After 14 years of digging, archaeologists excavating in the Holy Land announced that they have found the biblical city of Ai, a Caananite stronghold that was captured by the Israelites (according to the book of Judges). It’s not the only recently discovered city of cultural significance: only two years ago Douglas Preston published a book documenting his team’s discovery of the so-called Lost City of the Monkey God in the Honduran jungle. News like this makes you wonder what other important lost cities are out there to be discovered.
1. El Dorado
In the early 16th century, German conquistadors Nikolaus Federmann and Georg von Speyer set off in search of El Dorado, a mythical golden city, in Venezuela. They didn’t find it, and instead became the first of many 16th century European treasure hunters who hoped and failed to locate the famed valley of gold. In pursuit of gold (and cinnamon), one of these, Francisco de Orellana, “discovered” the Amazon river (which they named after a group of female warriors who attacked their group along the way). The efforts of predominantly Spanish conquistadors to discover (and pillage) the city of gold were related to colonialist exploitation of the region in general and particularly their observation of the use of gold in pre-Colombian religious rituals and ceremonies. The Musica people used to adorn new kings with gold before depositing a trove of golden objects in the middle of a lake as part of religious ceremonies. The discovery of a cache of gold at Lake Guatavita in 1545 only added fuel to the rumors that more was out there to be found. When Alexander von Humboldt visited the area in 1801 he estimated that as much as $300 million worth of gold was there. El Dorado, on the other hand, appears to be a mythical outgrowth of religious rituals.
Archaeologist Dr. Larry Coben, the executive director of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative and a seasoned excavator of Incan sites, told The Daily Beast that he would love to take an academically responsible approach to finding the lost cities. Just like his predecessors, Coben would be in the Amazonian jungle conducting exploratory work (in a less sensationalist and more scientific way); unlike them, Coben doesn’t expect to find any gold. “I doubt they are ‘cities of gold,’” he told me, but the mythology is likely to be based on real cities, the discovery of which could yield important information about the sites. “The extraordinary ability of ancient cultures to bring complex urbanity to difficult and not obvious places speaks volumes about their development, technological competence, and social and economic structures.” Unearthing them would help flesh out our understanding of the pre-Colombian world. Those who really want to see the remnants of the “cities of gold” should go to the Museo del Oro in Bogota, which houses the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world.
Dilmun was an ancient Semitic speaking city in the Persian Gulf that was first mentioned in the 3rd millennium B.C. It came to the attention of Assyriologists and explorers in the 19th century, when cuneiform texts were recovered and translated. The most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, which includes the ancient Mesopotamian flood story that likely inspired the biblical story. Dr. Alexis Boutin, associate professor of anthropology at Sonoma State University, told me that these texts describe Dilmun “as a place with paradise-like qualities, especially noted for its sweet (i.e., fresh) waters.” Because of this, “some people even thought it may have been the location of the original Garden of Eden.” What we do know from the extant Mesopotamian texts is that Dilmun was a major trading partner with Mesopotamia, in particular Meluhha (the Indus civilization) and Magan (Oman). For a while, though, scholars weren’t even sure that this potential Garden of Eden was a civilization at all. Boutin told me that because of the thousands of burial mounds carpeting Bahrain, some 19th century scholars thought that it had served as a necropolis for ancient Mesopotamians. “This theory, however, was later disproven by excavations that revealed that Bronze Age urban and commercial centers on Bahrain were an important part of the Dilmun polity.”
The physical location of Dilmun, however, was disputed for many decades, although it always assumed to be somewhere in the vicinity of the Arabian Gulf. Dr. Boutin told me that “based on archaeological work done in the 1940s and 1950s by folks including Peter Cornwall, Geoffrey Bibby, and P.V. Glob (and since carried on by archaeologists primarily from Denmark, France, and Bahrain), the location of Dilmun is now known to have been centered on Bahrain, although it seems to have extended to parts of Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, and Qatar as well.” As for its mythical garden and sweet-smelling waters, those have yet to be discovered.
