Knowns and Unknowns


November 2015
Ivan Obolensky

In a televised interview on February 12, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld said the following regarding the lack of evidence linking Iraq with Weapons of Mass Destruction and terrorist groups:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say there are things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country, and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”1

Unknown unknowns, and how we deal with them when they occur, can make the difference between surviving and not surviving, not only as individuals but civilizations as well.

Civilizations are not permanent. One moment they seem to be fine and then either rapidly or slowly they disappear. Why?

Many are familiar with the decline of the Roman Empire and the Greek world, but what about the collapse of the Mediterranean civilization at the end of the Bronze Age around 1200 BCE?

Few people are familiar with this era in history simply because much of the research and investigation has only been done in the last 100 years.

Secondly, this collapse happened around 4,000 years ago so how could it be relevant? We are part of a modern electronically-connected global age, which is so much larger and more developed. True enough, but then sometimes there are lessons where one least expects them.

Let us start with technology back then.

The high tech wonder of the time was bronze. Bronze is an alloy composed of copper and 12% tin. Some 2,000 years before copper was mixed with tin, it was mixed with arsenic. This resulted in an alloy that was some 30% harder than copper or iron. The area of modern-day Iran produced the first arsenical bronze on record.

Tin replaced arsenic because it could be added to copper in simple proportions. Secondly, the addition of tin obviated the need for additional hardening steps that arsenical bronze required to give it similar strength. Tin became the additive of choice.2

How much better was bronze than plain iron or copper? Bronze has a tensile strength of 650 MPa. (MPa is a unit of stress) as opposed to 220 for plain copper and 140-430 for cast iron.3

This meant that if you had spears and arrows with bronze heads you could easily pierce any opponent who was armored in copper or iron. Secondly if you held a bronze blade and a bronze shield and went up against anyone else who carried copper or iron weapons, the contest would be distinctly one-sided. Perhaps not as easily as a hot knife through butter, but close.

From a military point of view, it was a game changer. Bronze weapons were notably superior. Add chariots, horses, together with men who carried bronze weapons and the army of the period took form.

But there were challenges for those who wanted bronze. Tin and copper are not found in the same locations. Tin was only mined in one place during this period and that was in modern-day Afghanistan. Copper on the other hand came from Cyprus.

For bronze to have been in widespread use, there would have to have been trade, trade routes, shipments, manifests, ships, documents, tariffs, merchants, traders, writing, governments, tax collectors, and an infrastructure that might resemble something we might find 2,000 years later in Rome, or today.

Although different from later periods in terms of magnitude, a complex and thriving global infrastructure existed prior to 1200 BCE that not only allowed bronze weaponry to proliferate, but ensured that goods of all sorts were transported all around the Mediterranean.

Prior to this period of trade and mutual cooperation, the primary activity of the region was agriculture, warfare, and invasion.

Agriculture was widespread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Arable land produced surpluses, which allowed urban areas to form. These were headed by rulers who consolidated power, controlled the land, and accumulated the excess production into warehouses. This produce was traded for other materials that the land did not supply and administered from a central complex called the Palace, hence the term: Palace Economy. The landscape evolved into what might be thought of as a series of large corporations headed by single individuals, supported by a priesthood that allowed the ruler to rule by divine sanction with each king living in his own corporate headquarters. Feast or famine, invasion or peace, depended on the ruler, his status with the gods, and his relationships with the other rulers who existed close by.

Peace was no small matter. Invasion by enemies meant wholesale destruction and enslavement. A strong ruler was required or else all was lost. Over time the landscape of the period settled down into a group of relatively stable players who administered their respective areas through a complex administrative network with the palace at the center.

Perhaps at the instigation of Egypt, who found constant reprisals expensive when armies had to march up the coast into what is now modern-day Lebanon, diplomacy and trade were given priority over warfare. Through various diplomatic missions, trade and commerce began to proliferate between the several key participants who made up the framework of what is now called the Late Bronze Age Civilization in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

A key participant was Egypt. By the year 1200 BCE, the pyramids had been built and Pharaohs had ruled for thousands of years. It was a stable regime typified by that of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BCE). Egypt controlled much of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean up through Syria.

