The Mysterious 'Sea Peoples' - vikings of the late Bronze Age, or refugees ?


Dec 31, 2008
my crib
‘Sea Peoples’
That name was given to them by the Egyptians. They sailed in long galleys, manned by armoured warriors who outclassed their foes in close combat. Later they appear as a people on the move, with women and children in boats or wagons. Where they came from and why is one of the biggest historical puzzles still debated. Theories put forward include Minoan refugees, Mycenaean Greek (or Trojan) war bands, survivors of Troy and its allies, Arzawans and Luccans seeking relief from Anatolian famine, Achaean Greeks fleeing late Bronze Age invasions, and even migrants from the western Mediterranean. Accepting one theory of origin implies one group of Sea Peoples were agents that displaced the others, when we know they acted in concert. Since there have been many competing theories; I will have a go at it myself. Too much is lost to us, but their various homelands suffered natural or man made disasters between 1600 and 1200 BC, and they appeared collectively as a single mass migration to the chariot kings of Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt.

Satellite image of Thira (Santorini).
Spoiler :

The volcanic eruption of Santorini, one of the largest in historic times, blasted over 60 cubic kilometers of the island of Thira into the air, and brought a rapid decline to the advanced Minoan civilization on Crete with its graceful palaces (the story of Atlantis ?). Despite the magnitude of this event, there is still considerable debate on the degree of impact and even when it happened. The geophysical data support 1628 BC and archaeological evidence supports c. 1500 BC. Crete was not quite buried in ash, most of the ejecta was deposited on the Dodecanese and western Asia Minor. But related earthquakes, tsunami and crop failures left the Minoans displaced and weakened. The effects of this catastrophe were long lasting and it coincided with the first appearance of the Sea Peoples off the coast of Egypt. The Lukka (of Lycia) are first mentioned c. 1700 BC on the Byblos obelisk, and the Sherden are portrayed as wayward mercenaries in the Amarna Letters of 14th cent. BC. Earlier Bronze Age migrations had already crossed the Aegean, and joined by Minoan colonists, established the Mycenaean civilization in Greece; a more outwardly warlike culture who built hill top fortresses. They enriched themselves in commerce and raids, absorbing the Minoans and coming into conflict with eachother and their distant kinsmen on the eastern shores of the Aegean. This era has become characterized to us in heroic mythology and the Trojan War. A letter (c. 1250 BC) from the Hittite court to the Ahhiyawa (Achaeans) reads “Now as we have come to an agreement on Wilusa (Ilius, or Troy) over which we went to war...” Homer’s epic Iliad does not describe a single battle, but the climax of multiple naval expeditions and a ten year campaign against the nations in western Asia Minor and eastern Thrace. Eight years after the first fleet was scattered in a storm, it was gathered again to continue the intermittent raids and blockade. According to Homer, Achilles himself conquered 11 cities and 12 islands before the climax. The leader representing Crete still had considerable influence, as Idomenus embarked on the first expeditions as co-commander with Agamemnon. The description of participants and their geography appear all too reasonable, and a pioneering archaeologist named Schliemann more or less took Homer’s words at face value to excavate the long lost sites of Troy, Mycenae and Tiryns. Actually there were multiple ‘Troys’ as the city was destroyed and rebuilt twice on the same site during this period, though it was not the massive citadel we are led to believe. If there is any truth to the story, the 1178 biremes and pentekonters that sailed, manned by roughly 100,000 men, would be a herculean effort at the time for the Achaean city states. What could have stimulated such a response ?

From Wikipedia: place names and leaders of the antagonists mentioned in the Iliad.
Homeric Greece

The object of the war wasn’t merely a wayward princess named Helen; it may have been dwindling bronze resources in Greece and the growing monopoly across the Aegean. This coincides with the destruction of almost every city between Troy and Gaza, and the Bronze Age collapse by 1150 BC. Were these the Sea Peoples, “…in part actually composed of Mycenaean Greeks - rootless migrants, warrior bands and condottieri on the move…? Certainly there seem to be suggestive parallels between the war gear and helmets of the Greeks ... and those of the Sea Peoples”1

