GW Professor Investigates the Year Civilization Collapsed

“1177 B.C.,” Eric Cline’s top-selling archaeology book, has been submitted for a Pulitzer Prize.

Eric Cline
Eric Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology, co-directs archaeological digs at Megiddo and Tel Kabri. (William Atkins/GW Today)
March 25, 2015

By Lauren Ingeno

“The economy of Greece is in shambles. Internal rebellions have engulfed Libya, Syria, and Egypt, with outsiders and foreign warriors fanning the flames. Turkey fears it will become involved, as does Israel. Jordan is crowded with refugees. Iran is bellicose and threatening, while Iraq is in turmoil. A.D. 2013? Yes. But it was also the situation in 1177 B.C., more than three thousand years ago, when the Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations collapsed one after the other, changing forever the course and the future of the Western world.”

So begins “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed,” an enlightening book by archaeologist and George Washington University Professor Eric Cline that is continuing to receive popular and critical acclaim since its release one year ago.

It has been translated into four languages, with five others in progress, and has consistently ranked among the top three spots on Amazon in the archaeology books category. The book has received, among other recognitions, the 2014 ASOR Publication Award for “Best Popular Book on Archaeology.”

And in a few weeks, Dr. Cline will find out whether he has snagged one of the top achievements in the literary sphere. His publisher, Princeton University Press, submitted an application for “1177 B.C.” to be considered for a 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Winners will be announced in early April.

What has made the book such a success? Suspense, drama and just the right amount of caution about where our society may be headed, Dr. Cline suspects. History, after all, tends to repeat itself.

The Late Bronze Age—from 1700 to 1200 B.C.—was a golden era, when great, flourishing Mediterranean civilizations spanned from Greece and Italy in the west to Egypt, Canaan and Mesopotamia in the east. Familiar characters, including King Tut and Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh, as well as key events, like the Trojan War, appear during this period.

Linked by a vast international trade network, the mighty powers—the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Canaanites, the Cypriots, the Egyptians and others—rose to prestige during arguably one of the most interconnected, globalized times in ancient history.

Then, one by one, each civilization fell from glory and vanished within less than a century. The Dark Ages that followed would last, in some regions, until 800 B.C.

“We don’t know precisely what caused the end of the Bronze Age. It happened to so many different civilizations at the same time, in the same area,” said Dr. Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “I’m investigating one of history’s greatest mysteries.”

Eric Cline's newest book, "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed," published (from left) in English, Italian, Spanish and Dutch. 

Scholars have long speculated that foreign warriors known as the “Sea Peoples” ransacked cities and led to the eventual destruction of the Bronze Age civilizations. Beginning in 2011, a series of studies, including one published in 2013, concluded that climate change contributed significantly to the downfall of this era. Drought and famine, the scientists claim, soon followed.

However, Dr. Cline asserts in his book that neither of these theories singularly brought about the end of Bronze Age civilizations.  

“I don’t think climate change was enough to overthrow everything. It was only one of the drivers. You can survive earthquakes, you can survive famine, you can survive migration and invasion—at least a portion of people will,” Dr. Cline said. “But what if you have a couple of those events? Or more than a couple?”

In “1177 B.C.,” Dr. Cline sets out to explain the “perfect storm” of events that led to this collapse of cataclysmic proportions.

But first, and perhaps more importantly, Dr. Cline brings readers back three centuries earlier. The author presents a series of “acts,” setting the Bronze Age stage with short dramas that highlight the period’s major players along with their triumphs, failures, affairs, scandals, squabbles and battles.

From an Egyptian king who was threatened by another over a noisy hippopotamus to the intrigue surrounding a mysterious shipwreck off the coast of Turkey, Dr. Cline paints these ancient events in rich color. His past and present students will recognize stories in Dr. Cline’s book, as they are many of the ones he often tells in class.

“I wanted to give people a flavor of the time, to hit some of the highlights, and have readers finish it wanting more,” Dr. Cline said. “This book is a good introduction to the period.”

By the end of “1177 B.C.,” Dr. Cline lays out a number of hypotheses and the evidence available about the series of factors that contributed to “the perfect storm of calamities.” However—spoiler alert—he acknowledges the mystery may forever remain unsolved.

Dr. Cline insists his book is not intended, necessarily, to be a warning for the future. But it is clear that the global mayhem of 1177 B.C. does not look quite so different from 2015 A.D.

It begs the question, could it happen again?

“We might be more sophisticated now, but every single civilization on this planet has collapsed so far. Why would we be immune?” he said. “The difference is, we are advanced enough to know it. We can predict. We can plan for it.”