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New Worlds: Lost Cities and Ancient Ruins

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Pulp adventure novels and the more lurid sort of documentaries love to talk about “lost cities” and the like. The very phrase conjures up mystery and excitement, secrets just waiting to be unveiled.

But how lost are ancient ruins, anyway?

Obviously some of them remain very visible, as with the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge in England. Structures like castles can also survive, at least in part, though I’ve talked before about the tendency to carry away building materials — especially durable and fancy ones, like cut and dressed stone — for reuse elsewhere, leaving behind crumbling remains that may become difficult to identify. Not everything survives that well, though, and it’s the other stuff that I’m interested in here.

In tropical environments, buildings can become overgrown with shocking speed, so thoroughly that you can walk right past them without realizing you’re not just looking at a particularly dense stand of greenery. On river floodplains, deposits of silt can wash away artifacts and bury remains — or even wash away remains, depending on the strength of the flooding and what you were building with. More dramatically, a volcano can bury the site under mud or ash, as happened with Herculaneum and Pompeii (though it’s worth noting that the tops of buildings were initially still visible in Pompeii, not becoming completely buried until eruptions in later centuries added to the cover.)

It’s even possible — in fact common — for ruins to get buried by the simple process of people continuing to live there. The current ground in central London is several feet above what constituted street level in Roman times, which is how it’s possible to find the foundations of ancient buildings still there after centuries of people living atop them. The most astonishing examples of this are tells, a phenomenon particularly associated with (but not limited to) the ancient Near East: sites which were or have been continuously inhabited for so long, they’ve risen into flat-topped mounds or small hills, tens of meters high. They’re layer cakes of different periods of occupation, and a delight for archaeologists to excavate.

Many of these sites are not in fact “lost.” If people are living atop older ruins, the odds that they’ll find artifacts the moment they stick a shovel in the ground are pretty high. (This is why an increasing number of countries nowadays require an archaeological survey before construction work starts, to make sure you’re not about to destroy something valuable or informative.) At a site like a tell, it’s common for erosion along the sides to reveal bits and pieces of what’s buried there, and the same can be true on a floodplain; the river giveth and it taketh away, especially when it shifts its bed to erode an area previously silted up. So it’s common for people to know something is there.

That’s true even in cases like the aforementioned jungle undergrowth. For a long time, there was a deplorable tendency to talk about the civilization of the Maya having “vanished,” as if the descendants of the people who built those temples weren’t still living right there in the area. They didn’t disappear; they just moved out of their cities, for reasons (e.g. environmental degradation) whose precise balance archaeologists still debate. In reality, it’s quite common for the locals to know about nearby ruins — which creates problems when there’s incentive for looters to go ransack those places for a quick payout.

Knowing there’s something there, however, isn’t the same as knowing what it is. In a coincidence of timing, Archaeology Magazine just sent me an article about ten ancient cities that archaeologists are trying to find. Connecting a name from legend or written documents to a specific place in the ground is easier said than done, since it’s not like anybody put up a sign at the city limits saying “Welcome to Troy.” Nineteenth-century archaeologists initially believed Troy had been on the hill now called Pınarbaşı, before excavations confirmed it was instead at Hisarlık — and the question of how you can tell you’re digging up City A instead of City B is the stuff of an academic degree. (Nor will your colleagues always agree with your conclusion.)

Whether or not you can depend on local tradition to help you depends on the locale. Rather infamously, the Inuit in Nunavut had stories indicating that the HMS Terror was sunk in a particular bay, but their information was disregarded for many years before the ship was rediscovered. If the indigenous inhabitants have been killed or driven out, though, that knowledge can be lost. And the more time that’s passed, the more likely it is that specifics have been sanded off: modern Arabs might know very well that a nearby hill is a source of artifacts or even an ancient settlement, but the odds that they can tell you precisely which Akkadian city it was are much lower.

Genre fiction tends to handle this fairly poorly, when the matter shows up at all. Sites are either one hundred percent lost — the better to have pulp adventures in discovering them — or their exact identity and history are remembered with perfect fidelity, no matter how many thousands of years have passed. While the occasional Plot Artifact may show up in an ancient tomb (which has never collapsed during the intervening centuries) or during excavation for the foundations of a new building, you never seem to get people unearthing the equivalent of random, non-plot-centric Shang Dynasty potsherds and bronzes while plowing their fields.

Which is a pity, because those things can form part of a rich tapestry of folklore. British folklore held that flint arrowheads were the work of elves, with various illnesses ascribed to people being “elfshot.” Roman roads paved with large stones might be credited to the work of giants. Something like those Shang bronzes could be viewed as magical or demonic, depending on what social changes have happened in the interim. Ruined castles and abandoned tells can have all manner of stories associated with them — and in fantasy, the ghosts haunting those places might be very real . . .

One caution, though, echoing the one I made last week: be careful who you attribute the ruins to. The same racist tendency that says aliens made the Nazca Lines or the Pyramids of Giza also shows up in more mundane form, claiming that groups like the Phoenicians or the Lost Tribes of Israel were responsible for sites as far-flung as the Mayan pyramids. There’s something of a fine line to walk here, since population migration does happen; one of the things discussed by that aforementioned Archaeology Magazine article is the possibility that there were English expat settlements on the shores of the Black Sea following the Norman Conquest. But that’s not the same thing as insisting the Phoenicians must have built Great Zimbabwe because there’s no way sub-Saharan Africans could have done it. If you’re introducing this kind of movement and culture contact, do so with care.

I’d love to see more writers play around with ancient ruins in a more nuanced way, though. Because this kind of thing is fun.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Lost Cities and Ancient Ruins”

  1. When people asked the local tribes about the mounds of the Mound Builders, they often (though not always) got the reaction that those are hills. All the more ironic in that they often were the descendants of the builders.

  2. Anthony Docimo

    great work!

    > you never seem to get people unearthing the equivalent of random, non-plot-centric Shang Dynasty potsherds and bronzes while plowing their fields.
    I imagine that thats so rare, because there;ll be a temptation – be it in a short story or a novel – to have the potsherds and bronzes tie in with the plot.
    (maybe the main character – or the leader of the group that the main character supports – is revealed by the bronzes to be a descendant of the Shang fortune-tellers…or at least makes the claim that its so)

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