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Ancient human settlements are brought vividly to life in an engaging new analysis

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

Annalee Newitz
320 pp.
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In Four Lost Cities, Annalee Newitz—a technology journalist and author of popular genre fiction—has unexpectedly turned their attention to the archaeology of the urban past. Each of the four sections of this volume describes a different case study.

Çatalhöyük, the first case Newitz describes, is a fascinating example of a very early experiment in settled living some 10,000 years ago in a region now encompassed by the country of Turkey. Newitz captures the intricacies of the formation of Çatalhöyük: layer upon layer of building, the construction of its members’ private lives, and the shift from wild to domestic foods. Their discussion, in the second chapter, of the notorious “Mother Goddess” theory, which posits a unified prehistoric matriarchy and has earned a present-day cult following, is particularly deft. Adding to fairly well-established evidence of climatic and environmental changes that led to the abandonment of the site, Newitz offers an interesting discussion of how a lack of social buy-in might have doomed this early experiment in group living.

Despite weaving together disparate expert commentary into an eminently readable and coherent whole, this is the weakest of the book’s four sections. With its fairly flat social structure—mirroring the fairly flat Konya plain on which it was located—Çatalhöyük does not match the traditional description of a city. It may not have been very different at all from the mobile existence that preceded it. Central Anatolia is littered with other settlements that, while they may not have been as long-lived, would have introduced concepts such as “privacy” long before Çatalhöyük.

Newitz’s discussion of Pompeii, the city famously destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, is a far smoother ride, perhaps because the Roman cities of the first century are so closely in tune with what we think of as urbanism today. They write with an excellent eye for relatable detail about the lives of the libertii (freed slaves), about women entrepreneurs, and about the many ways in which Pompeii confounds our expectations. The section’s second chapter on the myriad uses of public space would be very on-trend in an archaeological volume but is presented far more interestingly here, in vignettes about the activities of the city’s inhabitants, from bad drivers to sex workers. The section’s third chapter covers the city’s destruction, a well-tread subject, but offers much more than most accounts do, discussing the lives of the survivors and the contemporary perception of the tragedy.

Moving to Cambodia and the sprawling temple complex known as Angkor Wat, in the book’s third section, Newitz discusses distinctive southeastern Asian subsistence strategies and explains how modern researchers have used remote-sensing technologies to uncover the ancient landscape of urban life around the famous temple complex. This section’s examination of the big public works projects that defined Angkor—including the economics of debt-slavery, or debt-labor—reveals Newitz’s ability to parse academic arguments into something worth arguing about. It closes with a discussion of the not-quite-collapse of this urban polity into its current genteel retirement as a spiritual center.

Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi River, is discussed in the book’s final section and is clearly very close to Newitz’s heart. Introducing the site as more a spiritual than a commercial center, Newitz includes critical perspectives and curated histories from Indigenous groups with a stake in the story, something that not even all professional archaeologists manage. This section finishes with a discussion of “survivance” of Cahokian themes, motifs, and practices from the settlement’s heyday a millennium ago to the modern day. The book concludes with a nuanced proposal that we reconsider “collapse” as a multifaceted thing and reject strict environmental determinism for disasters that are often intertwined with social factors.

There are a few missteps in this book that will likely give professional archaeologists a tremor or two: some are obscure errors of attribution, and some are just too-sharp observations (it is true, we really do always talk about space). Other errors, including Newitz’s misidentification of what are probably seasonal laborers or ethnic Yörük outside of Konya as Bedouin are less forgivable. Overall, however, Newitz has achieved something remarkable, taking a very personal drive to understand the way we live and using it to enliven the past, at each turn letting expert voices guide a clear-sighted discussion of the lives of marginalized populations, the potential held by new scientific methods of analysis, and—perhaps most importantly—the self-awareness that what we see of the past is very much a product of how we understand the present.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London WC1H 0PY, UK, and is the author of Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death (Bloomsbury, 2017).