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Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths

Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths

By Guy D. Middleton. Pp. xx + 441, figs. 49, tables 16. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017. $37.99. ISBN 9781316606070 (paper).

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Understanding Collapse is a survey and a rich description of cases of social, political, or cultural transformation that have been characterized as collapses in various genres of literature. The arenas of literature covered include archaeology and history, as would be expected, and also the increasing volume of physical science literature addressing past environmental changes. The volume’s strength is its detailed description of a substantial number of collapse cases.

Archaeology and history have long been uncertain about how to evaluate collapses. These disciplines have predominantly had a progressivist narrative. Archaeologists and historians are socialized members of complex societies. We have been raised in the ideology of modern industrial societies, which emphasizes progress. So, we accentuate how our ancestors tamed fire, developed agriculture, invented the wheel and writing, established cities and artisanship, and created states, all the while improving human life. Much of this narrative resembles what anthropologists term ancestor myths. Ancestor myths validate a contemporary social order by presenting it as a natural, and sometimes heroic, progression from a simpler and less desirable past to the way that we live today. Within this narrative, collapses and dark ages have presented troubling contradictions to the story of humanity’s continual progress. If the arc of history leads to inexorable improvement of the human condition, how could that trajectory ever be interrupted? Equally troubling, if collapses happened in the past, could one happen again? For archaeologists, postcollapse societies have another annoying characteristic: they often do not present the rich material culture that fills museum displays and spreadsheets and that wins recognition and funding. In the archaeological record, dark ages are indeed often dark.

Middleton begins by noting the superficiality of popular stories about collapse. “The whole report,” he writes of a BBC story about the Maya collapse, “lasted no more than two or three minutes, an impressively short time in which to explain the fate of a long-lived and complex civilisation” (1). This introduction leads naturally into discussions of issues in collapse studies: storytelling, conceptualizing collapse, units of study, explaining collapse, developments after collapse, and why the topic is important. The issue of units of analysis merits attention. The term “collapse” has been applied to individual communities, political units (empires, states, dynasties, chiefdoms), cultural units (civilizations, ideologies, lifestyles, systems, including the analytical units of world-system theory), and populations and peoples. To this, one might add the confusion caused by use of the term in colloquial discourse. There is no uncertainty using the term to refer to unsafe structures, but there can be much confusion in asking whether the Carolingian Empire, the British Empire, or the Soviet Union collapsed. State collapse is an important topic to political scientists today, adding to the lack of terminological clarity. Except for discussing simplistic popular stories, Middleton refrains from adopting a specific stance on matters such as defining or explaining collapse, or selecting preferred units of analysis. This is in keeping with much of the book, which aims more to describe than to elucidate.

Middleton surveys 16 cases that have been termed collapses and describes the explanations that have been offered for these events. The cases are Old Kingdom Egypt, Akkad, the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Harappans, Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, the Hittites, the Western Roman Empire, Monte Albán, Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya, the Moche, Tiwanaku, Wari, Angkor, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). This sample is well dispersed across time, space, and cultural contexts. Yet, since Middleton does not attempt to define collapse (relying instead on cases that have been termed “collapse” in the literature), it is not clear how the cases were chosen. Two, the Moche and Angkor, seem not to have been collapses, as Middleton acknowledges. There is no evidence of a prehistoric collapse on Easter Island. Collapse here apparently occurred in the historic period, a result of European contact and European diseases. (This fact undercuts the claim of “ecocide” on Easter Island: cf. J. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [New York 2005].) There is a decided bias toward state-organized societies, Easter Island being the sole exception. There are good archaeological examples of collapses in prehistory (e.g., Chacoan society in the American Southwest, and Cahokia in the American Midwest), but Middleton does not discuss these. Although the book surveys complex societies, there is no discussion of complexity, and the term is not in the index.

