The Sea Peoples (1200 BC – 900 BC)

The Sea Peoples were a purported confederacy of naval raiders who harried the coastal towns and cities of the Mediterranean region prior and during the Late Bronze Age collapse (1200 BC – 900 BC).

A carved relief from the Kadesh inscriptions showing Shasu spies being beaten by Egyptians

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Mysterious Origins of a Seafaring Coalition

The Sea Peoples’ origin is particularly obscure as the existing records of their activities are mainly Egyptian sources who only describe them in terms of battle. It is known that the seafaring confederation attacks were mainly concentrated on  Egypt and other regions of the East Mediterranean, but where these warriors came from remains a mystery. Some of the hypotheses that have been made in these regards, place the origin of the Sea Peoples in western Asia Minor, the Mediterranea islands, or southern European countries.

The famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples.

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A Term for the Tribes Coming from the Sea

No ancient inscription names the coalition as “Sea Peoples”. This is a modern-day designation first coined by the French Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé in 1955. He used the term “peoples de la mer” (literally “peoples of the sea”) in a description of reliefs on the Second Pylon at Medinet Habu documenting Year 8 of Ramesses III. Gaston Maspero, de Rougé’s successor, popularized the term “Sea Peoples” in the late 19th century. De Rougès, and Mespero after him, came up with the term because the ancient Egyptian reports claim that these tribes came “from the sea” or from “the islands” but they never mention which one. For this reason, many scholars believe that the origin of these invading sea warriors was common knowledge among the Egyptians that it was superfluous to mention it in inscriptions.

Invasions, population movements and destruction during the collapse of the Bronze Age, c. 1200 BCE derived from Atlas of World History (2002)

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Documentary Records: Ramesses II and his Successors

The three great pharaohs who record their conflicts and victories over the Sea Peoples are Ramesses II (The Great, 1279-1213 BCE), his son, and successor Merenptah (1213-1203 BCE), and Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE). All three claimed great victories over their adversaries and their inscriptions provide the most detailed evidence of the Sea Peoples.

However, the Egyptian documents give conflicting reports, for example in Ramesses the Great’s account, the Sea Peoples are mentioned as allies of the Hittites but also as serving in his own army as mercenaries. While Merenptah accounts narrate of continuous troubles caused by the Sea Peoples, who allied themselves with the Libyans to invade the Nile Delta and Egypt.

Medinet Habu Ramses III. Tempel Nordostwand

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Medinet Habu Ramses III. Tempel

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The Importance of the Sea Peoples on History

While the identity and origins of the Sea Peoples remain mysterious, the terrors they inflicted upon the ancient world are very well documented.

Anyway, lacking sufficient evidence, historians can’t say for sure what their impact on the ancient world was, although some scholars speculate they may have indirectly led to the fall of the Hittite Empire and even the mysterious Late Bronze Age collapse that saw many of the Near East’s kingdoms fall and the region sent into a kind of dark age in approximately 1177 B.C.

Sea People, Medinet Habu Ramses III. Tempel Nordostwand cropped

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The Design of the Sea People Ships

The Sea People’s combat ships are unique among the Bronze Age seafaring vessels in having identical bow and stern to each other.
The use of the bird-headed motif was culturally important as much to place it on their ships to adorn them, on the bow and stern. It has been suggested that these vessels are the final stage of a long line of development in the Mycenaean shipbuilding tradition sharing traits similar to the bird-headed prows of early Mycenaean examples.

It must be considered that the ships of the Sea Peoples may very well be just one example of a modified Aegean design capable of multiple operations in the open sea, the stranding prow of several of the Sea Peoples is noteworthy and goes to show that the Egyptian sculptors who put this naval scene together may very well have captured the real ships of the Sea Peoples to study closely and baste their sculptures.

A reconstruction of the Tragana Ship By Peter Connolly.

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Artcrafts: Amor and Weapons of the Sea Warriors

The Sea Peoples warriors wore armor that can be described as belonging to both Aegean and Western and Southern Asia Minor, an amalgam of what appears to be sometimes Mycenaean and in other cases Minoan/colonial Minoan.

They wore horned-helmet as an integral component of body armor, a shield, and a weapon such as a sword or an axe.  These were meant to defend the Sea People warriors both from human enemies and from ferocious predators as lions, leopards, bears, wild boar, and wolves.

Sea People of Taiwan: Helmet & Armor

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Devising a New Shield

Flat surface shields, like the XV centuries BC ones, no matter what their size was they were rather dangerous when it comes to infantry lines clashes.

As a result of the buildup of pressure from advancing from their ranks and the enemy formation swapping the same way, a flat shield does not offer the warrior a ‘Breathing Space’ in which he can operate, hence the ability to be able breathing in the crush of a mass infantry battle was an overwhelming priority.

Thus an interesting development was made by the Sea People, just as the basic flat shape would have become a liability with more developed weapons appearing to counter them the simple process of pinching the shield at its narrowest point forces the two halves to bulge out producing the classic Bronze Age figure-eight body-shields with their distinctive deep double-bowl shape. Once this is achieved the same shape takes on a completely new and improved ability.

Reconstruction of the outside of a figure-eight shield (left), Cutaway to show wicker core and layers of hide (centre), and inside of shield showing cross-stretchers and neck strap (right). From The Greek Armies by Peter Connolly.

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