Why Did Ancient States Collapse?

Malcolm Levitt suggests a generic multi-causal and dynamic framework to explain the collapse of ancient states


Ancient states collapsed because they could not fulfil their core functions. This was because they failed to meet the conditions necessary to perform those functions. All this raises the questions of what those functions and necessary conditions were, and why they failed to meet them. Some readers might infer uncomfortable parallels with today’s societies or states but that theme is beyond the scope of this blog.

There is a considerable literature on the collapse of particular ancient states, much of it emphasising the role of a specific explanation for collapse. But mono-causal explanations are rarely sufficient and where multi-causal explanations are offered it is essential to analyse their dynamic interactions but relatively few studies do this. The aim here is to attempt a generic multi causal and dynamic framework to explain collapse.

We need to emphasise the importance of distinguishing between states and societies, a matter often bypassed by those who question the existence of collapse. States are institutionalised, centralised government structures whereas societies are the context of social structure, culture and common values in which states are moored. States can collapse as political entities while elements of their culture and values continue. To deny the collapse of the Western Roman Empire because elements of Roman culture thrived in Byzantium misses the point: states are political entities.

Ancient states were rooted in agriculture, sedentism and population growth. No state emerged without the presence of farming but farming is not a sufficient explanation of state formation: Mesopotamian crop management and animal husbandry long predated states. But grain especially was key to state formation, being taxable and useful paying soldiers and workmen. Growing population, enabled by improved diets, female energy and fertility, was the catalyst for state formation: meeting the demands for rising food production and distribution was beyond the management capacity of chieftains: assurance of food supplies was the founding core function of the bureaucratic state.

Nonetheless two routes to statehood were possible: consensus and egalitarianism or coercion and inequality; the latter tended to dominate or to supplant the former. They were fragile and prone to collapse.


Sometimes explanations of collapse are seen as competing alternatives (such as intra-elite rivalry, invasion, popular uprisings) whereas they are not mutually exclusive in reality. Explanations of collapse in terms of competing mono-causal factors are inferior to those incorporating dynamic, interactive systems. In particular simultaneity is often ignored: where a factor is both determined by another and helps to determine the latter. Invasion might be induced by perceived military weakness in the invaded state but such weakness might be explained by loss of territory and part of the tax base to invaders and a vicious circle of fiscal depletion and dismemberment sets in. Natural catastrophe like drought, causing famine and popular unrest, might be exacerbated by neglect and mismanagement of key water infrastructures such as irrigation, flood control and grain and water storage. Diagram A illustrates such a model.

Diagram A. Collapse Explanations

Diagram A.jpg

Collapse should be explained as failure to fulfil the ancient state’s core functions: assurance of food supplies, defence against external attack, maintenance of internal peace, imposition of its will throughout its territory, maintenance of key civil and military infrastructures, enforcement of state-wide laws, and promotion of an ideology to legitimise the political and social status quo.

To fulfil these functions certain necessary conditions must be met. The legitimacy of the political and social status quo, including the distribution of political power and wealth, needs to be accepted; the state should be able to extract sufficient resources to fulfil its functions such as defence; it must be able to enforce its decisions; the ruling elite should share a common purpose and actions; the society needs to reflect a shared spirit (asibaya) and purpose across elites and commoners who believe it is worthy of defence.

Weaknesses and failure to meet any condition can interact to exacerbate the situation: maladministration, corruption and elite preoccupation with self-aggrandisement can induce fiscal weakness, reduced military budgets and further invasion; it can induce neglect of key infrastructures (especially water management). Inequality, a commonly neglected factor despite ancient texts, can erode asibaya and legitimacy and alienate commoners from defence of the state.

These themes are explored in relation to the Egyptian Old Kingdom, Mycenae, the Western Roman Empire (WRE), and the Maya. They all exhibit, to varying degrees, weaknesses in meeting the above conditions necessary for stability.

Although political collapse of the Old Kingdom is definite there is no consensus on the scope and severity of economic and cultural collapse. Drought, famine and intra-elite strife have been suggested as explanations for political collapse. Mass alienation and violence against the ruling elites has been suggested in ancient texts but their credibility is contentious. The evidence suggests systems failure and dysfunctionality including the incompetence and collapse of central authority and intra-elite strife (not least centre-provincial conflict); failure to finance and maintain key water management infrastructures by elites focussed on self enrichment; drought, the effects of which were exacerbated by that failure; loss of asibaya induced by huge inequality and the behaviour of selfish elites; and social conflict, possibly violent; loss of royal legitimacy in the face of drought despite the king’s supposed divine ability to guarantee rainfall and Nile flooding.

