When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, thousands of people were forced to relocate. Some returned; others never did. As the city rebuilt, it changed, through both loss and revitalization. Fifteen years later, hurricanes still threaten New Orleans, but the city certainly endures.
Keep that trajectory in mind if you ever visit a magnificent urban archaeological site such as Angkor Wat or Pompeii. As Annalee Newitz shows in the marvelous Four Lost Cities, an ancient city’s fate was determined by complex interactions of politics, the environment and human choices—all of which offer insight into the challenges of climate change and disease that we face today.
Along with Angkor in Cambodia and Pompeii in Italy, Newitz’s four cities include Çatalhöyük in Turkey, the Neolithic site of one of the world’s first cities, and Cahokia, a Native American city that was located in the St. Louis metro region. Newitz takes us along on visits to all four locations, exploring their histories and cultures through interviews with the archaeologists doing cutting-edge research at each site.
Spanning different epochs and continents, these cities were of course quite different during their respective eras. Angkor and Cahokia were essentially spiritual sites surrounded by low-density sprawl; Pompeii and Çatalhöyük were densely packed. Pompeii was a trading town; the others were predominantly agricultural. But all faced significant environmental challenges, such as climate change, flooding, drought, earthquakes and volcanic eruption. What’s perhaps most astonishing is how long they lasted in the face of these calamities. Like New Orleans, they were rebuilt, time after time, by their creative, adaptable citizens.
Through this brightly written, lucid narrative, Newitz shows us that these cities were never “lost” and rediscovered. Even when their people ultimately moved on, they took their cultures and memories with them. As we struggle with our own difficult urban realities, Newitz argues, it’s worth considering their resilience.