Volcanoes, Catastrophe and the Global Crisis of the Late Second Millennium BC

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When Andrew Selkirk asked me to append some comments to Mike Baillie’s piece on volcanic “events”, it prompted the notion that I had written on catastrophes  in Current Archaeology some years ago. It proved after a long search to be exactly ten years ago (CA 67) and to be a paragraph entitled “Catastrophe?” I postulated  then a wide-spread collapse of established systems in Britain in the 12th-llth Centuries BC; everything from settlement and agriculture to burials and domestic pottery.

I suggested that around this time there occurred one of the most fundamental breaks in the whole prehistory of these islands. What came after, in the early First Millennium, bore no resemblance to what had gone before in the Second. I have encountered nothing since 1979 to shake my belief in the concept of a late Second Millennium catastrophe. On the contrary, the evidence for crisis has continued to accumulate. In 1985 I “My first attempt to introduce archaeologists to volcanoes drew mirth developed the theme, adding a collapse of population to the general breakdown of systems already postulated (BAR 143).

It was only subsequently that I began to come across papers on the “volcano effect”, which seemed to support this thesis. My first attempt to introduce archaeologists to volcanoes at the 1987 Newcastle Later Bronze Age conference drew a mixture of mirth and non-comprehension, so I am delighted that reputable scientists such as Mike Baillie are now publishing so extensively on these catastrophic events; for archaeologists are wont to pay attention to scientists.

The time has come to draw together evidence from the whole of Europe, and indeed the Mediterranean lands, for this breakdown in the late Second Millennium. In doing so, one is keenly aware of the  “A global environmental deterioration set in the 13th century” in danger of ‘sucking in’ dates for unrelated phenomena arrived at by different methods, to create a false horizon (Baillie, Endeavour 13, 1989, 81).

The breakdown of the existing order in the East Mediterranean c.1250-1150 BC has long been a familiar concept. The Aegean world, Mycenae, the Hittite empire, and the great Late Bronze Age cities of Cyprus and Syria, all came to an inglorious end, and even Egypt was so exhausted by the struggle as to be finished as a world power.

A cyclical global environmental deterioration seems to have set in in the 13th century (see Bryson in Antiquity, 98, 1974). In some areas the problem was too much moisture, while in others it was drought and desiccation. In the Near East the Egyptian pharaohs (Seti I, Ramesses II) had to sink wells deeper and deeper to keep Nubian caravan routes open, and had to open their borders to drought stricken bedouin; and eventually Merneptah and Ramesses III had to fight to keep desperate  Libyans out of the Delta in the late 13th and early 12th centuries.

These problems are dealt with fully in Nancy Sandars’ admirable Sea Peoples. “Peoples of the Sea” became an increasing problem in the late 13th century, coming, Sandars has persuasively argued, from the Anatolian littoral. Merneptah had to dispatch large shipments of grain to Anatolia to relieve famine, while the archives of Ugarit around 1200 BC confirm that a terrible famine was raging in Hittite lands, and even Cyprus was appealing for food relief. The famine appears to have been so widespread and severe in Anatolia that memory of it lasted for centuries afterwards, eventually to be commented on by Greek writers such as Herodotus.

It is clear, then that the late Second Millennium climatic downturn had already started in the Mediterranean by the early 13th century. In this case Baillie’s volcanic ‘event’ of the 1150s and 1140s will have had an exacerbating effect.

What happened in Britain in the late Second Millennium? In the Independent for 16.8.88, David Keys suggested that ‘Most of northern Britain appears to have been rendered uninhabitable by a catastrophe resembling the “nuclear winter” that some scientists believe would follow a nuclear war’. While comparison to a nuclear winter and population losses over 90% in north Britain may be judged over-dramatic, there was undeniably a remarkable contraction of settlement and agriculture throughout Britain and Ireland after 1200 BC.

At the opening of the conventional Late Bronze Age in Britain, in the 10th century BC, signs of this shrunken scale of activity and settlement are still everywhere. There are still extensive tracts of the country for which there is little or no settlement evidence between the 12th and 8th centuries BC, for example the whole of the North  between the Tees and the approaches to Edinburgh, and much of Wales. Perhaps the most telling signs of this slump are those Late Bronze Age settlements — of new forms – such as the Mucking ringworks (BAR, 83) which overlie abandoned Second Millennium field systems, on lands which previously had been intensively farmed and settled.

The settlement abandonment and population loss will have been greatest on the marginal lands, but many more favourable areas, such as the chalk and the Fen Edge, did not escape. I have argued that there is some evidence of a flight of population and settlement to river margins. This is reflected in the Thames Valley by the appearance  of riverside and island settlements such as Runnymede (there are none pre-1200 BC).

How do you date a disaster? Mike Baillie explains


There is also a shift in axe distributions to the river and its margins, and a rise in the number of axes known from the 12th-llth centuries, against a marked axe slump for this period in most areas. In my 1985 BAR paper, I linked a severe dip in the numbers of axes known for the 12-llth centuries to this decline: a reflection of a greatly reduced number of users. But at the same time the range of weapons increases dramatically, as might be expected of a time of fierce competition for land and resources.

