Four Lost Cities

Four Lost Cities coverFour Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age
Annalee Newitz
read by Chloe Cannon
HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books, February 09, 2021
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$15.30 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
Purchased with an Audible credit

Annalee Newitz takes on the issue of urban life in human history. Her method is to document the rise and fall of four very different cities in four disparate parts of the world across four different eras.

Çatalhöyük was a Neolithic city in what is now Turkey. People built their homes side-by-side with city shops and common resources on the roofs above their homes. Residents buried their dead beneath their sleeping areas. They sometimes abandoned their home, in which case they filled it in before leaving. Sometimes abandoned homes were used for trash by others; sometimes another family took it over. Çatalhöyük lasted for a thousand years, but eventually people abandoned the city for the countryside. The population in the countryside continued to use the site for burials, however.

You know about Pompeii and its fate in 79 CE. Newitz, however, offers insight into what the city was like at its height. It was a tourist town with many elegant homes and prosperous businesses. There was even one dedicated brothel. There were plenty of phallus figurines, and much of the art on the wall was bawdy in nature. Pompeii was a cosmopolitan city, influenced as much by North Africa as by Rome. While many people perished, survivors made new lives in nearby cities. Slaves whose masters were killed in the eruption were often freed and able to carry on their masters’ businesses.

Angkor in what is now Cambodia was a site where the preconceptions of Western archaeologists gave them a skewed picture of what was really there. The temples fascinated them and they failed to see what was around those temples. Modern archaeologists have used Lidar, light detection and ranging, to observe what traditional archaeologists missed. Using this laser-based technology they discovered a whole city of common people who lived and worked there.

Outside what is now St. Louis, Indigenous people built a city archaeologists called Cahokia, named for a later people who claimed no credit for the original site. Cahokia went through a variety of iterations over a long stretch of time, changing, apparently, as the form of government and their society’s values evolved. Like Çatalhöyük, residents eventually abandoned the city for the countryside.

Newitz uses these four cities as a cautionary tale for our modern world, and although she at times paints a grim picture, in the end she holds out hope for human resilience.

Chloe Cannon provides a clear, highly listenable narration for Four Lost Cities. There are a couple of issues with the audiobook edition, however. There are apparently images in the book that are obviously missing in the audiobook. There are also many place names and architectural terms that I would be hard pressed to look up as their spelling is not at all clear from the pronunciation. It may be that Four Lost Cities is better read in print or e-book format than listened to as an audiobook.

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