Four Lost Cities

Title: Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

Author: Annalee Newitz

Completed: Dec 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: I heard Annalee speak at ToorCamp this summer and thought this sounded like a fascinating read. The four cities existed across several millennia yet each went through a similar rise and fall. Annalee points out that the common explanation these days, promoted by Jared Diamond’s Collapse, that the cities were abandoned because of environmental changes is only part of the story. Each city was also going through social and political changes at the time. And, despite the population leaving each of the cities, they make the point that none of these civilizations really collapsed. Each went through a slow population decline, but the people continued their culture in different places. Each culture continued to evolve and change over time as all cultures do.


  • Popular accounts of the city’s demise suggest that Romans shunned the buried city out of superstition and fear, quickly losing track of where it had once stood. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pompeii’s demise was followed by one of the greatest relief efforts in ancient history. Emperor Titus toured Pompeii twice after the eruption to assess the damage, discovering that the once-lush landscape was entombed in thick, superheated ash, oozing toxic fumes. Pompeii was unsalvageable. Titus and his brother Domitian, who succeeded him, used the sprawling empire’s wealth to rebuild the lives of people whose homes were lost. They allocated money to survivors, and paid workers to construct homes for them. Archaeologists have recently uncovered new evidence of the empire relocating refugees to nearby coastal towns like Naples, expanding neighborhoods and roads to accommodate them.
  • Ironically, it took the invention of a city for people to conceive of being alone, away from the crowd. Put another way, the concept of privacy had arrived, and with it the concept of a public.
  • As people left nomadic bands to form agricultural communities, their populations grew in size. Suddenly, a community wouldn’t be an extended family of people whose faces you knew by heart. In a village of 200 people, or a city of thousands, even neighbors might be strangers. People needed more than personal connections to feel part of the group. “[They] needed huge monumental art to create commitment and remind people constantly of their collective identity,” Benz told me. You might say that people went from identifying with each other to identifying with a special, shared location.
  • the city begins and ends with the small acts of many people, who imbue their houses with “increased practical and symbolic importance.”
  • The figurines themselves may not have been objects of reverence, but the act of creating it could have been a magic ritual. Seeking guidance or good fortune, Dido would quickly mold one from the clay next to the field where she harvested wheat. Once it was dry, she could have used it in a ritual that drained its power away. Afterward, she’d throw the clay figure off her roof along with waste from yesterday’s meal. If people at Çatalhöyük used the female figures like this, it’s clear why people threw them away so often. Making them was more important than keeping them.
  • People today are attracted to cities because they feel an affinity for subcultures or groups that don’t exist in smaller communities organized mostly around families.
  • There are also glossy corporate towers, massive churches, imposing government buildings, and thousands of shops in every configuration. Today’s cities are places where we can see social and economic inequality built into the landscape.
  • Along with incentivizing women to have as many babies as possible, the Julian Laws also meted out harsh punishment for women deemed “promiscuous.” Famously, Augustus exiled his own daughter in 2 CE when she refused to stop publicly engaging in the ancient world’s equivalent of free love.
  • “I’m interested in the part of the rock that is now gone,” he told me. “The shape that’s worn away—that’s what people did.” This is especially true when it comes to public spaces where many people were doing roughly the same kinds of things. “If you take the hundred thousand interactions with the stone in aggregate, all over the city, the absence is thousands of people making the same decision. Now, suddenly, you have a picture of a system of traffic at a place like Pompeii where we had zero evidence ever before.”