Clearly this was a crisis which affected lowland and upland, if not so severely in the case of the former. But recovery had to come. The demographic curve following the 14th century AD population collapse typically shows a centuries-long trough followed by a sudden upswing; a population in such circumstances may multiply severalfold  in a century. Exactly this seems to have happened in the Iron Age Aegean, where the demographic surge in the late 9th and 8th centuries was such, according to the  Greek writers, as to prompt the colonisations which began in the 8th century.

A similar curve seems to be indicated for Britain, with the period from the 12th-8th centuries (most of the “later” and Late Bronze in effect) a time of shrunken population and settlement, with recovery coming only at the end of the period. Throughout Britain settlements of the 8th-7th centuries seem much more numerous than in the preceding few centuries. Everywhere settlement appears again on lands for which there is little or no Late Bronze Age evidence, from Fengate (BAR 83) to the Cornish  Moors (Arch J 1957).

The most impressive sign of this population rise is the reappearance of settlements, in the form of ringditch house farmsteads and stockades,  in the archaeological record of the uplands of north Britain; vast tracts which appear to all intents and purposes empty of human activity between the 12th and 7th centuries BC. (Burgess, 1984). Two major problems hinder an objective review of settlement and demography in the 13th-llth centuries: firstly the general assumption that as the Bronze Age progressed so everything got bigger and better. There is no room for blips and reverses in such attitudes. Secondly there is the present dislike of simple explanations.

Catastrophist theories are widely held to be too black and white. Considering how difficult it has been to persuade colleagues of a general contraction of settlement and population in Britain, which has the most thoroughly explored and complete Bronze Age settlement sequence in Europe, it is going to be no easy matter to make the point for other regions, especially those, such as most of Atlantic Europe, where the settlement record is patchy at best. But the pointers to 12th century problems can be found in many parts of Europe.

Firstly, France: considerable areas of the west show a slump in 12th-llth century axe numbers similar to that observed in Britain, though  the settlement record in these areas of France is too fragmentary to help much.


Click here to read more from Colin Burgess on Volcanoes and population


In Spain, especially the thoroughly searched south, the evidence for crisis seems clear at first glance. There is an obvious rupture with the end of the Argaric culture (and neighbouring equivalents), so rich in its evidence for every aspect of life. The contrast with what came next is startling. “What did come next?” is a more appropriate response.

Many Argaric  sites ended in violent conflagration; in very few cases is there any occupation immediately after the Argaric. Most sites were abandoned, and if reoccupation came at all it was only after an interval of unknown duration, and is then “Late Bronze Age”. An end of the Argaric at c.1200 BC would fit perfectly with the catastrophe  hypothesis advanced here. Unfortunately, it simply will not do.

Some Spanish writers have realised that this is much too late (cf, for example, Almagro Gorbea, 1986, chronological table; here the Argaric is followed by a Bronce Tardio filling the centuries c.1500-1200 BC). To the outside observer the Argaric has all the appearance of an Early Bronze Age phenomenon, a southern Spanish equivalent of the Wessex Culture or “Les tumulus d’Armorique”, complete even with faience beads and dagger graves. This would assign it to the first half of the Second Millennium BC.

If we reject the vague parallels with Aegean material on which the traditional end-date depends, there is nothing in the Argaric which would prolong it beyond 1500 BC. This becomes ever clearer as more and more C14 dates for the Iberian Bronze Age come to hand. The large number of C14 dates now published from the deeply stratified site of Fuente Alamo (which does have occupation following the Argaric) seems to put the matter beyond dispute: eighteen dates range from c.2020-1340BC.

 Explosive news from Medieval London –  mass graves and the largest  volcanic eruption of the last Millennium.



In Italy the evidence is variable. In Italy before the Romans (ed Ridgway and Ridgway, 1979) Peroni pointed to a widespread, often sudden and violent disruption in settlement development between the Recent and Final Bronze Ages, ie c.12th century BC. The terremare in particular come to an abrupt and dramatic end, and the great plains  of the Middle Po then seem to have been abandoned until the Iron Age.

On the other hand there may have been a flight to peripheral areas, especially northwards. The Lake settlements of the north were also given up about this time, though whether as suddenly and dramatically is less clear. Over the north as a whole there seem to have been far fewer settlements after this period of disruption than before (Peroni, ibid). In central Italy the evidence at present appears more ambiguous: in the southcentre as many sites remained in occupation as were abandoned (Peroni, ibid).

In Etruria, however, almost total discontinuity between Bronze and Iron Age settlement has been claimed (cf Delpino, 1979, 39), yet the current view is that population continued to rise into the Iron Age In the south the evidence is again
patchy. Some Apulian sites were abandoned (La Geniere, 1979), but others apparently remained in occupation into the Iron Age.

On the other hand it is clear that throughout the south Iron Age settlements and cemeteries occupy new sites, without Bronze Age precursors, and that there must have been some sort of late Second Millennium dislocation.

The aim of these notes is to persuade colleagues to examine, dispassionately, the settlement records of their own regions. Clearly dislocation, hiatus, rupture, cesure – all these terms have been used – occurred in many parts of the Old World in the late Second Millennium BC. In some regions this took the form of a collapse of settlement and population. Was this a Pan-European disaster, in population terms akin to those of the 6th and 14th centuries AD, and in cultural and political terms on a par with the disasters which overtook Europe in the 4th-6th centuries AD?

 Colin Burgess

This is an extract from an article published in our ‘Disasters’ special issue,  CA 117

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