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Collapse Of Civilizations

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The factors that lead to the "collapse" of civilizations are almost directly related to those that created it. Archaeologists characterize collapse by a number of elements, some of which we have evidence for, others we do not. Most archaeologists are unsure of exactly what caused the decline of most civilizations in the ancient world, yet there are many clues to some of the events that could have contributed. The collapse of the ancient Roman Empire, the Mesoamerican Mayan, and the Egyptian cultures will be discussed in the following paragraphs, with a focus on the uniqueness of each.

"Collapse" is in quotations because its definition when applied to civilizations is often debated.

Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary states:

1: to fall or shrink together abruptly and completely: fall into a jumbled or flattened mass through the force of external pressure

2: to break down

3: to cave or fall in or give way

4: to suddenly lose force, significance, effectiveness, or worth

5: to break down in vital energy, stamina, or self-control through exhaustion or disease; especially: to fall helpless or unconscious

6: to fold down into a more compact shape

Although this definition can vaguely describe the overall fall of most civilizations, the actual details are more finite. One such event would be an environmental change. Archaeologists use this as a reason for the decline of civilizations often because it fits so well into any situation. A terrifying earthquake, a change in flow of a vital river, and a volcanic eruption are examples of what could have happened to abruptly end a civilization. Another reason might be over use of natural resources. As civilizations grew, the need for more resources increased. They could not grow enough food to support the growing population, and as a result trade networks fell apart, people began to starve, and large epidemics spread. Also many of these civilizations based everything on ideology. They believe that their rulers were gods on earth, so when these devastating things started happening, they lost faith in their ruler. Building temples, making statues of their kings, redistributing their goods, and the following of rulers all ceased. The accumulation of all these factors resulted in decline.

For a long period of time, the Mayan civilization was assumed to have ended around 800 A.D. Its decline is very much wondered about and pondered over. Carbon dating shows the dates in which things started going downward. Around 800 AD, population densities were at their peak. The population had gotten so high that it led to social malfunction and agricultural exhaustion. The land had been so overworked that it did not have a chance to remain fertile. Core borings and pollen samples revealed prolonged drought cycles. (Scarre 1997:372) As in the southern Mesopotamian culture, long term irrigation and salinization of the soil led to decline productivity. When irrigation water dries, it leaves salt. Additional water is needed to wash it out; the salt water rises towards the roots of plants and kills them. However, the Mayan civilization was in a very damp rainforest area, which excludes drought as an explanation for its "collapse." (Sanders: video)

David Webster, a Copan archaeologist, found obsidian knives at various farming sites. These knives are very important because they can be tested as to the date in which they originate. Anne Freter, an obsidian tester, revealed that the majority of them dated to around 1200 A.D. She thought there was something wrong with her data because it had always been assumed that the culture ended around 800 A.D. This data shows a slow decline instead of a sudden "collapse."

Archaeologists had assumed that there was a sudden collapse. They considered peasant revolt, loss of legitimacy of the rulers, lack of propaganda, abandonment of great centers, ceasing of buildings and inscriptions, and population declination, done by a method the Mayans are known for. "Voting with one's feet" is when commoners of a village, city, or town were not happy with the king at the time so they left for other communities, no longer contributing their goods to the community.

The Mayans were a very ideological society. They had a very weak military, so they were unable to force taxes on the people. They had to enforce ideology by building temples, monuments and statues. When there was a king who was not liked, then they would not build temples to support him. The ruler would have no symbols of power, which meant no authority. The city of Copan had great monuments, which were rebuilt every twenty years. People were needed for the labor, which was often stopped if they

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