The discovery of a 3,year-old city that was lost to the sands of Egypt has been hailed as one of the most important archaeological finds since Tutankhamun's tomb. Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass announced the discovery of the "lost golden city" near Luxor on Thursday.
Determined archaeologists have helped to uncover ancient lost cities and put them on the map again, and here are our top picks. He returned to the US with thousands of artefacts — including beautiful ceramic figurines — and vowed to return to excavate it properly.
When Preston accompanied a team of archeologists to explore the city on foot, they found an undisturbed set of ruins overrun by the forest, likely untouched since it was abandoned. The site was not without dangers: the city is located in a region lost by drug cartels, while deadly snakes and forest creatures find the jungle.
The peril continued even after they departed: the team discovered that while on site, they had been infected by a flesh-eating parasite.
We spoke with Douglas Preston about the city and the research that he has recounted in his book. Are there other places around the world that might be out there, hidden?
Lost city of z
There are certainly more lost cities hidden in the heavily jungled mountains of Mosquitia. As the book shows, our LIDAR survey turned up not one but two lost cities, and the second one — as large as the core of Copan — has not been explored at all. While doing aerial reconnaissance of Mosquitia, back inour expedition team spied gigantic sinkholes and monumental find openings in an exceedingly remote area of rugged karst topography east of the Patuca River, near the Nicaraguan border.
The only way to get into this city would be by rappelling down from a hovering chopper. Clearly an extensive cavern system lies in this area, and our research indicates it has never been entered or explored in modern times. Because the lost inhabitants of the region buried their dead in caves, these caverns likely hide major necropolises, ossuaries, and other archaeological treasures.
Seen from space
It has been alleged that during the Contra war people were thrown out of helicopters into these gaping sinkholes, so lost may be more awaiting the explorer than prehistoric burials. Other scientifically unexplored areas where there might be undiscovered ruins include the deeper parts of the Amazon and the heavily forested mountains in the city highlands of Peru.
Finally, most of the sea bed has never been explored and there are many shipwrecks and natural wonders to be found. You use the first part of the book to explore some of the history of the region and how this city has been seeped in local legend. It's fascinating how impenetrable this part of the world is. How much did geography and terrain help shield the ruins? Geography — natural and human — has everything to do with why the city remained undiscovered.
In this area, some of the thickest rain forest on Earth covers precipitous mountain chains, some over a mile high, with roaring torrents, frequent landslides, steep ravines, waterfalls, pools of quick mud that will swallow a person alive, and noxious insects carrying diseases. The understory is infested with deadly snakes, jaguars, and thickets of catclaw vines with hooked thorns that find at flesh and clothing.
What they found
In Mosquitia, an experienced group of explorers, well equipped with machetes and saws, can expect to journey two to three miles in a brutal hour day. The towns and rural areas surrounding the jungle are largely controlled by drug cartels, with a murder rate that is the highest in the world. The fierce physical terrain, combined with surrounding lawlessness and violence, have protected this area for centuries. I wonder how pulp stories like Indiana Jones feed into this. I know some archeologists cringe at the name.
Archaeologists cringe for good reason. Until recently, many archaeologists were shockingly insensitive and arrogant in the way they conducted fieldwork, riding roughshod over the feelings, religious beliefs, and traditions of indigenous people.
They dug up burials without permission, put human remains and sensitive grave goods on public display in museums, hauled off sacred objects to which they had no legal right of ownership. Today the profession has reacted against this dark history and tried to make fundamental changes in the way they conduct fieldwork and work with local people.
13 of the best lost cities
I might add that the expedition chronicled in my book had 12 PhD scientists on it, including three top archaeologists. You talk a bit about how it's been used to uncover other ruins around the world: how do you see its use in transforming our understanding of the past? LIDAR is a lost revolutionary technology. One archaeologist said it was the greatest city since Carbon 14 dating. To give one example: in one week of surveying the Maya city of Caracol with LIDAR, archaeologists uncovered tens of thousands of archaeological features that had not been found in 25 years of intensive ground surveys.
The first LIDAR survey of the Mexican find of Angamuco uncovered 20, ly undiscovered cities, including entire pyramids missed by the ground surveys! Mark my words: when the Amazon Basin and the highlands of Peru are surveyed with LIDAR, we can expect spectacular, incredible, and mind-boggling discoveries to be made. LIDAR will open up the find forest like a book, which we can then read with ease. The LIDAR machine we used cost about a million dollars, but even if the price of the machine goes down, the expense of flying the specially modified plane will not. Just getting in and out of these remote areas by aircraft is pricey and dangerous.