The political collapse of the Mycenaean palace states is beyond dispute. Some but not all aspects of their civilisation vanished. However, explanations of their political collapse (internal social strife including a Dorian peasant uprising, drought, invasion by Sea Peoples, earthquakes, intra-elite and interstate violent competition, and barbarian military technological advance) are particularly speculative because the very existence of possible explanatory factors is poorly demonstrated in the archaeological and written record, Homeric myth notwithstanding. Elements of the culture survived (religion, spoken language, some luxury artefact production) but others vanished, especially Linear B writing.

The WRE was dismantled by successive “Barbarian” invasions which should be regarded as factors in a dynamic systems collapse: unstable, ineffectual, corrupt governments, dynastic rivalry, intra-elite strife, economic and fiscal weakness and reduced military budgets induced barbarian invasion which further reduced the tax base and military funding. Aggressive imperial expansion itself had induced Germanic tribal coalescence which then exploited emerging Roman weakness and dismembered the WRE. The collapse graphically illustrates failure to meet the conditions needed for stability: effective defence against external attack, robust public finances, intra-elite cohesion, a society-wide spirit of asibaya – whereas the peasantry were impoverished and some collaborated with barbarian invaders or participated in Bacaudae armed rebellion ( the significance of which is disputed), commoner and elite acceptance of the legitimacy of the ruling regime, including willingness to support the state in the face of external attack.

The collapse of classic Maya states embraced the end of a political system and material culture but at different times in different places. Violent dynastic and intra-elite strife are probably sufficient to explain collapse; but they would have contributed to ineffectual responses to climate change, especially drought. Great inequality and peasant grievance, illustrated in ancient texts and by defacement of elite structures might suggest uprisings but such attacks on rich buildings and monuments might have followed collapse attributable to other reasons. Droughts arose at different times in different locations, although agriculture seems to have continued in some arid areas and evidence of drought in one place cannot explain collapse elsewhere. In short, ineffective government associated with internal strife along with droughts induced collapse but their relative contributions probably varied across the Maya states.


Despite assertions by Aristotle and De Tocqueville that inequality is a factor in collapse, no analysis of inequality as an explanation of ancient collapse has been attempted or even suggested in recent publications on either ancient inequality or collapse. Evidence of inequality exists: house and skeletal size, and grave goods demonstrate ancient inequality. But grievance induced by inequality alone is insufficient to provoke successful challenge to authority; leadership, organisation and resources are also needed. They were conceivably provided by the WRE Bacaudae but their role in WRE collapse is disputed although written evidence suggests discontented peasants sometime welcomed and assisted barbarian invaders. Violence by the poor is suggested as a factor in Old Kingdom and Mycenaean collapse but the evidence is disputed in both cases. Minoan and Mayan evidence of damage to elite property exists but it is not known whether this preceded or followed collapse of authority. One Pueblo study demonstrates lagged correlation between peak inequality and peak violence but no examination of possible socially differentiated skeletal trauma was undertaken. Such research could produce useful evidence of possible social strife as a factor in collapse. Lack of such evidence could indicate lack of interest in inequality’s contribution to collapse or its genuine unavailability.


The distinction between states and societies or cultures is essential: the former, political entities can collapse but not necessarily the latter so to deny state collapse because of the continuation of cultural elements misses the point.

Mono- causal explanations of collapse are inadequate but to acknowledge multi-causality is insufficient unless a dynamic interaction between various explanatory factors is recognised.

States collapsed when they failed to fulfil their core functions because they did not meet the conditions necessary for a functioning stable state. Such pre-conditions include legitimacy, a common spirit of asibaya, ability to extract sufficient resources to maintain key infrastructures and services, intra-elite cohesion, and the ability to enforce decisions across its territory.

The publication, available in paperback and online as a free-to-download PDF eBook, presents four brief case studies to illustrate and confirm these hypotheses. The main findings are summarised in the tables below.

Table A. Summary of Evidence of Collapse

Table A.jpg

 Table B. Causes of Collapse

Table B.jpg

Header photo: Maya site of Quirigua, Guatemala © Malcolm Levitt

Buy the book

9781789693027.jpgWhy Did Ancient States Collapse? The Dysfunctional State by Malcolm Levitt. 2019. ISBN 9781789693027. (eBook ISBN 9781789693034).

203x276mm;56 pages; 4 tables, 1 diagram (black & white throughout)

Paperback: £18.00; PDF eBook: Free download

Buy in print edition or download PDF eBook for free at www.archaeopress.com

Metal Tools of the Pyramid Builders and other Craftsmen in the Old Kingdom

Martin Odler introduces his recent publication and points towards his current and future research

The Old Kingdom of Egypt (Dynasties 4–6, c. 2600–2180 BC) is famous as the period that saw the building of the largest Egyptian pyramids. Generally, it has been accepted that only humble remains of copper alloy tools are preserved from this era. What might be more surprising, is that there has been little analytical work of archaeometallurgy on the preserved metal objects from the Old Kingdom. My name is Martin Odler; I am working at the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. Last November, Archaeopress published my book Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, aiming to update the research on the metal tools of the pyramid builders and other craftsmen during the Old Kingdom.

