Wood from a burial chamber in modern Turkey reveals there was a sudden severe drought around the time Hittite cities were abandoned 3000 years ago
A three-year-drought may have led to the fall of the Hittite empire in the Middle East 3000 years ago.
The finding comes from analysing timber used to make the burial chamber of a later ruler, who may have been the father of King Midas, referred to in Greek legends.
The sudden drought “would have undoubtedly caused mass problems with food provision. That would have affected the tax base of the empire pretty dramatically,” says Sturt Manning at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The Hittite empire, which encompassed most of what is now Turkey and lasted nearly five centuries, was one of the major geopolitical forces of the ancient world, with a mastery of ironwork, a cuneiform writing system and an army that could take on neighbouring Egypt.
Ancient texts and archaeological discoveries suggest that around 1200 BC, cities began being abandoned and the empire splintered into independent states that were later overwhelmed by Assyrians from the east.
Now, Manning’s team has found evidence of a sharp and severe drought from a huge chamber tomb built in the city of Gordion in 748 BC. As the tomb’s mound is much bigger than others nearby, and was made about the time the local King Midas took the throne, some archaeologists say it could have been made for Midas’s father, the previous ruler – although nothing to identify the occupant remains.
Clues to the fall of the Hittites, centuries earlier, come from the juniper logs making up the burial chamber. The logs were taken from 18 trees, which were growing from the period 1775 to 748 BC.
Less rainfall means less tree growth, which shows up as narrower gaps between tree rings. The logs show there were 80 instances of two or more consecutive years with low rainfall, and one of these was the three years from 1198 to 1196 BC – just when Hittite cities started being abandoned.
This was supported by another kind of test, measuring the ratio of different forms of carbon from samples of the wood. This shows gradually increasing dryness of the atmosphere between 1300 and 1200 BC, then spikes of dryness from 1222 to 1195 BC.
“Most traditional societies had some storage that would have helped them through one bad harvest,” says Manning. “By the time you get to a third one in a row, it’s become a crisis.”
Alan Greaves at the University of Liverpool in the UK, who wasn’t involved in the research, says the results shed new light on the climate changes at the time. “How do you pay for soldiers, how do you pay for artisans to make things?” he says. “A short, sharp drought would be enough to topple a very centralised state based heavily on grain and the gathering in and distribution of agricultural goods.”
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