Climate Crises: A blast from the past or something new?

Barry Molloy (University College Dublin)

It is easy to blame humanity today for climate change; the evidence is abundantly clear to those with eyes (that accept) to see it. We can, without too much argument, put humanity itself right in the middle of climate change and environmental impact. We accelerate the former through pollution and make the latter so much worse through poor resource and landscape management. If we are to call this a climate crisis, we must accept that ‘crisis’ is identified from a social perspective: climate change is bad because it contributes to phenomena we see as negatively impacting our planet and all things that live on it. We might blame industrialisation, consumerism, energy greed or any manner of things. Ultimately the blame lies with how myriad “managers” of our globalised world act upon scientific evidence while balancing their own power.

If we are happy to blame ourselves for our woes, then how come past peoples of this planet seem to get off scot-free in the blame game? I discuss this in a recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Research on how climate change impacted societies in Europe ca. 1200 BC (Molloy 2022).

In the public view ancient climate change is often synonymous with “climate Armageddon” characterised by unending droughts, famine and catastrophic collapse of civilisations (Middleton 2017; 2018). We cannot exactly blame past peoples in the way we should accept such blame today. Yet it is a touch patronising to suggest they lacked the knowledge to manage their landscape resources effectively enough to respond to climate challenges, making them preordained to fail (Johnson 2017). Social change in response to climate change, no matter how exceptional or extreme it may be, is largely shaped by human choices. At the same time, the spatial scale of change, and who it impacts on in society, is open to being unequally experienced. There were winners and losers both within a society and between different ones. This can be particularly notable when we are looking at societies that had closely networked economic, ideological, military and political systems.

This close networking was the case in the East Mediterranean, where crises around 1200 BC are well attested with the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial states, the Hittites, a range of city states and instability in Egypt (Cline 2021). It has widely been argued that this same LBA period (1500-1200 BC) was a time of globalising connections throughout Europe, ending in a horizon of rapid transformations. The 1200 BC turning point has been identified as a crisis on occasion, but this paper has been a first effort at exploring it at a transcultural/regional level taking in distinct cultural traditions from around Europe. In the East Mediterranean, the relationship between societal and climate change is often hotly debated (e.g. Knapp and Manning 2016). For me, extending that debate into Europe was appropriate. This is because climate change is a macro-scale force that should impact societies across a very wide area – it is intrinsically cross-cultural in influence. Looking at European datasets provided an opportunity to not only take the debate to a new region, but to also provide a comparative context for the situation in the Mediterranean. Indeed, we are fortunate to have extensive climate and archaeological datasets for Europe to support this.

This work took place in the context of an ERC-funded project “The Fall of 1200 BC”, for which I have led a team exploring how migration and conflict related to societal change in southeast Europe. Though not part of the original research design, it struck me that if I was to explore these two phenomena capable of affecting multiple societies at the same time, then a consideration of climate change was essential also.

The climate differs in North Africa, Southwest Asia and the Southeast limits of Europe though each area is impacted on by Mediterranean weather systems. Europe on the other hand is exposed to a greater diversity of weather systems coming off the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Polar and Siberian regions. We should predict quite different climatic niches across this small continent lying in between weather extremes of hot and cold, arid and wet. To take advantage of this, I looked at records from Ireland and Britain at the fringe of the Atlantic Ocean, Scandinavia in the north, the Carpathian Basin in the middle, Italy in the north Mediterranean and Greece. Along with climatic diversity – something one becomes acutely aware of suffering through a wet and windy Irish summer – this region was marked by substantial social diversity in the later Bronze Age (ca. 1500-1000 BC). This extended from the level of households through to political entities and cultural traditions. Each was nonetheless linked by networks through which many things passed, from metal resources to social ideologies and beliefs.