My research was initiated by one of the largest Old Kingdom finds of copper alloy model tools in the tombs of the sons of Vizier Qar at Abusir South by a team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, led by Miroslav Bárta, in early 2000s. The tools were from the Sixth Dynasty, reign of Pepy II, and altogether there were about 3 kilograms of copper found in the burial chambers. Copper tools became the topic of my M.A. thesis in 2009. After its defence, I received a grant from the Grant Agency of Charles University to study unpublished collections of copper alloy objects in the European museums and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The monograph is a result of these research visits and also of the processing of the finds of copper alloy objects from Czech excavations at Abusir.

Old Kingdom copper metal tools as found in Tomb AS 27, early Sixth Dynasty. Photo by Květa Smoláriková, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

I have collected the textual, iconographic and palaeographic evidence. The evidence available to modern archaeologists is largely determined by preselection by the past culture, by conscious and unconscious rules that were applied to the creation and production of the sources. Everyone is aware of that, but in the case of the Old Kingdom, we have data that shows how much is missing from the evidence. Old Kingdom evidence shows in great detail the extent to which the range of artefacts available for study by archaeology today is influenced or even biased by a selection made by the past culture. Had it not been for the custom of depositing copper model tools in the burial equipment (and in the richest assemblages, there are altogether more than a thousand tools preserved), we would have almost nothing preserved from metal tools used in the era. Iconographic sources indicate the use of other metal artefacts that were not even fragmentarily preserved from the Old Kingdom (such as metal blades of weapons). Scattered finds from Old Kingdom settlements provide artefacts which were included neither in the burial equipment (or very rarely) nor in the iconography (e.g. needles). Harpoons and fish-hooks have their firm place in Old Kingdom iconography, yet their specimens in the Old Kingdom material culture are rather rare.

Abusir South, Tomb AS 27, complete model tool kit with model blades of chisels, adzes, axes and saws. Photo by Kamil Voděra, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

Furthermore, I have provided in the book updated definitions of tool classes and tool kits, together with the context of their use. They can be divided into artisan tool kit (comprising chisels, adzes, axes, saws and drills), cosmetic tool kit (razors, mirrors, tweezers, hair curlers, kohl-sticks and cosmetic spatulas), weaving tool kit (needles, awls and pins), leather-working tool kit (leather-cutting knife), hunting weapons and tools for food procurement (fish-hooks, harpoons, knives), and weapons as a separate category of metal blades (battle axes, arrowheads, spearheads, and daggers).

Besides rare specimens of full-size tools, scattered in the museum collections world-wide, the largest corpora of the material have been preserved in the form of model tools in the burial equipment of the Old Kingdom elite and were most probably symbols of their power to commission and fund craftwork. Metal tools occurred already in the Pre-dynastic Period, in the graves belonging probably to craftsmen and also in the rich graves of the supposed elite. It is hard to believe that kings and high officials spent their time in craftwork; already then, the tools were most likely to have been symbolical representation of the elite households, with craftsmen present in the households (and in the subsidiary graves) to wield those tools.

Tools in action, Abusir, Tomb of Ptahshepses, sculptors with adzes at work. Photo by Milan Zemina, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

I should dispel one of the most common misunderstandings. You may have read in many popular and semi-popular works that Old Kingdom Egyptians knew and used only tools made of pure copper. This is simply not true; they were using arsenical copper as the main practical alloy, typical for the whole Ancient Near East in the Early Bronze Age. For Egypt, this fact was proven already in 1976, in an article “Near eastern alloying and some textual evidence for the early use of arsenical copper” by E. R. Eaton and Hugh McKerrell. Already, in the Early Dynastic Period, Egyptians certainly knew bronze as the oldest securely-dated bronze objects, spouted jar and wash basin, have been found in the tomb of King Khasekhemwy, built and furnished at the end of Second Dynasty. To know more, we need to analyse more objects from secure archaeological contexts.

The long-standing division in the Egyptological literature between full-size tools and model tools is questioned. One of the most important arguments is that the traces of tools on objects are actually very close to the size of some bigger so-called “model tools”. The typology alone and use of the preserved textual and iconographic sources are not sufficient for the correct understanding of Old Kingdom material culture. Typological studies can be enriched by the use of morphometry, further vital knowledge can be provided by the archaeometallurgical study of the objects. Statistical studies of Old Kingdom material culture are only just beginning, with an exception of Old Kingdom pottery. Ceramic studies have thrived in recent decades and more Egyptologists than ever realize the importance of pottery for the reconstruction of the site histories.

