Farming settlements in western Europe, at around 1000 BCE, are becoming more stable and substantial, a trend probably associated with the development of field systems around the villages and the more efficient use of land that this implied. In eastern Europe, the number of fortified settlements continues to increase.
The trend towards fortified settlements in eastern Europe was linked to a major change at this time, which was the spread of a new type of burial, beginning in the east and spreading into central and even western Europe. Cremation became the usual form of burial ritual, with the ashes placed in urns. The many urns, sometimes hundreds, were placed together in what archaeologists have called “urn fields”, so this practice marks the “Urnfield” culture.
Typical burial of Cremation Urn
With a few spectacular exceptions, most such burials were unpretentious, giving the impression of equality – at least in death. The common occurrence of bird motifs in urn decoration suggests that this development might have been linked to the spread of some religious movement or idea.
Elites there certainly were, however. Urnfield bronze workers were skilled at producing elaborately ornamented sheet metal helmets and breastplates – prestige items presumably used for display rather than battle, for which they were too flimsy. They also produced superbly designed slashing swords, for real war.
In southwest Europe and the Mediterranean, the first literate European civilizations, those of Crete, Greece and the Aegean, flourished and then vanished. This catastrophe happened just after 1200 BCE, and was part of a general pattern of disasters involving the entire Middle East, where all the great Bronze Age civilizations experienced major set backs.
One ingredient in this general catastrophe is the depredations of a people who are known to history as the “Sea Peoples.” These seem to have been a collection of different groups from Europe as far west as Sardinia, and from the coasts and islands of the Aegean Sea, who, banding together, raided along the coasts of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt.
Whether these peoples were a cause or a consequence of the fall of Mycenae and other civilizations is a matter for debate, as is the extent to which the general destruction was the result of population movements within Europe itself. At the same time as the Sea Peoples were ravishing the eastern Mediterranean, however, another European people were invading Asia Minor. These were the Phrygians. It seems highly likely that some demographic movement was causing peoples on the periphery of Europe to spill out eastwards.