The number and diversity of paleoclimate studies presented a challenge in such a wide-ranging geographic study. This was an opportunity to draw these myriad sources together in a single overview study, looking to a variety of quite different proxies with variable chronological resolution and even revealing conditions for different seasons in some cases. Including speleothems, lake and marine cores, bog deposits, ancient oak trees and more, some general trends could be teased out of the analyses and conclusions presented in these papers. Across most datasets, a turning point broadly dated to 1250-1150 BC could be recognised and this was usually marked by increasingly arid conditions. This aridity is of course relative to earlier and later conditions and does not imply the cessation of rainfall! The evidence for temperature change was less clear but the general trend in central and northern parts of Europe was for warming whereas in the Mediterranean, there was a cooling trend. In neither case was this extreme and these patterns come with many caveats in the paper as well as the original publications reviewed, but a change lasting for over a century around 1200 BC was indicated.

Human activity and climate together affect the environment, and the former was particularly striking in the later Bronze Age in south Scandinavia and north Italy. Deforestation and soil exhaustion have been identified and directly related to changes in landscape management practices (Andersen 2018; Kristiansen 2018; Mercuri et al. 2012). It was likely that a precarious balance had been maintained and that this exposed those regions to the impacts of climate change. A key takeaway was that climate change shifted conditions towards the margin of the norms for the Holocene around 3.2ka. In practice, this means markers remained within a range identified many times before and after this period. Given the different social responses documented, it was evident that social and political decision making were critical to how societies in each study region negotiated change. The data also showed that climate change was not uniform, with factors like local topography shaping local variability while at the larger geographic scale, both positive and negative impacts could be observed in different regions through a social lens.

On the one hand, I found it surprising that there was no previous attempt at looking at European scale trends in paleoclimate, considering debates for the East Mediterranean and good evidence for social change in Europe after 1200 BC. On the other hand, it was evident that each paleoclimate study has considerable uncertainty and is replete with caveats about readings, and so forcing these data into a regional perspective could only be achieved in very broad strokes. These datasets serve best in vertical perspective, observing local-scale trends across time. This is where most paleoclimate studies are usually focussed. My paper sought to push them into a horizontal perspective, looking to a regional-scale within a closely constrained time frame. This is where the uncertainties of paleoclimate models render them less reliable. Nonetheless, while the finer points of interpretation for each region may well be debated, the mere fact that similar trends – notably increasing aridity – cut across so many datasets throughout Europe for the 12th century BC provides an intriguing testing ground for further research.

In Britain and Ireland, the archaeological evidence suggested that many areas witnessed an upswing in activity after 1200 BC, though there were notable changes in settlement systems and the character of long-distance networks shaping those groups. In Scandinavia, change was offset and appears to have gathered pace more slowly throughout the 12th century, perhaps peaking towards the transition to the 11th century BC. Some areas witnessed a downturn in anthropogenic activity and there was a major reduction in ostentatious displays evident in burials and metal hoards. Nonetheless, there was strong continuity of key defining elements of societies. In the Carpathian Basin, social change appears to have been triggered slightly earlier, with the abandonment of the many large, monumental forts of the southern reaches of the basin during the 13th century BC. With the contemporary abandonment of most cemeteries, it appears that the many parts of the fertile and flat plains of the Carpathian Basin were significantly depopulated for over a century. Closely networked with these societies, the Terramare and related groups of the Po Valley witnessed changing conditions during the 13th century, but the crisis appears to have reached its peak in the earlier 12th century BC. After witnessing nucleation of settlement in the 13th century, there was a massive depopulation of the valley characterised by the abandonment of settlements and their hinterlands in the 12th century BC, most notably south of the Po River. Lying to the south of the latter two areas was the Aegean, where a wave of destruction of central sites around 1200 BC. The new social systems that emerged in the wake of these had variable successes for over a century before the cycle of crises led to depopulation of many previously prosperous areas.