Also around this time there were migrations of Greek speaking peoples to Sicily and Sardinia. The cycle of myth surrounding Troy and its aftermath includes the tales of Odysseus and Aeneas, who survived long voyages and perils for years after the fall of Troy. With the Mycenaean Greeks gathered in such force on a long campaign, they may not have had a home to go back to; and simply continued marauding after reaching their prime objective. In so doing the displaced people of Asia Minor undertook their own exodus, adding to the landward or seaborne invasion of the eastern Mediterranean. I consider it likely that it was a see-saw war with destruction on both sides, but it was part of a bigger chain reaction. Eventually one group of warlords became dominant, and under the impact of their conflict and other external pressures, commanded a confederation of seaborne raiders. We cannot discount oral tradition as providing valuable clues. The Athenian historian Thucydides could have been talking about his own time, ironically, when he referred to this era:
“...let us not forget the legends, at least as models for what might have happened. They tell us of constant rivalries with the royal clans of the Heroic Age - Atreus and Thyestes, Agamemnon and Aigisthes, and so on. For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands were tempted to turn to piracy, under the conduct of their most powerful men ...they would fall upon a town unprotected by walls and would plunder it disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.”

The main phase of the Trojan War has been placed around 1194-1184 BC by ancient and modern historians.2 The next piece of this puzzle is whether the aggression of the Achaeans was entirely voluntary on their part, or were they fleeing their own crisis? For along with the Bronze Age collapse came the Greek ‘Dark Age’. Beginning in 1200 BC, the Achaean fortress-palaces of Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, Dendra, and Gla-Orchomenus; were obliterated by 1050 BC. Some think they were the victims of other ‘Sea Peoples’, but why look further than the Iron Age Dorians from north of the Danube ? There seems to be a bit of a hiatus between the destruction and the appearance of Dorian artifacts and culture. Also, Pylos was most likely attacked from the SW, and the sea. There could be a dozen scenarios, but we know the Iron Age migration came and it triggered a second wave of migration from mainland Greece back to Asia Minor. Ultimately it set off the great era of colonization, never equaled in its time, when in a couple of centuries an Aegean culture founded thriving city states from Gibraltar to the Crimea. The Achaeans had already been seaborne raiders for centuries, and with this added impetus would make the transition to ‘Sea Peoples’ quite readily.
Map of Greek Dark Age, 1150-900 BC

Or, did the massive ‘Trojan’ expedition leave them exposed, and were opportunistic wolves on the move at the fringes? Whether they were free or forced, there is a dramatic change in the activity level in this region, and far too much in the same time frame to be unrelated coincidences. The Egyptian and Hittite sources refer to origins in the 'western sea' and ‘from the isles’, so it is unlikely the same peoples completed the destruction of Mycenaean Greece even while they were raiding the eastern Mediterranean, unless ‘they’ inflicted this destruction on themselves. We can’t discount climate change resulting from the long term effects of Santorini and somewhat later, Hecla 3 on Iceland c.1160 BC, as being a contributing cause. Some researchers claim it triggered the Biblical Exodus as well. What is clear from the foreign accounts, is that around this time these raids had changed to a mass exodus of warlike peoples seeking a new home. “It should be stressed that the invasions were not merely military operations, but involved the movements of large populations, by land and sea, seeking new lands to settle.”3

The names of these peoples and their possible corresponding geohistory are not merely based on etymology of similar sounding names, but also geographic descriptions.
  • Peleset (Philistines, from Crete)
  • Lucca or Lukka (Lycians from SW Asia Minor)
  • Tjeker (also from Crete, later Palestine)
  • Danian or Denyen (Danaans – Homer’s name for Achaeans)
  • Mushki (Thrace-Phrygia)
  • Ekwesh (Egyptian: Achaeans)
  • Ahhiyawa (Hittite: Achaea)
  • Dardan (Dardanians - Homer's name for Trojan allies)
  • Teresh (Tyrrhenians ?)
  • Sherden (? May have given their name to Sardinia)
  • Shekelesh (? May have given their name to Sicily)
  • Weshesh (?)
They had already appeared in Egypt for 400 years, initially as traders. The Nile was the lifeblood of Egypt, but her expanding influence meant a growing coastal trade and exposure to other civilizations, including the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’. By the 13th century BC, the sea pirates of Ionia, Lycia and the Aegean had become more than just a nuisance; they had grown to attacking fleets in Egyptian waters, and raiding towns. Unchecked, they were strangling trade and communications with Egypt’s sphere of influence in Libya and the Levant. Rameses II of Egypt inaugurated his long reign with an attempt to curb “the unruly Sherden whom no one had ever known how to combat, they came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.” In his first campaign Rameses posted ships and archers along the sea approaches to Egypt, and waited for the enemy to take the bait. The heavy laden cargo ships were carrying soldiers when the Sherden pounced, and made for shore. Then Egyptian barges, clumsy as they might be, were able to converge and engage. It must have been a naval and shore battle of some significance, since Rameses was able to take many Sherden, Luccan, and Shekelesh sailors prisoner. They subsequently appear in his victory stelae as the King’s Bodyguard, helmeted and cuirassed like contemporary Philistine and Mycenaean warriors, with round shields but unusually at that time, long straight swords. He also hired more as mercenaries.
Spoiler :

