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Sea Peoples

  1. Christoph Bachhuber

Published Online: 7 FEB 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah02163

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Bachhuber, C. 2012. Sea Peoples. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 7 FEB 2012

The primary corpus of evidence for the Sea Peoples includes wall reliefs on the mortuary temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu in luxor, Egypt. The wall reliefs (normally referred to as the ”Year 8 reliefs”) and associated hieroglyphic inscriptions record an invasion of Egypt by a coalition of six groups during the reign of Rameses III (ca. 1187–1156 bce). The Year 8 reliefs and inscriptions record Rameses III repelling the invasion in two battles, one naval and one on land. An associated Year 8 inscription records: ”Their confederation consisting of the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, lands united.” Another group, the Sherden, is indicated by a caption above a captive invader in the Year 8 reliefs that reads: ”Sherden of the Sea.” Three additional groups, the Ekwesh, Teresh, and Lukka, were allied with Libya in a war against Egypt during the reign of Merneptah (ca. 1224–1214), recorded in the ”Year 5” inscription on a stela commemorating his victories. The Ekwesh, Teresh, and Lukka are generally included in the collective of the Sea Peoples, though they are not recorded in the Year 8 inscriptions of Rameses III.

The land battle of the Medinet Habu reliefs includes scenes of dependents of the invaders who were hauled in ox-carts, supporting the interpretation that these events do not just represent a military invasion but a wholesale migration (Dothan and Dothan 1992). The migration has been understood to relate to the general social and political climate of the end of the Late Bronze Age in western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. Excavations across the eastern Mediterranean have recorded the violent destruction of palaces in the Mycenaean Aegean, Hittite Anatolia, and along the Syro-Palestinian littoral, as well as on Cyprus (Sanders 1985). In the traditional interpretation of the Sea Peoples, the climate of instability was exacerbated by these stateless peoples, and populations were dispersed in the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, manifesting in part in the invasion of Egypt.

The geographic origins of the various Sea Peoples have been the focus of considerable speculation and debate. Cognates between the names of the Sea Peoples groups and topo-nyms in the regions of Anatolia and the Aegean have been observed since the late nineteenth century; and the very evident disruptions in these regions observed in more recent archaeology has supported Sea Peoples' origins in the Aegean and Anatolia. So, for example, it is now generally acknowledged that the Lukka Lands recorded in Hittite texts are to be placed in Lycia in southwestern Anatolia. Much shakier Aegean origins have been suggested in the Ekwesh = Achaian (Homeric) cognate and in equating Weshesh with a kingdom called Wilussa recorded in Hittite texts. Wilussa is now widely understood to be the site of Ilion (Troy) (see Silberman in Gitin, Mazar, and Stern 1998). The best-known Sea Peoples cognate, however, is a biblical one, equating the Peleset with the Canaanite neighbors and adversaries of the Israelites, the Philistines. Here again the Aegean has been invoked as a region of origin for a Sea Peoples group, but based on archaeological interpretations rather than linguistic ones. The Aegeanizing trends of material culture in the land of the Philistines in early Iron Age Canaan in the centuries following the end of the Late Bronze Age have lent further support to the reconstruction of west-to-east migrations during this period (Meehl, Dothan, and Gitin 2006).

Since the 1980s, alternative interpretations of the Sea Peoples and the transition from the Bronze to Iron Ages in the eastern Mediterranean have challenged this historical narrative of collapse, dispersal, and migration/invasion. Generally, the Sea Peoples phenomenon is now understood to be a consequence rather than a cause of the destabilizing conditions of this period (Liverani 1987). Similarly, archaeologists are much more cautious about, if not critical of, drawing upon migrations and invasions of definable groups of people to account for changes in material culture (Sherratt in Gitin, Mazar, and Stern 1998). To what extent scholarship can reconstruct a historical reality for the Sea Peoples (including their origins and movements) based largely on the politicized narratives of an Egyptian pharaoh is also gaining increasing academic attention (Roberts in Bachhuber and Roberts 2009).

References and Suggested Readings

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  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Bachhuber, C. and Roberts, R. G., eds. (2009) Forces of transformation: the end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean. Oxford.
  • Dothan, T. and Dothan, M. (1992) People of the sea: the search for the Philistines. New York.
  • Gitin, S., Mazar, A., and Stern, E., eds. (1998) Mediterranean peoples in transition: thirteenth to early tenth centuries bce. Jerusalem.
  • Liverani, M. (1987) ”The collapse of the Near Eastern regional system at the end of the Bronze Age: the case of Syria.” In M. Rowlands, M. T. Larsen, and K. Kristiansen, eds., Centre and periphery in the ancient world: 66–73. Cambridge.
  • Meehl, M., Dothan, T., and Gitin, S. (2006) Tel Miqne-Ekron excavations, 1995–1996. Field INE east slope, Iron Age I (early Philistine period). Jerusalem.
  • Oren, E. D., ed. (2000) The Sea Peoples and their world: a reassessment. Philadelphia.
  • Sandars, N. K. (1985) The Sea Peoples: warriors of the ancient Mediterranean. London.