Climate and Society in Ancient Worlds

Diversity in Collapse and Resilience
Brussels, 22-24 May 2019
Conference website

Ann Brysbaert and Riia Timonen
Saving up for a rainy day? Climate events, human-induced processes, and their potential effects on people’s coping strategies in the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean Argive Plain, Greece

This chapter investigates the resilience and risk management strategies of the Late Bronze Age (LBA) people against changing climatic conditions and other potential stress factors, such as monumental construction programmes, that led to the socio-political and economic crises which took place in the Eastern Mediterranean ca. 1200 BC.

Our case study area, the Argive Plain (northeastern Peloponnese, Greece), is renowned for accommodating many Mycenaean palatial centres (Mycenae, Tiryns and Midea) which were active in monumental construction programmes, craftsmanship and inter-Mediterranean trade during the Late Bronze Age (c.1600-1100/1070 BC). While this monumental architecture has been intensively studied, the extent to which large-scale building programmes contributed to the socioeconomic and political changes and crises that took place in LBA Greece has not been investigated from a fully interdisciplinary perspective. We believe, though, that such a perspective fits squarely in a debate on ‘climate and society studies’. Since agriculture and animal husbandry were predominant subsistence strategies for Mycenaean polities, intensive and prolonged building efforts requiring a consistent amount of human and material resources, may have affected local economies, and food provisions and intake profoundly. Drastic changes in the climate could have added extra pressure to maintain sufficient level of livelihood during the periods of intensive construction.

The relationship of climate change and the LBA Aegean ‘collapse’ has been a popular study arena for two decades. What such studies often lack are the consideration of the other potential factors that may have contributed in a crisis, and a question of the extent of the ‘collapse’. First, both external reasons (climate changes with linked draughts, crop failure, diseases and changing birth/mortality rates; war; natural disasters; disruptions of inter-regional trade networks), but also internal ones (social unrest and war; human and natural resource exhaustion; overpopulation; overconsumption), have all been named but not been investigated by means of an inclusive methodology. Some scholars have also expressed the detrimental nature of mobilizing work forces in the Argolid to the sustainability of the socio-political structures toward c. 1200 BC. Second, our expanding knowledge about the succeeding periods after the LBA crises shows that the ‘collapse’ needs re-consideration (e.g. Middleton 2012). Reduced human activity in many crisis areas around the Mediterranean continued but past crises phenomena are in need of a very nuanced and contextualised approach (crucial work by Tainter). Importantly, creative adaptations to restraining factors must have affected several socioeconomic and political groups differently even in single contexts (e.g. Tainter 1988).

Interdisciplinary studies investigating the relationship of climate and ancient societies are increasing our knowledge of past climate changes, and, simultaneously, altering our views of people’s responses to environmental crises. Ancient populations were not powerless in the face of rapidly changing climate, and awareness of their resilience and adaptive skills is increasing. There are emerging calls for investigating periods of stable climatic conditions instead (e.g. Caseldine & Turney 2010; Izdebski et al. 2016). Before the ‘collapse’, the Argive Plain societies had already shown remarkable resilience towards crises events (floods, earthquakes and fires), which could have threatened their economies. Therefore, in wider discussions on climate change and societal impact, it remains crucial to take the specific context into the equation since each (micro)region and its population will have had to be resilient to what came at them during their own lifetimes.

Against this background, we ask, firstly, what was the scale of a potential climate change that was powerful enough to affect people’s adaptation and resilience to the extent that it threatened their economic subsistence strategies and that it also induced a societal crisis? This question is linked to the assumption that a drastic climate change could have caused major stress on the agricultural production, which in turn could have shaken the already unstable socio-political structures; the assumption itself begs investigation. Secondly, which strategies did people employ to prepare themselves for adverse conditions, such as climate changes and other factors that caused pressure on their daily-life subsistence? And thirdly, do we recognise other potential stress factors beyond climate-related ones which affected people’s daily existence in the period before and after the c. 1200 ‘collapse’?

High-definition Eastern Mediterranean palaeoclimatic data are growing exponentially. Recent studies have illustrated a slow trend towards drier conditions in the BA Eastern Mediterranean (Finné et al. 2011; Moody 2005). People and the environment seem to have been well adapted to such long-term change. This can be witnessed in a steady population growth and intensification of agricultural production over the course of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean area. Therefore, if a climate change acted as a trigger in the Bronze Age ‘collapse’, it is more likely that it was a short-term event into considerably drier or more humid conditions. Currently, high-definition paleoclimate data from the Argive Plain are unavailable. Despite the rapid development of scientific methods aiming at climatic reconstructions, we are yet unable to establish the scale of LBA climate fluctuations in precise terms such as rainfall or temperature changes. Additionally, we are only beginning to have the efficiency to place climate events within a chronological scale of decades. Therefore, even though unstable weather conditions, such as short pulses of extremely dry conditions, have been recognised, we cannot confirm that they occurred contemporary with the ‘collapse’ (Boyd 2015; Finné et al. 2014; 2017). While awaiting new data, we can, however, try to establish what could have been the extent (in years, rainfall, or temperature) of a climate event that could have drastically changed the socio-economic structures of a society whose subsistence was based on crop production and animal husbandry. In order to investigate the resilience and risk management tactics of the Argive Plain people against such climate change, the main subsistence strategies used in the Late Bronze Age have to be established. This can be achieved by combining existing data of archaeological (mortuary and settlement data), ethnoarchaeological and environmental studies (botanic, osteo-archaeological and zoological data). These data must be then contextualized in a much more complex network of the mentioned internal and external factors, particularly in the context of activities demanding large-scale and long-term efforts beyond their usual daily agrarian existence.

Methodologically, cross-craft interactions aid in describing how each of the internal and external factors were co-dependent and intersected with each other: producing tools to quarry, construct and garden; raising and maintaining oxen to plough and transport; building roads to access fields and tombs, and to transport goods; crop-growing for the family and to cater for construction labour and their draught animals. These cross-over actions impacted socially and technically on each other and their productions. Such a ‘bottom-up’ approach opens multi-dimensional models with unlimited contact nodes between people, crafts, their daily activities, and materials, and it dissolves the elite-labour dichotomy since nowhere were elite-sponsored monumental constructions or infrastructure possible without considerable levels of organized labour input, thus rendering all social groups co-dependent and on their daily provisions. Finally, through this methodology, we can begin to understand how a combination of several internal (e.g. monumental construction programmes) and external (climate change) components could have generated a growth of stress that perhaps culminated in a societal ‘collapse’.