During this study, it appeared to me that a key factor was simply belief. That is, belief in political systems, belief in divine forces, belief in community were all much damaged during this period. Societies were not predestined to fail, but in some cases dramatic reordering was an outcome of a perfect storm of challenges. Ultimately, how people responded to climate change and altered how they used their resources was a clear indicator of how resilient they could be. There was no evidence in the paleoclimate records of Europe for a climate Armageddon anywhere around 1200 BC (or at any other point!) that obliterated societies across the continent. Indeed, it was those societies that had experimented with dense, monumental and hierarchical settlement systems that exploited their landscape to exceptional levels that, I argued, exposed themselves increasingly to various forms of crises. Climate change came at a point in their trajectories where they were already experiencing increases in conflict, evident though major innovations in weapons and warfare along with destruction and abandonment of settlements. I argued that climate change was a force multiplier – while societies experienced ups and downs, this hit at a particular low and made struggling systems unsustainable. The pressure valve of those societies was a collapse of the political systems that controlled subsistence and the upward mobility of resources. For me, the crises of 1200 BC came down to how people chose to balance the structuring aspects of climate change with the agency and trajectories of specific societies. This gave climate change a role without playing the blame game too rigidly. Of course, climate change destroying ancient societies is certainly more social media friendly than a heavily caveated exploration of potential spaces for entanglement of trajectories or other phrases in ‘academese’ that don’t really roll off the tongue so well, but the latter lies closer to the limitations of our evidence.

I believe that there was a climate crisis affecting most of Europe in the 12th century and I argue in the paper that the evidence supports this well. This is because any “crisis” is fundamentally a social phenomenon - it is in the eye of the beholder. In our world of post-pandemic, war-fuelled gas shortages, spiralling inflation, global inequity, critical mass of resource extraction, a pandoras box of pollution trends and social media gone stratospheric, it is quite easy to see how perfect storms of crises may arise. So looking back to 12th century BC Europe arguing climate change ‘caused’ collapse not only misses the point – it bypasses the lessons which may be learned about dealing with consequences of problems of our own making when they are thrown up against natural crises we have less control over.

Around 1200 BC, there were a host of societies in Europe using their resources differently and depending on each other in diverse ways. The variety of problems they faced and solutions they reached or failed to reach is where we may have fertile ground for further model building and testing. While the academic paper I am speaking of may end somewhat inconclusively – as befits the evidence – I firmly believe that along with the many papers it reviews, it shows that archaeology has a place in policy development today. This works best if we do not shoot for ‘low-brow’ headlines, but instead embrace the uncertainty and complexity of our data, as recently reflected in the EAA’s own statement on archaeology and climate change studies.


  • Andersen, S. (2018). Pollen analyses from the Bjerre area. In J. H. Bech B. Eriksen and K. Kristiansen (eds.), Bronze Age Settlement and Land-Use in Thy, Northwest Denmark, Jutland Archaeological Society, Moesgard, pp.223–230.
  • Cline, E. H. (2021). 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed: Revised and Updated, 2nd ed, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Johnson, S. (2017). Why did ancient civilizations fail?, Routledge, London.
  • Knapp, B. and Manning, S. (2016). Crisis in Context: The End of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. American Journal of Archaeology 120: 99–149.
  • Kristiansen, K. (2018). The rise and fall of Bronze Age societies in Thy, northwest Jutland. In J. H. Bech B. Eriksen and K. Kristiansen (eds.), Bronze Age Settlement and Land-Use in Thy, Northwest Denmark, Jutland Archaeological Society, Moesgard, pp.107–133.
  • Mercuri, A. M., Mazzanti, M. B., Torri, P., Vigliotti, L., Bosi, G., Florenzano, A., Olmi, L. and N’siala, I. M. (2012). A marine/terrestrial integration for mid-late Holocene vegetation history and the development of the cultural landscape in the Po valley as a result of human impact and climate change. Veget Hist Archaeobot 21: 353–372.
  • Middleton, G. (2017). The show must go on: Collapse, resilience, and transformation in 21st-century archaeology. Reviews in Anthropology 46: 78–105.
  • Middleton, G. (2018). This is the end of the world as we know it: Narratives of collapse and transformation. In A. E. Vogelaar B. W. Hale and A. Peat (eds.), Discourses of Environmental Collapse, Routledge, London, pp.91–113.
  • Molloy, B. (2022). Was There a 3.2 ka Crisis in Europe? A Critical Comparison of Climatic, Environmental, and Archaeological Evidence for Radical Change during the Bronze Age–Iron Age Transition. J Archaeol Res.

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Posted November 4, 2022 by Katerina Kleinova
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