Everyone needs a place to let off steam; for the emperors and wealthy playboys of the ancient world, the city of Baiae, located on the northern edge of the Bay of Naples in Italy, served this purpose from the first century B.C. through the fifth century A.D. Unfortunately for us, and thanks to its location in a volatile volcanic area, at least half of the ancient city was submerged by the eighth century A.D. It’s not so much, archaeologist Dr. Kristina Killgrove told me, that we don’t know where it is, we just can’t get to it. She told me that this hidden trove of “villas of the ancient rich and famous” was attractive to early 19th century poets like Keats and Shelley, who talk about the lost wonders of Baiae. Presumably these included important and gorgeous ancient artwork like wall frescoes, artifacts, and sculptures.
Some excavation in the area has been done and modern tourists can also visit the underwater archaeological park. Killgrove said that hopefully more excavation in this area at in the future could “help us learn more about how emperors and other important Romans worked and played.”
4. The Lost City of Kalahari
In 1885 Guillermo Farini (a pseudonym of William Leonard Hunt), a former entertainer at Coney Island in New York, crossed a section of the Kalahari that had previously been unexplored by Westerners. Naturally, Farini was actually looking for diamonds. In the book he published upon his return, Farini claimed that he had come across the ruins of building, a remnant of an unknown civilization. In his book (and, I kid you not, in somewhat patronizing poetry) he described “A half-buried ruin - a huge wreck of stones/ On a lone and desolate spot;/ A temple - or a tomb for human bones/ Left by men to decay and rot. Rude sculptured blocks/ from the red sand project,/ And shapeless uncouth stones appear,/ Some great man's ashes designed to protect,/ Buried many a thousand year.” His claims were supported by photographs and sketches taken and made by his son during the trip. The legend of the lost city of Kalahari had its origin in local legends in which construction on the city was abandoned because the region was inhospitable. Farini’s “discovery” spawned a South African legend. Others claimed that they too had seen the tell-tale signs of civilization. People compared the discovery to the archaeological discoveries at Great Zimbabwe, a ruined city that flourished from the 11th to the 15th centuries in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe.
In the early 20th century no fewer than 25 expeditions were undertaken to find the site. F. R. Paver and Dr. W. M. Borcherds used World War II-era reconnaissance aircraft to scour the region, but with no success. In the 1960s Professor A. J. Clement attempted to retrace Farini’s steps. He discovered a set of monumental rocks that seemed suggestive of man-made walls, but they were actually a 180 million-year-old geological feature. Geologists who saw the photographs made by Clement’s team suggested that the rocks were made of dolerite, a kind of igneous rock that, as it erodes, can produce the appearance of regular blocks. Clement concluded that Farini had discovered a natural rock formation and mistaken it for a ruined city. He wrote, “Like all legends, that of the Lost City will be a long time a-dying, and doubtless there will still be some who are disinclined to let the matter rest in spite of all the contrary evidence. And possibly this is just as well, for there is something rather sad about the destruction of a legend.”
Most recently, in 2016, a Travel Channel-sponsored expedition to the region hosted by Josh Gates discovered some artificially constructed walls and artwork in the area that may match Farini’s description. Has Kalahari’s Lost City been discovered and does it exist? The jury is still out.
Discovering a ruined ancient city does rather seem like the archaeological equivalent of winning an Olympic gold, but those who have ambitions of rediscovering fallen civilizations should get their vaccinations and protective charms in order. The fate that awaits those who rediscover lost parts of the ancient world is usually an unhappy one.
Howard Carter and his team were struck down by the Mummy’s Curse after opening the tomb of Tutankhamun: first Lord Canarvon died of an infected mosquito bite; several others were blinded and killed; the house of Sir Bruce Ingram (an early visitor to the tomb) burned down. And Douglas Preston and his group acquired a flesh-eating bacteria after their trip to the Honduras. Opening the gates to the past comes with some considerable health risks.