The situation was more dire circa 1208 BC, in the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah.
“Shall the land be wasted and forsaken at the invasion of every country, while the Nine Bows plunder its borders and rebels invade it every day? ... They come to the land of Egypt, fighting, to fill their bodies daily... Their chief is like a dog, a man of boasting without courage.”
The Nine Bows were a confederacy of Sea Peoples who had already overrun or made an alliance with Libya.
“The wretched, fallen chief of Libya, Meryey, son of Ded, has fallen upon the country of Tehenu with his bowmen… Sherden, Shekelesh, Ekwesh, Lukka, Teresh, Taking the best of every warrior and every man of war of his country. He has brought his wife and his children … leaders of the camp, and he has reached the western boundary in the fields of Perire”.

For the time being, it appears Merneptah, like his father Rameses, was able to deal with it effectively in battle. After 6 hours the confederacy fled abandoning their baggage train, leaving 6,000 dead soldiers and 9,000 prisoners. To be sure of his casualty count Merneptah had his soldiers take a hand from every circumcised warrior, and the penis of every uncircumcised. Since historians have trouble believing the ‘Greeks’ were circumcised at this time, it tells you some of them could have been Achaeans. There was a concurrent revolt in the peoples of Canaan including Edom and the first mention of Israel. Those Sea Peoples who had been checked in their previous invasions of Egypt were already established in what would become Philistia, and their accoutrements and pottery bear a strong resemblance to Mycenaean Greeks. According to the Old Testament, the Philistines had already been living on the coast when the Israelites were still in Egypt. “And as for the Avvites who lived in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorites coming out from Caphtor (Crete) destroyed them and settled in their place.” It is possible they were originally established there as Egyptian mercenaries occupying garrison towns, but they soon took it for themselves. At the peak of the seaborne invasions, might also be the latest reasonable date for the Exodus, but it requires a compression or conflation of the Biblical timelines. The city of Hazor was destroyed around 1200 BC, in the time of the female Judge Deborah.

Shortly after Merneptah, the Sea Peoples were successful in Asia Minor and the Levant. The Hittite king Suppiluliuma II had engaged a pirate fleet off Cyprus in 1210 BC, but against the forces from the west he was hard pressed, and asked for help from his vassal in Ugarit:
“The enemy advances against us and there is no number… Our number is pure(?) … Whatever is available, look for it and send it to me”.
He inquired of Ammurapi (Hammurabi) the ruler of Ugarit, after one Ibnadushu who had been kidnapped by the Shekelesh, “who lived on ships”, as a source of intelligence. The next letters report a fleet of 20 ships off Alasiya (Cyprus), and 7 ships off Ugarit.
“My father, behold, the enemy's ships came; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?...Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. …the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us”.

Ammurapi then appealed to the city of Carchemish, and received non-commital words of encouragement to hold the line. Before 1180 BC, Ugarit and the cities of Alasiya were destroyed. The ironically named Suppiluliuma II would live to see the collapse of the Hittite Empire and Hattusa was destroyed for the last time, the site again occupied by Kaskans who would merge with the Greco-Thracian people known as the Phrygians. The land of Mitanni, which had become a poor vassal of Assyria, was abandoned at this time and its cities deserted. The destruction on the Levant was as complete as what was to follow in the Greek homeland, but a few cities somehow survived; notably Byblos, Sidon and Carchemish mentioned earlier. The Tjeker turned the town of Dor on the coast near Haifa into a large fortified port for their war fleets, and the Sea Peoples were able to mount a renewed land and sea offensive against Egypt.

Egypt found itself alone in the growing chaos, with scant news from their dwindling allies, and all of it bad. In year 8 of his reign, the pharaoh Rameses III braced for it:
“The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off one at a time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: 'Our plans will succeed!'”