To the North was the Minoan civilization of Crete with the palace at Knossos as its center. To the North and East of Crete were the Hittites who controlled most of what is now modern-day Turkey.

North of Crete was also a relatively new Greek civilization whose chief city was Mycenae. East of Crete was the island of Cyprus.

Farther to the East of the Hittites were the Babylonians and north of them the Assyrians.

Trade flourished between these cultures with a constant to and fro of diplomatic missions, delegations, and commerce. Cyprus supplied the copper while tin was transported from Afghanistan and distributed through the sea ports of the Levant. Marriages were arranged between kingdoms, and Egypt supplied much of the gold that kept the trade moving. Rulers would call on each other for support and assistance when needed through ambassadors who also cemented trade agreements. We know much of this from the large number of tablets that were uncovered at various locations throughout the region written in Arcadian, the diplomatic language of the day. Correspondence between rulers referred to each other as family. For instance, a typical dispatch between the Hittite king and the pharaoh might start with the phrase: “Brother, I hope this message finds you well and your family well…”

Such was life in the days of 2000-1200 BCE. It was rich, prosperous, stable, peaceful, and most importantly, civilized.

But then everything changed.

From what archeological evidence that exists the following events unfolded:

  1. A series of catastrophes, some seismically related, such as the destruction of the palace at Knossos and the decline of the Minoan civilization, devastated the region. The city of Mycenae in Greece was also destroyed. Several major seaports were ravaged, some by war and insurrection, some by evidence of earthquakes.
  2. A series of droughts struck the area, some so severe that there is a letter from a commercial firm on the coast of Syria to a city inland that stated: “There is famine in our house; we will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.”
  3. Egyptian history tells of the invasion of the Sea People from the North who raided up and down the coast.
  4. Many cities throughout the region were destroyed; by whom or by what is unknown.
  5. International trade dropped off and never recovered until many hundreds of years later.

Whether these events occurred all at once or gradually over time is unknown. What we do know is that at one point there was a highly complex economic, social, political, and diplomatic system in place between diverse cultures that coexisted to mutual benefit. In just a handful of years, it disappeared after enjoying several hundred years of prosperity.

One of the difficulties of piecing together what caused the collapse is that each of these events; famine, earthquake, raids, and insurrections were not unknown to the region and had happened many times before. Even taken all together, it is difficult to imagine that the whole edifice would simply collapse.

One possible explanation which has parallels in our day comes from Complexity theory.

Complex systems are defined as networks that have several interacting parts or agents. The system is alive in that one part responds to the actions of another part, which then responds in turn. The result is a series of feedback loops and interdependencies.

As humans, we like information that is aligned with the way we think. This could be thought of as coherence.

Hyper-coherence occurs when there is so much interdependency between agents that instability in one part creates instability in the system as a whole.4

In other words, a disaster at Knossos in Crete could cause tremendous instability in Egypt due to the uncertainty as to whether the Minoans would continue routing their ships to Egypt. This might cause the Egyptians to take a different tack when it came to the Hittites, and on it goes. A few bad moves and all trust is lost, trade collapses, the central administration as well as the economy disintegrates, famine drives the people to another location, the traditional ruling class that knows how to administrate disappears. Whether it takes a short or a moderate amount of time, the result is the same. There is no obvious cause because so much of the system is interdependent. Each part is dependent on the other such that if one destabilizes the rest does as well.

We, too, live in such an interdependent world.

The link between the different cultures 4,000 years ago was bronze. Trade in copper and tin for goods in exchange created trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean. Metallurgy was an important part of each of the civilizations that made up the overall structure of the late Bronze Age. Military presence was an important element for stability during that time and could not be omitted or else the ruler and the ruled would suffer the consequences.