Cases cannot be discussed extensively here, but a brief review of the Mycenaean collapse (selected because it is Middleton’s specialty) illustrates the author’s approach. He begins by discussing some of what we know of the Mycenaeans. The archaeological phenomenon we call Mycenaean varied across Greece and Crete; some sites had palaces and megaron complexes, others did not. Palaces were used by the elites to orchestrate ceremonial occasions, reflected archaeologically in thousands of kylikes (wine cups). Some areas may not have had state-level societies. Around 1200 B.C.E., there was a series of destructions of major centers and palaces, with many sites abandoned. The number of sites declined dramatically. After this there is no evidence of monumental architecture, and the Linear B script was discontinued. These events are taken to reflect a collapse. Local and overseas trade continued. Carpenter (Discontinuities in Greek Civilisation [Cambridge 1966]) proposed that climate change caused the Mycenaean collapse. That idea has never gone away. Middleton surveys the evidence and arguments for and against. One supposed consequence was the movement of various peoples, including the mysterious “Sea Peoples” mentioned in an Egyptian inscription. An old idea is that Dorian Greek invaders caused the collapse, with climate change, it is suggested, driving such invaders from north to south. Another possibility is a disastrous earthquake, shattering palaces that were never rebuilt. Maran (“The Crisis Years? Reflections on Signs of Instability in the Last Decades of the Mycenaean Palaces,” Scienze dell’antichità: ScAnt 15 [2009]) proposed that the cost of monumental construction provoked a labor crisis, so fewer people were available to farm. Conflict ensued. Others argue for a disruption in the trade in exotic goods that elites needed to display their status. Predictably, some scholars postulate plagues and epidemics. Alternatively, barbarians using chariots perhaps defeated Mycenaean infantry. Middleton downplays some of these proposals, especially climate change, while leaving others vague—an approach frustratingly common in the volume.

Middleton’s compilation can be used to gain insight into how scholars of collapse think. In his chapters, there are eight recurrent themes in the explanation of collapse. These themes, and the cases in which they are advanced, are (1) climate change (Egyptian First Intermediate period, Akkad, the Indus, the Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Western Roman Empire, Teotihuacan, the Moche, Tiwanaku, Angkor, the Maya); (2) invaders or other external conflict (Akkad, the Indus, Minoan Crete, the Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Western Roman Empire, Teotihuacan, the Moche, Angkor, Easter Island [caused by Europeans], Akkad); (3) revolt or rebellion (Egypt, Monte Albán, the Mycenaeans, the Moche, Teotihuacan, the Maya); (4) intrasocietal conflict (Egypt, Minoan Crete, Teotihuacan, the Western Roman Empire, the Mycenaeans); (5) environmental deterioration ([sometimes self-induced] the Indus, the Moche, Easter Island, the Third Dynasty of Ur); (6) catastrophes ([e.g., epidemics, plagues, earthquakes, volcanoes] Minoans, Mycenaeans); (7) change in trade patterns (Mycenaeans, Hittites), and (8) mystical ([e.g., religious or ideological change] Teotihuacan, Wari). Barbarian invaders are an old and favored theme (11 cases). In a current age fearful of climate change, many scholars are convinced that it caused past collapses (11 cases). In all, Middleton describes 43 proposed explanations. Of these, 25 (58%) are what can be termed deus ex machina explanations (climate change, invaders, catastrophes). That is, most scholars explain collapse as resulting suddenly and surprisingly from outside a society, a “bolt from the blue,” rather than searching for systematic explanations or cross-cultural regularities. Collapse, in this mode of thinking, is just bad luck. Societies do not bring it on themselves. Given that most students of the past concentrate on a particular culture or period, a focus on case-specific explanations is not surprising. However, there may be more to this way of thinking. As noted above, there is a progressivist view in much historical study. If cultural evolution leads to continual improvement in societies, from Hobbesian foragers to great civilizations, then collapse must have an external cause. Moreover, if progress results from individual or societal initiative, as Western ideology emphasizes, then collapse must come from some factor not under a society’s control. If societies undermine themselves, the progressivist narrative would be challenged.

The book is well researched, and Middleton’s scholarship is impeccable. In the final chapter, however, the text meanders across various topics, including explaining collapse (he downplays climate change) and whether there should be concern about a future collapse. Middleton has said that he wrote the book for students (personal communication). This chapter, however, reaches no strong conclusions, and its lack of focus is not suitable for pedagogy. Middleton thinks that no general theory of collapse can be devised. He seems to prefer a few themes, including intrasocietal conflict, cultural continuity, and human agency. “Human stories and choices,” he writes in regard to the latter, “underpin collapse” (349). Such statements lack substance and provide no guidance to either students or future scholarship. Notwithstanding the book’s title, readers hoping to understand collapse, or looking for original thinking, will be disappointed.

Joseph A. Tainter
Department of Environment and Society
Utah State University

Book Review of Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths, by Guy D. Middleton

Reviewed by Joseph A. Tainter

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.tainter

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