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Not discovery, but rediscovery

Not discovery, but rediscovery
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What kid hasn’t pretended to venture through the dense jungle (really their backyard) and suddenly stumble across vast ruins, untouched for centuries? It’s an adventure fantasy deeply ingrained in our psyche, built on the journeys of 19th- and early-20th-century explorers. “Lost” cities, hidden to the outside world, offer valuable information about the past when they’re found and studied. Usually, the people who lived in such places left or died due to war or conquest, disease, economic hardship, or natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, or volcanic eruptions. Hundreds of these sites around the world are often clustered near formerly thriving civilisations, including those of the Incas, the Maya, the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Egyptians. Some legendary cities are generally regarded today to be fictional, but others may exist and continue to be searched for today. They remain some of the ancient mysteries researchers still can’t explain.

Today, though, modern archaeologists recognise the importance of respecting and working with local people, and utilising local knowledge, when it comes to “rediscovering” sites that have been there all along. As archaeologists say, “It’s not what you find; it’s what you find out.”

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru
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Perhaps the most famous rediscovered city and now one of the most popular travel destinations in South America, Machu Picchu sits high in the Peruvian Andes. On July 24, 1911, the explorer Hiram Bingham first laid eyes on the majestic site. The local people, though, had known about the ruins and actually showed Bingham the way – but his reports became the first time the place was made known to the world at large.

“Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stone work,” he wrote in his 1948 best seller Lost City of the Incas. “It was hard to see them for they were partly covered with trees and moss, the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, appeared here and there walls of white granite ashlars carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together.…Dimly I began to realise that this wall and its adjoining semi-circular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world. It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be?”

Researchers now believe it was a summer retreat for the Inca elite. Even though Machu Picchu was abandoned as the Incan empire collapsed in the 16th century, the Spanish invaders never found it. It sat largely undisturbed until Bingham’s arrival.

Vilcabamba, Peru

Vilcabamba, Peru
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When Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu, he was actually looking for – and believed he’d found – Vilcabamba, the “lost city of the Incas” that was the emperor’s final refuge before being overthrown by Spanish invaders. Ironically, expeditions after his death proved Bingham had found Vilcabamba. It wasn’t Machu Picchu, though; it was another nearby site called Espiritu Pampa. The archaeologist Gene Savoy re-rediscovered that site in 1964. Even today, Vilcabamba hasn’t been fully excavated; recent research has even discovered evidence of pre-Incan inhabitants called the Wari. Today, plans for a museum and more field research at the site are in the works. Another city Bingham rediscovered, Choquequirao, which means “cradle of gold,” is still being uncovered from the jungle as well.

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Babylon, Iraq

Babylon, Iraq
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In the ancient land of Mesopotamia, this thriving and powerful city once stood. Famous for its appearances throughout the Bible, the actual site of Babylon existed in what is now Iraq, about 80 kilometres south of Baghdad. “In addition to its enormous size it surpasses in splendour any city of the known world,” the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century BCE. After being conquered by the Persians and then the Greeks, Babylon eventually fell into ruins and was covered by the desert. German archaeologist Robert Koldewey excavated the city in 1899, but European travellers had seen it for at least a century before that. Today, archaeologists believe the biblical Tower of Babel may have actually been the temple to the Babylonian god Marduk, but it’s not clear if the Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, actually existed in Babylon, as no real evidence for them has been found there.

Iraq ruler Saddam Hussein attempted to reconstruct parts of Babylon, and further military occupation damaged the ancient site – but today’s archaeologists are hoping to better preserve it.

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Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii, Italy
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In 79 CE, a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the nearby city of Pompeii and some of its residents under 6 metres of ash and rock. The location of the city was gradually lost to history, but it was rediscovered in the 15th century by an architect planning to build on the site. Excavations didn’t begin until 1748, but have continued ever since. “Pompeii as an archaeological site is the longest continually excavated site in the world,” Steven Ellis, a classics professor at the University of Cincinnati who directs an archaeological research project at Pompeii, told National Geographic. The eruption helped preserve the city so well that it gave later scholars tons of info on what ancient Roman life was really like – and there’s still more of Pompeii left to discover, as a third of the city may still be buried.