Today we have the Internet and information. It is the common strand that links all the countries of our world. It moves through fiber optic cables that travel underneath the oceans or via satellites to servers on the ground. Without it we cannot seem to operate, not just as nations and corporations, but even as individuals.

Have we as a civilization reached a similar stage of hyper-coherence?

And if we have, where do we go from here?

The answer to the first question is probably yes. We see this effect in the financial markets when an exogenous event or a decision by an agent creates uncertainty that then is transmitted from market to market around the world. This shows up as volatility that moves from one market to the next. The Asian markets are down, then Europe opens down and then the US opens down.

Suppose all the world’s economies were aligned to a series of policies that lowered interest rates into negative territory and then one central bank decided to raise rates. What would that mean?

Suppose a major production area such as Catalonia decides to secede from a Spain it thinks is not in its best interests and refuses to acknowledge the current debts of the Spain it no longer believes in.

Suppose a new government forms in Portugal and decides that “hoping” austerity works is not a viable strategy.

These are all unknowns. They might happen. They might not. What the consequences are we just don’t know. They are unknown unknowns.

Such decisions, if made, will cause repercussions but does that mean we should agree with whatever the current thinking is so as not to rock the boat? Disagreement with current policy would then seem to be a dangerous course to follow, and yet if we simply follow along, the result can be just as bad as if we made our opinions or decisions known in the first place.

Knowing that our civilization, our economies, and even our personal interactions may be suffering from some degree of hyper-coherence, what can we do?

For myself, there is something wonderfully positive to be said for unknown unknowns: they force us to look ahead, to think again, and to reconsider. It is an opportunity for growth.

When disagreement and differences of opinion seem to offer instability that will destabilize others, recognize that the voicing of an opinion merely starts the process of change, it is not the end but the beginning. We can always agree to disagree. Disagreement does not mean that communication should be cut, it just means that there are differences of opinion and more communication might be the better course.

In the case of the civilizations of the late Bronze Age, it is likely that by the time one party found out about what happened in another part of the world, it was too late to do anything about it, even if they could. Faster, more frequent communication might have helped.

We just don’t know.



  1. Rumsfeld, D. (2002, February 12) Donald Rumsfeld Unknown Unknowns! [Video file]. Retrieved November 10, 2015 from
  2. Cowen, R. (1999) Exploiting the Earth. John Hopkins University Press. Retrieved November 10, 2015 from
  3. A. (2015) Bronze Alloys – PB102 Properties, Fabrication and Applications, Supplier Data by Aalco. Retrieved November 10, 2015 from
  4. Cline, E. H. (2014) 1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press.


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© 2015 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin11-13-2015


    Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking article. The more we look into this, the more an understanding and embracing of instability becomes, in a weird way, a stable point of view. Ha!

  2. Silvia

    What this article led me to conclude is the inter-relation between all parts of the world. Independently of the reason for a change in a civilization, when a major one occurred,it did affect the closer areas to that region or civilization. Is like everything is inter-connected.

    Is like when coyotes eat rabbits; when the coyotes were almost extinct, the rabbit population increased and the plantations suffered the consequences when being devoured by so many rabbits. In other words, the natural balance of nature was altered and other related areas suffered.

    The same with civilizations and regions, one is altered and it seems to unbalance the neighbor ones.

    As you said Ivan, we may know or not know this but is good to have a thought about it, it may lead us somewhere.

    Thank you for the article.

    • Ivan

      Thank you for commenting. The more we are interconnected the more we are affected by events at a distance.

  3. Vanessa Richardson
    Vanessa Richardson11-24-2015

    Fascinating and thoughtful – Your articles always make me THINK and the last line is a great opportunity to continue growth, thought and more conversation! I’m always learning so much about history from your articles – all while interweaving balance, technology and philosophy. Thank you Ivan!

    • Ivan

      If as a result of my articles, people think a little differently, then I will have succeeded.

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