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Dissing the Sea Peoples

I listened to a podcast on the Sea Peoples, because that’s something I do. And now you must all suffer! In case you were looking for context, it’s here.

Even though Sagas of the Sea Peoples won’t be happening, I remain fascinated with this period in history. I’ll read the occasional new article or listen to a podcast discussing the subject. I think I will stick to recent academic pieces, as I am a bit sick of non-critical acceptance of primary sources, like the inscriptions of Pharaonic Egypt.

I’m not going to name the podcast that set this off. It is generally entertaining and only because I have strong assessments of this period based on some strong scholarship did I find the particular episode on the Sea Peoples annoying. And, frankly, I could very much be wrong. Everybody could be wrong. We have so little actual evidence, how can anyone really know.

I will say, however, that I cannot trust any assessment that uncritically trusts the sources of the powers of the day—which we know lied incessantly in their inscriptions and reportage. Of course, the status quo powers saw the Sea Peoples as a band of barbarians threatening civilization. We still hear that rhetoric about displaced people to this day. They are not sending their best people, right?

And, frankly, the idea that this was a decentralized collection of groups that undertook a highly centralized military campaign, and that their entire plan—as they conquered cities all along the Mediterranean coast—was to invade Egypt seems fanciful at best.

Yes, there is evidence of cities being destroyed on the Mediterranean coast. Yes, this generally intersects with a period in which there was likely a large group of displaced people seeking new homes. But that evidence also exists in the same period far from the Mediterranean coast—like the Hittite capital—and in the period leading into the Late Bronze Age Collapse—the fall of the Mycenaean polity. Did a group of displaced people do this or were they the result of a situation destabilized by various environmental and political factors?

It is because of the consistent history of status quo powers portraying the displaced as critical threats and un-imagined dangers that I have a hard time taking the powers of the Late Bronze Age Collapse at their word. They lie about everything else. Why are we trusting them on this? And, even if it is completely true: I’d rather be on the side of the displaced than the rich and powerful

Burn it all down.

For those looking to learn more, two great general surveys are David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean and Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. On the more scholarly side, there’s Assaf Yasur-Landau’s highly recommended The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age. and also The Philistines and Other Sea Peoples in Text and Archaeology edited by Ann E. Killebrew Gunnar Lehmann.