The Ancient Near East Today’s premier ‘Ask a Near East Professional’ feature brought over 40 questions from readers. We’ve combined two, from Michael Ferris and Lloyd Dunaway, and put them to Professor Eric Cline, editor of our flagship publication, BASOR:
Who are the Sea Peoples and what role did they play in the devastation of civilizations that occurred shortly after 1200 BCE?
The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. It remains an archaeological mystery that is the subject of much debate even today, more than 150 years after the discussions first began. But it’s a fascinating story with lots of twists and turns, right up to the present day.
It begins with the early French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, who suggested in the 1860s and 1870s that a group of marauding invaders whom he called the Sea Peoples were responsible for bringing the Late Bronze Age to an end shortly after 1200 BCE. He based this on a number of Egyptian inscriptions, especially those on the walls of Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, which is near the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.
By about 1900, this hypothesis had become so solidified that Egyptologists and other archaeologists essentially took it as a fact, even though there was no real proof that’s what had happened. At the time, even the mere existence of the Sea Peoples was only documented in the records left by Ramses III and by Merneptah, who ruled 30 years earlier. Each claimed to have fought against an invasion of these Sea Peoples. Merneptah said it happened in the fifth year of his reign, which would be about 1207 BCE, while Ramses III said he fought both a land and a naval battle against them in his eighth year, which would be about 1177 BCE.
In both cases the Egyptians won. Merneptah says that the invaders whom he defeated included the Shardana, Shekelesh, Lukka, Teresh, and Ekwesh, while Ramses III says that the invaders in his time were the Shardana, Shekelesh, Tjekker, Denyen, Weshesh, and Peleset. So, there were five groups the first time and six groups the second time, with two of the groups overlapping, for a total of nine groups.
So, we know who the Sea Peoples are, but in name only. Where did they come from? And where did they go after they lost? Answering the second question is easier, if we believe the Egyptian records, because Ramses III says that he settled the survivors in his strongholds in Egypt. There are also indications that some settled in what is now Israel, for the Tale of Wenamun from a century or so later describes the site of Dor as being a Sikel (probably Shekelesh or Tjekker) city, and the Peleset are usually identified by scholars as the Philistines, whom the Bible tells us, and archaeology confirms, were also resident in what is now Israel.
As for where they came from, the early Egyptologists were split in their opinion as to whether the Sea Peoples had come from the west, i.e., Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia, and traveled east, or whether they were from the Eastern Mediterranean and had fled west after being defeated by the Egyptians. Even today we still play linguistic games with the names of the individual groups whom the Egyptian pharaohs mentioned. Most (although not all) scholars would now argue that the Sea Peoples began their migration from the Western Mediterranean, and that there is a linguistic link between the Shardana and Sardinia as well as the Shekelesh and Sicily. However, when they headed east and overran various countries and areas, others joined in along the way, so that the Denyen and Ekwesh might be from the Aegean (Homer’s Danaans and Achaeans), the Lukka are almost certainly from Lycia in southwestern Turkey, and so on.
If that thinking is correct, then the two waves of Sea Peoples that crashed upon the shores of Egypt thirty years apart were composed of a motley crew from many different areas of both the western and eastern Mediterranean plus the Aegean and perhaps Cyprus as well. But all of that, plain and simple, is still just a hypothesis, for there are no other texts or even archaeological evidence at the moment to confirm the entire story.
What we have instead are bits and pieces of the puzzle, such as the fact that the Shardana (also called the Sherden) appear in Egyptian texts and inscriptions already a century or more earlier, fighting as mercenaries both for and against the Egyptian army. Individual texts from places such as Ugarit in north Syria report unnamed invaders and foreign ships, as well as famine in the Hittite lands. We also have sites destroyed during this time, but it’s not always clear who or what did it and why – perhaps foreign invaders; perhaps an uprising by the local populace; perhaps an earthquake. It can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to tell what caused the destruction of a site, especially if no weapons (such as arrowheads, swords, or spear tips) or bodies are found in the rubble.
However, speaking of bodies, our most promising lead was just announced a few weeks ago, for a probable Philistine cemetery has been discovered at the site of Ashkelon in Israel. Hopefully various analyses can be conducted on the numerous skeletons that were recovered, including DNA that might allow us to figure out where the buried people came from and to whom they are related, and strontium isotope (from their teeth) that could tell us where they grew up. But, the cemetery reportedly dates from at least a century after the initial invasions during the time of Merneptah and Ramses III, so these are not the remains of the original Sea Peoples, but rather their descendants who settled in the area. Thus, DNA analyses will probably tell us more about them than strontium isotope will, since it is probably a given that these burials are of people who grew up in the local area, even if their ancestors came from the Aegean or the Western Mediterranean.
As for what role the Sea Peoples actually played in the destruction of civilizations around 1200 BCE and shortly thereafter, I personally think that they have been set up as a scapegoat, because of the Egyptian inscriptions, and that they were as much victims as oppressors. I doubt that they were responsible for all of the destructions that we blame on them and I think that they are only one of the many factors that together contributed to a “perfect storm” that ended the Bronze Age. These stressors, as they are sometimes called, probably also included drought, famine, earthquakes, and possible internal rebellions in addition to external invaders, all of which combined to cause a systems collapse. However, since I have gone on too long already, I will just refer you to the opening and closing chapters of my recent book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2014), where I go through some of these possibilities. I will warn you, though, that there is not yet a smoking gun, nor one single cause, that we can point to as responsible for the collapse of civilizations just after 1200 BCE. It remains one of the most interesting mysteries of ancient history.