evian.
The study shows that the dry period ended around 1100 BCE and was followed
by a wet period that helped many of the uprooted groups to settle down,
especially in the hilly areas of Canaan and Syria. A century or two later
these groups established the territorial kingdoms of the Iron Age, among
them Israel and Judah.
The discovery in the Sea of Galilee is one in many findings in a large-scale
project directed by Prof. Israel Finkelstein, incumbent of the Jacob M.
Alkow Chair in the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze and Iron Ages at Tel
Aviv University and Prof. Steve Weiner of the Kimmel Center for
Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute. The project deploys exact
and life science methods in the study of the Iron Age – the biblical
period – in Israel. The project consists of ten tracks, including ancient
DNA and the study of molecular residues in ancient ceramic vessels. The
project was made possible thanks to a lavish research grant from the
prestigious European Research Council (ERC) – the largest ever single grant
in the field of humanities in Israel.
For further details please contact Prof. Israel Finkelstein:
Tel-Aviv University Spokesperson's Office