The volume is completed by co-authored case studies and Archaeopress agreed to post all four on academia.edu and Research Gate. The first one is a detailed archaeometallurgical study of selected Old Kingdom artefacts in the collection of the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University in Germany (as a brief aside, the research was approved by the curator of the collection, Dietrich Raue, whose team recently discovered a Late Period colossus in the temple of Heliopolis). The research was in this case led by my colleague Jiří Kmošek, a specialist on Prehistoric metallurgy. One of the most interesting findings of the project is that Old Kingdom Egyptians did not rely on alloying properties of arsenic, but instead annealed and hammered the objects to create the desired shape and hardness of the object. Research goes on, we have submitted the samples for neutron activation and lead isotope analyses, and you can look forward to news about the origin of the alloys used for the production of Old Kingdom objects.

Full-size razor blade from the Old Kingdom Giza (ÄMUL 2131) with 6% of arsenic analysed by metallographic methods contained a two-phase structure of α copper and arsenic rich γ phase. Photos by Jiří Kmošek, Tereza Jamborová, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

The second case study is the first application ever of a method of geometric morphometry on a corpus of ancient Egyptian copper tools, in this case Old Kingdom adze blades. We have analysed the assemblage with a mathematician Ján Dupej. Morphometry proved my suspicion, already expressed elsewhere, that the size of the model tools is somehow connected to the specific parts of the sites and social status of the buried persons. The bigger the models are, the higher the status of the person. However, this rule is sometimes broken by less affluent officials and I think that those bigger models were probably “royal” gifts. Although uninscribed, they might have been perceived as status objects by the Old Kingdom Egyptians.

Two remaining case studies were written by my colleagues from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Lucie Jirásková, about the stone vessel finds associated with copper model tools, and Katarína Arias Kytnarová, on the ceramic vessels in the same contexts. Old Kingdom tombs are frequently dated on the basis of iconographic and textual evidence. Yet the tomb decoration must have been planned and executed well in advance. The objects associated with burials might be in fact closer to the actual dating of the burials themselves, and this dating does not always match the tomb decoration. But this is also a task of future research, at the Czech concession in Abusir and elsewhere on Old Kingdom sites in Egypt.

Mean shapes of the adze blades from the Old Kingdom burial contexts, counted within categories of social status (defined by Veronika Dulíková). Dashed line marks mean shape of all Old Kingdom adze blades. Plotted by Ján Dupej, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

My book is only one of the steps leading to better knowledge of ancient Egyptian material culture. Already when submitting the final manuscript, I knew that the contents could not be called complete. In spring 2016, we excavated anonymous tomb AC 31 at Central/Royal Abusir, a tomb with rich remains of original Fifth Dynasty burial equipment, including copper model tools. The tomb provided us with incredibly detailed information on the late Fifth Dynasty burials of the elite, and we now know that it is one of the most important Czech discoveries at Abusir.

There are also some open questions, regarding which my book could be helpful for future research. If you would like to produce for yourself your own Old Kingdom artisan tool kit and do experimental work with it, the drawings of the tools are published. But, please, document it. Also the tool traces on the Old Kingdom objects need to be gathered in a more systematic way. My current research is focussed on the archaeological evaluation of the archaeometallurgical analyses of objects from the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University (not only from the Old Kingdom). The first phase of the research was presented last year at 41st International Symposium on Archaeometry in Kalamata (Greece) and our poster received honourable mention from the Society for Archaeological Sciences in the R.E. Taylor Student Poster Award. Another project focused on the ancient Egyptian objects from the documented archaeological contexts in the collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, datable from the First Dynasty to the Second Intermediate Period. The results of both projects will be published this year and hopefully I will write about them more in a future post on the Archaeopress Blog.

9781784914424Martin Odler’s book, Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, Archaeopress Egyptology 14, 2016, is available now in paperback (£45.00) or as a PDF eBook (£16 + VAT if applicable). The paperback edition will be available at the specially reduced price of £36 until 30/04/2017 at www.archaeopress.com.

Praise for Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools:

“In short: the authors have succeeded in presenting a reference and standard work, in which no one who is concerned with this period and this material should pass by; a work that will always be consulted with pleasure and joy.” – Robert Kuhn, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (KunstbuchAnzeiger.de) (Translated from the German)

Sincerest thanks to Martin Odler for submitting this article for the Archaeopress Blog. If you would like to submit something for consideration to be published on the blog please contact Patrick Harris (patrick@archaeopress.com). Articles on all aspects of archaeology will be considered. They should be approximately 2,000 words accompanied by up to five images.