The names of these Sea Peoples have already been described, but additionally it includes those who had settled in the eastern Mediterranean, and were continuing their depredations. They were not just fearsome warriors, they showed a high degree of military organization and strategy, and it appears they had set their heart on the fertile valley of the Nile, where many had served as mercenaries in the past.
Spoiler :

Around 1178 BC Rameses confronted the land invasion at the frontier town of Djahy with his army and whatever Levantine vassals were left, and appeared to win the day handily against a force that also included chariots.
“The [Egyptian] charioteers were warriors…, and all good officers, ready of hand. Their horses were quievering in their every limb, ready to crush the [foreign] countries under their feet...Those who reached my boundary, their seed is not; their heart and soul are finished forever and ever.”
The illustrations show that woman and children accompanied the enemy in ox carts on their march, so it was an attempt of some magnitude. Rameses rushed back to the delta to complete preparations to meet the maritime invasion. He witnessed the approach of a great flotilla at sea, bringing many thousands of warriors, and possibly the end of his empire. The Egyptians were not known as great seamen, but they had a number of large river barges that were seaworthy enough to avoid being swamped easily, and they could carry many men. Their enemies saw them as easy prizes to their swift war galleys, and duly entered one of the mouths of the Nile to capture a squadron that appeared to be trying to escape upriver. Rameses had carefully positioned archers, both regular and irregular forces, along the Nile approaches and had them stay in contact with his fleet. The invaders intended to win decisively and took the bait. Marine archers kept up steady fire from Egyptian decks, while working the enemy towards the shore. There they came under intense fire from rank after rank of archers, and grappling hooks and lines were flung out at them. Some fought free, their crews decimated, but others were capsized or hauled to shore and their crews killed.
"Those who reached my boundary, their seed is not; their hearts and their souls are finished forever and ever. As for those who had assembled before them on the sea, the full flame was their front before the harbour mouths, and a wall of metal upon the shore surrounded them. They were dragged, overturned, and laid low upon the beach; slain and made heaps from stern to bow of their galleys, while all their things were cast upon the water."
Spoiler :

Most never set foot in Egypt so we don’t know how many ships were actually taken, but for the third time Egypt had decisively repelled an invasion by sea. Those who escaped continued their occupation of Palestine. Earlier, in year 6 and later, in year 11, Rameses also had to undertake difficult campaigns against marauders from Libya. We don’t know what the true cost of this war was or how many towns were devastated, having only the words of the victors. We know Egypt’s economy and ambitions faltered, and their hold on Nubia and the Near East was lifted. There was political unrest and the first labour strike in year 29 of his reign. Food rations for the skilled tomb builders were not forthcoming, as not enough sunlight was reaching the earth. Global tree growth was stunted for a full two decades (as a result of Hecla?), and the result was higher grain prices and hardship. But seemingly unconcerned, Rameses chronicles his reign with continuity and stability. He did complete his massive temple and administrative complex, but for the first time the Pharaoh’s headquarters was behind a fortified wall in the heart of Egypt. He may have died as a result of an assassination attempt. Within 50 years, the renowned golden age of Egypt known as the New Kingdom came to an end.

A mere 20 years around the semi-mythical fall of Troy encompasses the assault on Asia Minor, collapse of Mycenaean Greece, large scale seaborne attacks on the coast of Egypt, Turkey and the Levant, and disappearance of nations on the eastern Mediterranean. With such a large degree of cooperation between the Sea Peoples, it is within the realm of possibility that a single warlord or group of warlords masterminded this invasion. There are no names known to us that really fit the bill, but their impact signifies the end of the Bronze Age, and the arrival of the Iron Age. One lasting consequence of the invasions is that they broke the hegemony held between Egypt, the Hittites, and Assyria over the Middle East. All went into a decline or disappeared for awhile as new cultures emerged. The contraction of their power to their own cultural boundaries allowed a number of small states to flourish in the Levant for centuries; like Phoenecia which developed the phonetic alphabet and an international mercantile economy, Jewish Israel with its monotheistic religion, Aramaean Syria that replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca, and the Mycenaean colony of Philistia – which maintained itself for another four centuries.

1. Michael Wood, English historian.
2. Eratosthenes most precisely, but consensus in many ancient chronologies conforms to end of 13th – beginning 12th century BC.
3. Hittitologist Trevor Bryce

In summary, the late Bronze Age invasions of the ‘Sea Peoples’ began as raiders from the Aegean, but they became a general migration, triggered by the early Iron Age invasions of Greece, and possible climactic changes. The Trojan War as pseudo-history merely characterizes a small segment of the overall chain of events; all that was left in Greek history is Homer's oral tradition, for they did not possess writing. In an attempt to knit together these events and various accounts into a coherent narrative, I propose the following sequence or convergence of events:

