The Dark Age: Death of Civilization

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Civilizations, long before Christ, had plumbing systems in their multi-story houses, enjoyed trade and bureaucracy, and built massive fortresses. However, a wave of unknown cause wiped their entire heritage out of Greece’s surface, forcing the new generation back to the time long before their ancestors: no reading, no writing, no building, no pottery, and only myths to explain what they saw. The Dark Age had begun.

Details of the prehistoric town of Akrotiri, in Santorini, showing ceramic works and ruins of stone constructions.
In the Dark Age, all signs of civilization, even pottery, reading, and writing vanished.
(Image: R. Lemieszek/Shutterstock)

The Dark Age began after 1025 B.C. when the Mycenaeans lost their civilization to an unknown cause – maybe an invasion from the north, maybe the Trojan War over the Black Sea regions, or maybe to raiders inside the country. Regardless of the reason, many marks of civilization disappeared for the next decades after Mycenaeans.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Signs of the Dark Age

Around 1025 B.C., items made of bronze began to disappear from mainland Greece and were replaced by iron, a metal that had previously been in very short supply. Along with bronze, so were gone the other signs of civilization.

People forgot how to read and write. They lived in huts and struggled to find food and survive. Thus, painting, sculpting, building in stone and even understanding the ruins of the late civilizations. Communication with the outside world was also minimized.

People would look at the great circuit wall at Mycenae and create myths about giants who could lift those heavy stones and build the walls. The one-eyed Cyclopes were born in a similar imaginative way. What else was born in the Dark Age?

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Epic Poetry in the Dark Age

Even though civilization was no longer a trend as before, people were not ignorant or uncivilized. Just as mentioned, they used their imagination to solve the puzzles. Poetry is also born of imagination. Epic poetry was an important outcome of the Dark Age B.C., orally composed. It was also transmitted orally until a long while later it was written down and preserved to present. The famous works attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were both created owing to this dark era.

ruins of Mycenae, Greece
People of the Dark Age would look at the ruins of the glorious past and imagine how giants must have built them. (Image: Anastasiia-S/Shutterstock)

Homer might have been more than one person, and he lived long after the 200-year-long Dark Age was over, in 700 B.C. However, Homer was raised with the tradition of oral composition, which rooted back to the Dark Age. He may even have been illiterate. His poems and the others like his do not describe the life of the time. Instead, they sing about everything that did not exist, and they wanted to have – about dreams.

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The End of the Dark Age

Despite the conditions, Greek culture lived on in the Dark Age: the gods, the memories of a glorious past, and enough light to guide people to a revival. Around 900 B.C., after 200 years, Dark Age began fading away from Athens and then surrounding areas. It is not clear why Greece recovered, but it is evident in the reappearing of pottery.

Pottery after the Dark Age flourished massively, leaving behind works on an epic scale. Dipylon amphora is a good example: a five-foot two-handled vessel that served as a tomb marker for an aristocratic woman. This amphora is called Dipylon because of its location at the later Dipylon or Double Gate on the west side of Athens in the Kerameikos, Athens’ main cemetery. There were many similar monuments made at the time. The next sign of the revival was writing.

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Re-invention of Writing

Writing was re-invented around 800 B.C. as the Greeks adapted the consonantal Phoenician alphabet to the Greek language. Perhaps, the origin of this adaptation was Al-Mina, a mixed Greek and Phoenician community on the current border of Turkey and Syria. Greeks and Phoenicians came together because of the sea.

Prehistoric drawings in Magura Cave.
Even though writing was forgotten in the Dark Age, it was re-invented through the Greek connection with the Phoenicians. (Image: pixtura/Shutterstock)

When writing got back to the society, poetry and laws could be written down. The earliest examples of Greek law are from the seventh century B.C. They prescribe punishments and procedures to protect ordinary people from being exploited by the authorities.

This is how the Dark Age of Greece started after the fall of Mycenaeans and ended 200 years later. The big gift it left behind was epic poetry as we know it today. Without the darkness of illiteracy, epic poetry might have never been born.

Common Questions about the Dark Age

Q: Why do they call it the Dark Age?

The pre-historic Dark Age happened after the Mycenaean society collapsed, and everything they had built fell into oblivion. The remains of their fortresses were massive wonders for the next society, which had no civilization and did not even know how to write. It was the Dark Age of civilization.

Q: How did the Dark Age start?

The Dark Age started when the reign of Mycenaeans ended. Civilization was wiped out, and for a period, people lived without even the most basic signs of civilization, such as pottery.

Q: When did the Dark Age begin and end?

The Dark Age lasted about 200 years, from 1100–900 B.C. in Greece. All signs of civilization died out in this era, and people even forgot how to read and write.

Q: How dark was the Dark Age really?

In the sense of civilization, the Dark Age was apparently really dark: no sign of basic civilization, people living in huts, rarely communicating with the outside world. They could not paint, sculpt, or build in stone.

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