  • And yet, despite over two centuries of researchers excavating Pompeii, very few people understood the world inhabited by Murtis and Amarantus until recently. Partly that’s because data archaeology has given us new tools to explore the lives of nonelites. But it’s also due to a more fundamental problem with the way we study history. Though people of the 19th and 20th centuries treasured Pompeii, returning to it repeatedly for further excavation, there were parts of its culture they wanted to forget. When they came upon sculptures of genitalia or dirty graffiti, they locked these things away in “secret cabinets” because it was too hard to step outside their Christian values and look at those artifacts with Roman eyes. Only in 2000 was the “secret cabinet” in the Naples Museum opened to the general public. Roman sexuality is so alien to modern people’s sensibilities in the West that it was practically illegible. Museum curators in previous centuries treated lucky penis charms like pornography, and historians didn’t consider prostitutes worthy of study.
  • Naples is a noisy city, full of narrow cobblestone streets that roar with cars and motorcycles careening uphill from the Bay of Naples at terrifying speeds. These downtown roads were built for the kinds of mule-drawn carts that dominated the ancient and medieval Roman worlds, but now pedestrians fight for space alongside metal machines that Murtis and her friends at the lupanar could only dream of.
  • At Sambor Prei Kuk, kings of the Chenla Empire worshipped the Hindu god Shiva, unlike the Angkorian kings who preferred Vishnu.
  • In one temple, we found fresh baskets of incense, paper flowers, and a golden parasol sheltering a statue of the Buddha. But the centuries-old Buddha was also a modern touch. It had been built on top of an ancient lingam shrine that symbolizes the power of the Hindu god Shiva.
  • Jayavarman II explicitly wanted to build a Hindu empire. Inscriptions carved after his death recount a coronation ceremony where he declared himself the Khmer’s godlike ruler in a ritual that borrowed concepts of divine kingship from Hindu traditions. But Stark and Carter think the picture is a lot more complicated than a sudden infusion of Indian Hinduism. “It’s not Indianization—it’s globalization,” Carter said, noting that influences came from many parts of Asia. “Plus,” she added, “by the time Angkor arises, there’s a thousand years of indigenous cultural development in Cambodia.” The local people in places like Battambang were just as important to Angkor’s development as ideas from abroad.
  • The khñum debt slavery scenario sounds brutal until you consider that most capitalist cultures in the West use a similar system. In the United States, it’s not unusual for people to graduate from college with so much debt that they have to work their whole lives to pay it off. Others take on debt to pay for a house or buy a car. Though technically all of us can choose what kind of work we do to pay off these debts, it’s rare to find anyone who is doing the exact kind of work they’d like to do. Many of us feel like we’re being told to dig ditches by some distant corporate authority, or risk losing everything. Still, we keep working instead of rising up against the banks, for complicated reasons. Maybe we don’t want to rock the boat because our lives are relatively comfortable, or maybe we need health insurance to pay for a child’s hospitalization, or maybe the corporations seem too powerful to defeat. Those feelings might have kept khñum in line, too.
  • He’s discovered that urban populations grow faster than their own infrastructure. West has found that doubling the size of, say, a city’s water canals would more than double its population. Due to the benefits of sharing resources at high density, urbanites need about 15 percent less infrastructure than you’d expect based on population size.
  • the Mississippians likely controlled land via kinship networks, the way the Hidatsa did, with many families sharing the same field. “American schoolchildren are taught that private, individual ownership of land was a concept foreign to Native Americans,” she writes. “Nevertheless, it is clear that families or extended kin groups held exclusive use rights to firmly demarcated plots of land for farming.”
  • The collapse hypothesis was nearly dead when Jared Diamond published his popular book Collapse in 2005. Based mostly on anecdotal evidence from cultures like the Maya and Polynesians on Easter Island, he argues that societies “collapse,” or fail, when they engage in environmentally unsound practices. His argument played into a lot of myths about how cities work, including the idea that cultures are wiped out when their high-density settlements disappear. As we’ve seen with the cities in this book, urban abandonment does not mean some kind of cultural death. Usually it means that city people have migrated elsewhere, bringing the values, art, and technologies of the city with them to new homes. Diamond is right to highlight environment as a contributing factor in urban dissolution, but that’s only one part of the story. Abandonment is most importantly a political process.
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