Historical Mysteries

A 3,200-year-old stone unmasks the mysterious Sea Peoples

Between 1250 and 1000 BC, all of the major civilisations of the Bronze Age suddenly collapsed. No one knows why. Climate change? Volcanoes? Drought? Or was it because of an invasion by the shadowy and unidentified Sea Peoples? Archaeologists claim that a 3,200-year-old stone slab has the answer.

The Late Bronze Age collapse brought a violent end to all the major urban centres and governing systems of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and most of Southwest Asia. The Hittite Empire fell and the New Kingdom of Egypt fragmented and lost a bunch of its colonies. Almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was destroyed, with scores of others abandoned. The collapse sparked a period of turmoil, famine and mass migration, and left behind the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages.

Nobody knows what or who caused the Late Bronze Age collapse. Scholars have long suspected that a mysterious seafaring confederation known only as the ‘Sea Peoples’ may have had something to do with it. Now archaeologists have managed to decipher the ancient symbols on a 3,200-year-old, 29-metre-long limestone frieze, shedding new light on these maritime conquerors.

The stone was found in the 19th century in what is now modern Turkey. Its inscription is the longest known hieroglyphic inscription from the Bronze Age and written in an ancient language called Luwian, which only about 20 scholars on the planet can actually read.

While the stone itself was subsequently destroyed, archaeologist Georges Perrot made a copy of the writings in 1878. This ended up in the hands of James Mellaart, an archaeologist famous for discovering the remains of Çatalhöyük, a 9,500-year-old settlement in Turkey that some say is the oldest city in the world.

When he died in 2012, Mellaart left instructions saying that if the inscription could not be deciphered in his lifetime, other scholars should have a go. So Fred Woudhuizen, an independent scholar who can read Luwian, stepped up.

Woudhuizen’s translation reveals that the Sea Peoples were real and that the ancient kingdoms of Mira and Troy were part of their confederation. The inscription tells the story of King Kupantakuruntas, who became king of Mira and ‘guardian of Troy’ after his father Mashuittas’s death, and was the brains behind a major naval expedition to Ashkelon in modern-day Israel. This expedition, led by a Trojan prince called Muksus, succeeded in conquering Ashkelon and establishing a fortress there. In the process, it helped bring about the collapse of the Hittite Empire.

The new translation supports other ancient records of these Sea Peoples. Ramesses the Great, one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous and celebrated pharaohs, recorded a number of skirmishes with them. He said, “They came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.”

Until now, though, nobody could put names to faces. If the copy of the inscription from the slab is authentic, we can. And among those names are Mira and Troy.

Not everyone believes the copy is authentic, though, and some have accused Mellaart of forging it. Woudhuizen admits that there is no real way to tell. However, he points out that it’s highly unlikely to be a forgery. Luwian only started to be understood in the 1950s. Only a handful of people were able to (barely) read it, let alone construct a super-detailed historical account in it. Then there’s the question of motive. Why would Mellaart go to such lengths to engineer a complex hoax that he never actually publicised in his lifetime?

It’s more likely that the writings are legit and help solve what researchers have called “one of the greatest puzzles of Mediterranean archaeology”. The Sea Peoples—some of them at least—have been unmasked.

Next week: Fiction updates, with the latest on Million Eyes, two new novels, and my short stories

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