• c. 1700 BC – under pressure from the east, ancestors of the Achaeans cross the Aegean and settle in Europe.
• 17th century BC - first mention in Egypt of visitors from the Aegean and Asia Minor.
• c. 1600 BC – eruption of Santorini. Minoan Crete survives but is diminished.
• 16th century BC – evidence of Minoan colonization in Egypt at Avaris, capital of the Hyksos.
• c. 1550 BC – Mycenae comes to dominate Achaea.
• c. 1550 BC – expulsion of the Hyksos. Those who remain are enslaved, merge with or otherwise become known as the Israelites.
• c. 1500 BC – Alternative date for eruption of Thira, or an earthquake further weakens the Minoan civilization.
• 15th century BC – first appearance of seaborne war bands known as Sherden, initially as mercenaries.
• c. 1450 BC – traditional timeline of the biblical Exodus. Difficult to equate with the reign of Thutmose III.
• 1420 BC – Mycenaeans conquer Crete and parts of Asia Minor.
• 14th century BC – expansion of Hittite empire under Suppiliulima comes into conflict with Arzawa, Wilusa, Lukka and Ahhiyawa in the Aegean.
• 14th century BC – mythical proto-Greek kings.
• c. 1300 BC – large scale raids on Asia Minor and Egypt commence.
• 1279 BC – Rameses II defeats a raid of the ‘Sea Peoples’.
• 1269 BC – Egyptian and Hittite empires sign first known peace treaty.
• 13th century BC - the heroes of Greek legend: Heracles, Aegeus, Theseus, Iason.
• 1250 BC – Lion Gate at Mycenae is constructed.
• c. 1225 BC – Possible alternative timeline for Biblical Exodus.
• 1208 BC – Merneptah defeats a confederacy of ‘Sea Peoples’ and Libyans.
• c. 1213 or 1204 BC – Theseus is deposed. Dioscuri of Sparta recover their sister Helen.
• 12th century BC – under the pressure of famine in Asia Minor or dwindling bronze resources in Greece, or both, warfare in the Aegean becomes general.
• c. 1200 BC – Pylos is sacked and destroyed. Mycenae falls somewhat later.
• c. 1190 BC – height of the ‘Trojan War’.
• c. 1190-1180 BC – Coastal regions of Turkey, Cyprus and Levant devastated by seaborne invasions.
• c. 1181 BC – Menestheus or his son Demophon, King of Athens and veteran of the Trojan war dies.
• c. 1180 BC – Thraco-Phrygians from coastal Asia Minor destroy Hittite Empire.
• c. 1178 BC – Rameses III defeats land based confederacy from Palestine at Djahy.
• c. 1178 BC - Rameses III defeats seaborne invasion of Nile Delta.
• c. 1178 BC – Odysseus returns to Ithaca.
• c. 1161 BC – eruption of Mt. Hecla causes 18 year climatological depression.
• c. 1180 BC to 1050 BC – concurrent with postulated arrival of Iron Age Dorians, rebellions or invasions destroy the palace-fortresses of mainland Greece.
• c. 1100 BC – Egyptian New Kingdom ends. Israelites war with the Philistines.
• 11th century to 8th century BC – Greek Dark Age. 2nd wave of Greek colonization throughout the Mediterranean.
9th Century BC - written composition of Iliad and Odyssey


Feb 11, 2008
I wondered this myself.
Why is peoples plural though?


Dec 31, 2008
my crib
Because they are almost always mentioned as a plurality, multiple nations of the eastern Aegean acting as a confederacy.

Caesar of Bread

Death, destroyer of worlds
Jan 28, 2023
Trapped in the sewers of Cleveland, Ohio.
For some reason I always branched the sea people with the Indus River Valley Civilization...


Super Moderator
Dec 24, 2001
Albuquerque, NM
I wondered this myself.
Why is peoples plural though?
That is the English language name. You need to go back to the original languages to see if it is plural in those languages.


Dec 7, 2016
Gent - Belgium.
The "original" was French apparently,

French Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé first used the term peuples de la mer (literally "peoples of the sea") in 1855 in a description of reliefs on the Second Pylon at Medinet Habu, documenting Year 8 of Ramesses III.[7][8] In the late 19th century, Gaston Maspero, de Rougé's successor at the Collège de France, subsequently popularized the term "Sea Peoples" and an associated migration theory.[9] Since the early 1990s, his migration theory has been brought into question by a number of scholars.[1][2][10][11]

But also,
While accompanying hieroglyphs do not name Egypt's enemies, describing them simply as being from "northern countries", early scholars noted the similarities between the hairstyles and accessories worn by the combatants and other reliefs in which such groups are named.

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