Monday, April 12, 2021

Four Lost Cities A Secret History of the Urban Age, by Annalee Newitz (author), Chloe Cannon (narrator)

Highbridge, February 2021

The allure of "lost cities" is a strong one; many of us love the story of one lost city or another. Annalee Newitz gives us the stories of four of them--Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic site in Turkey; Pompeii, on the Italian coast and the slope of Mt. Vesuvius; medieval Angkor in Cambodia; Cahokia, an indigenous North American metropolis at the site that's now East St. Louis.

Newitz looks at each of these cities using new developments and techniques in archaeology to consider the cities and their culture through the lives of the average residents as well as the elites. 

Çatalhöyük is built in layers--houses being abandoned and, after some gap in time, new houses being built over them, with streets and walkways on top of the current layer of houses. Workers carried something very like business cards, identifying their trades and other affiliations, in the first human settlement large enough that you didn't, couldn't know everyone.

In Pompeii, freed slaves, their offspring, and lower-ranked citizens would buy the former villas of the elites, and turn them into shops, workshops, and apartments--often trying to preserve the look of an elite villa as much as they could. Freed slaves took their former owner's family name as their own new family name, and maintained connections and obligations to them. As a vacation city, Pompeii had a thriving commercial culture, until the volcano ended it.

Angkor was a city of temples, and dependent on excellent water management because of its environment. Unfortunately, while some of the water management decisions were grounded in solid engineering, others were grounded in politics and religious ideas of advantageous orientation. Labor management was also very much top-down, and not every ruler did that wisely or with a sense of the limits of what people would tolerate.

Cahokia, center of the Mississippian culture, was built around a series of public squares, where public meetings, religious meetings, sports, and entertainment all happened. There was not one single center to the city, but public squares in every part of it, with people coming from all over to participate in major festivals. There seems to have been no particular organized system of economic exchange, with families, neighborhoods, and other types of groups reaching arrangements that worked for them. Cahokia wasn't about economics; it was about their thriving, shared religion.

What's really striking and exciting about Newitz's account, though, is about how none of these "lost cities" were ever truly lost. The local populations not only knew where they were, but in the all except Pompeii, which became a toxic ruin in the aftermath of the Vesuvius eruption, continued to use the area, though in different ways, as the environment and the local culture changed. Angkor in particular is an outrageous case of misrepresentation. A Frenchman "found" the city around the time the French took control of Cambodia as a colony. At the time, the population was low compared to earlier periods, but monks were at the temple still conducting religious ceremonies, and there's ample documentation of foreign visitors, including from China, visiting the city. The French had to kick the monks out of the temple in order to pursue their own plans of making it a French "discovery" and tourist attraction.

Çatalhöyük's neighbors knew where it was, dug up artifacts while ploughing their fields, and sometimes using bits and pieces from it. Cahokia's population dispersed but didn't disappear, though the Eurasian diseases brought by Europeans eventually devastated what was left before Europeans even reached the area--and it's still populated now. Mostly by the descendants of Europeans and Africans, and we do call it East St. Louis, now. Yet the area never ceased to be a population center, even though the uses and organization have changed.

Pompeii did die, of course, but not due to the fall of its civilization. The place merely became uninhabitable. Rome's government organized a major humanitarian relief project, originally intending to rebuild as had happened after earthquakes. When that clearly couldn't be done, the relief went to resettling the surviving residents instead--and many of those people continued to identify as being from Pompeii, and maintained contact with their Pompeiian neighbors and connections.

Urbanization changes, but it doesn't go away.

And yes, Newitz makes this much more interesting than I do, while Chloe Cannon helps by doing an excellent job as the narrator.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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