Do you think there will be resistance to this technology in academic archeology? As might be expected with any disruptive technology, some of the old guard has resisted and even condemned it. But that is not good archaeology, because all it produces is a discovery —not knowledge … [LIDAR] may be good science—but it is bad archaeology. They absolutely love it. Let's talk about the city that you guys discovered. What was it like standing in a place that you know or believe hasn't been visited for centuries?
I can recall the very moment when we stumbled over the cache of sculptures at the base of an earthen pyramid. I first saw a carved jaguar head coming out of the ground. Gleaming with rain, it rose up snarling, as if struggling to escape the earth. It was an image that spoke directly to me across the centuries — forging an immediate, emotional connection to these vanished people.
What had been theoretical for me became real: this spirited image had been created by people who were confident, accomplished, and formidable. Standing in the gloom among the ancient mounds, enveloped in the mist, I could almost feel the presence of the invisible dead.
The stone artifacts are beautifully preserved. The great temples and public buildings of this lost civilization, however, were built out of adobe, beautifully polished tropical hardwoods, and draped with spectacular textiles — all perishable materials.
Their buildings and cities may well have been just as magnificent as the cut-stone temples of the Maya. But once abandoned, they dissolved in the rain and rotted away, leaving behind unimpressive mounds of dirt and rubble that were swallowed by vegetation. In the acidic rain forest soils, no organic remains survive — not even the bones of the dead. So in that sense it is not well preserved.
However, the city was pristine and unlooted, which is exceedingly rare for any site in Central America.
What types of artifacts have been recovered from the site, and what do they tell us about the civilization? The most spectacular discovery was the cache of sculptures found at the base of a pyramid.
In a broad hollow area, just poking out of the ground, we came across the tops of dozens of extraordinary carved stone sculptures — 52 in all. The objects, glimpsed among leaves and vines, and carpeted with moss, took shape in the forest twilight: the jaguar head mentioned above, great stone jars carved with vultures, snakes and monkeys, objects that looked like thrones or tables, many with carvings along the rims and legs. These sculptures were in beautiful condition and had probably been lying undisturbed since they had been left centuries ago — until we stumbled across them.
Determined archaeologists have helped to uncover ancient lost cities and put them on the map again, and here are our top picks
Excavation of the cache revealed it was vast: over sculptures and fragments, with many more still buried as of this writing. They had all been left at the same time when the city was abandoned, many ritually broken to release their spirits, a common practice for objects placed in a grave. But this cache was not the grave of a person — it was the grave of the entire city.
Archaeologists theorize that a mysterious a catastrophe struck the city, killing most of the inhabitants. The survivors gathered up all their sacred objects, placed them as an offering to their gods, and walked away — never to return.
My book explores the cataclysm that destroyed the city and, in fact, shattered the entire civilization. What progress has been made in research on the site now that a year has passed since you were last there? The excavations are temporarily suspended, but the site is still being guarded by soldiers.
The city is vast; over a mile square.
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Only about 40 square meters have been excavated down to a depth of only 18 inches. There is a lot more work to be done, if it is done at all. There are excellent arguments for not excavating the rest of the city. Either way, research on the site will go on for many years, if not centuries.
While you were there, you and several other researchers were infected with Leishmaniasis, a disease caused by protozoan parasites.
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Mucosal leishmaniasis struck down two-thirds of the expedition — Hondurans, Americans and Brits alike. It is a very persistent disease, a flesh-eating parasite that attacks the face and eventually causes your lips and nose to slough off, leaving a weeping sore where your face used to be.
I would not recommend Googling pictures of the disease! It has returned in a of people. But we are getting the best medical care in the world from doctors at the National Institutes of Health, who are studying us and our disease, which appears to be a unique form.
It makes for a fascinating medical mystery. What was his take on this disease? You spend some time at the end of the book examining the disease and how it's becoming more prevalent. My brother and I both have an interest in exotic and gruesome diseases.
As children we were often sent away from the dinner for telling disgusting stories. Richard was shocked and concerned when he learned I had the disease. It is, of course, much worse than leish.
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Yes, without hesitation. Of course, there are other diseases, not to mention the snakes, but nothing truly worth accomplishing is without risk. Why do you think we're so attracted to these sorts of legends and myths about lost or hidden places around the world?
It is incredible to think that a lost city could still be found in the 21st century, but that is precisely what happened. People feel the world has shrunk. But this discovery puts some of that mystery back.