Burial and ideas about the afterlife are topics which have interested me for quite some time. I’m particularly interested in the historical changes which accompany changing customs and ideas surrounding the end of life and how people view it. It may seem kind of morbid, but I grew up in a household where death was not a taboo subject. My mother discusses what she would like to happen after she dies and who should get what. I guess that made me interested in thinking about the subject, especially since my mother’s views are so different from my own.
I’m also really interested in changes of ideology generally and how transitions happen. Last week I wrote about the gradual shift from the Byzantine Christian empire to Moslem rule. This week, I want to go back more than 1500 years from that point to the seam between the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. Besides an advance in technology which lends itself to the change in name, there were many other changes which occurred over this transition. This transition happened partly due to catastrophic, large scale events over a relatively short period of time.
In the Bronze Age, the urban landscape was invented culminating in a globalized world. Goods and services were transported around the world. Centers for mining the constituents of Bronze, copper and tin, were connected and this metal traveled around the Mediterranean. There was an era of prosperity. During this time, the major kingdom of Egypt developed an ideology about the afterlife. Pharaoh’s were buried with everything they would need for their journey to the next world. They really believed that you would take all of your stuff with you. Even when it was not possible to be buried with entire items, like a whole ship, models stood in. We see that this idea is not unique to Egypt or to the Mediterranean basin. Entire Viking ships 19m long (62 ft) and 5 m wide (16 ft.) have been uncovered in Norway along with animals as part of burial rituals.
But, nothing lasts forever, and catastrophic climate change led to a downturn in prosperity around the Mediterranean basin from about the 13th century BCE. Studies from around the Mediterranean show a widespread climate change during this time period. Through a pollen study in Syria and Cyprus, a 300-year dry event started in the late 13th-12th century BCE. In Haifa, there was a change in the sea level starting in 1200 BCE and forests there are replaced with shrub steppe and then dry steppe. Pollen in the Sea of Galilee shows a drought from 1250-1150 BCE there. There is also a drought in Egypt from 1100-900 BCE along the Nile. In Greece, studies of stalagmites in caves show an increasingly drier period from 1200-900 BCE. In northern Italy pollen remains show drought in 1200 BCE. Food shortages and mobile mass immigration result from failing local agriculture caused by a famine.
These changes also caused a breakdown of central administration and elite populations. When the central administration doesn’t function and elite populations are no longer taking risks on large scale import/export, goods start to be in short supply. Anything imported became more precious – including bronze.
Demand for bronze during this seam period was fulfilled locally – by looting tombs. All of a sudden, those physical items which were seen as “necessary” for success in the world after death, are not secure. I think that this de-emphasis on the physical world after death leads to the development of philosophies which were centered on man’s non-physical part – his soul.
Other philosophies which took off during this time, like monotheism, stressed the non-physical nature of a deity at exactly the same time that metals for casting gods would have been better used as farm implements. While it is true that the seed of monotheism were planted long before the great calamities of the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age, the mass movement involving a nation of people would only flower then.
Technology will advance and bronze will be replaced with iron. Those who have access to this new metal will become the rulers of the new age. Until the next transition….
Today, the global pandemic and the environmental crisis we face now make me wonder what changes in thought will come out of our turbulent time, and what new technologies will be discovered. These two, philosophy and history, combine to create the record of our species, then and now.