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:
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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