Modern technologies are also being applied to victims’ remains to identify genetic profiles and get clues to their diet and lifestyle. Art restorations have recently revealed more stunningly vibrant frescoes as well. And in 2018, archaeologists discovered a date inscription  that literally rewrote history: the inscribed date was October 17, which means the eruption couldn’t have taken place on August 24 as previously thought.

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Atlantis

Atlantis
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We’re sorry to disappoint, but today’s reputable scholars believe the sunken city of Atlantis is totally made-up. However, ancient ruins are occasionally found beneath the sea, leading to sensationalised headlines that Atlantis has been found. As in a 2018 claim, many treasure hunters have believed the city to be located somewhere near the coast of southern Spain. Unfortunately, all archaeologists really have to go on as to location are the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato from around 360 BCE, who described the city as being near the Strait of Gibraltar. But his morality tale was most likely only an allegory for a wealthy, corrupt city that was destroyed by the gods for its hubris and sunk into the sea.

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Helike, Greece

Helike, Greece
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While Atlantis itself might be fictional, it’s possible that Plato was inspired by real-life incidents like that of the ancient Greek city of Helike, which is described in ancient texts as being hit by a tsunami after an earthquake and sinking into the water. For many years researchers searched, believing the city to be in the ocean. But they hit a dead end until Greek archaeologist Dora Katsonopoulou had an idea: what if the ancient description of the tragedy could refer to an inland lagoon? The researchers then had to study the changed geography of the region, because in the modern day, there were no lagoons in the area where Helike was believed to be. Finally, in 2001, Katsonopoulou found the city. Although the ruins aren’t as grand as some others we’ve seen, they sure have one of the most captivating stories behind their discovery.

Angkor, Cambodia

Angkor, Cambodia
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From the ninth to the 15th centuries, the Khmer empire’s city of Angkor thrived until, researchers believe, a period of huge monsoons destroyed its highly sophisticated water-management system. After the city was abandoned, some temples remained important pilgrimage sites while others were reclaimed by the jungle. In the 1860s, French explorer Henri Mouhout was the first European to report on the ruins, which are now a major archaeological site. Discoveries are still being made at Angkor – laser scanning from 2016 revealed a sprawling urban settlement as big as Los Angeles. And Cambodia’s dense jungles haven’t given up all their secrets just yet: in 2019, the lost city of Mahendraparvata, which predates Angkor, was located and identified by French archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance.

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Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan
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Petra looks like a movie set, so it’s no surprise that it was featured as the lost temple that hid the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In reality, the ancient “Rose City” carved directly into red-tinged sandstone rock thrived for centuries until its gradual abandonment when the Romans took over and changed trade roads. Closely guarded by local people, Europeans did not know of its whereabouts until a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, visited there in 1812, hiding his identity as a Westerner and pretending to be on a pilgrimage. “Here are the remains of an ancient city, which I conjecture to be Petra…a place which, as far as I know, no European traveller has ever visited,” he wrote.

The site didn’t hold the Holy Grail as in the movie, nor did it fulfil rumours of treasure – one building nicknamed “the Treasury” was really a tomb and contained no riches. But it was still a miraculous find, even if Burckhardt did go there under false pretences. Today, discoveries are still being made: in 2016, new satellite scans revealed a huge monumental platform hiding in plain sight.

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El Dorado

El Dorado
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There’s a ‘nugget’ of truth in the story of the legendary South American city of gold called El Dorado. In fact, El Dorado might not have been a city at all, but a tradition of the indigenous Muisca people of Colombia. The Spanish invaders heard of a ceremony in which the incoming Muisca leader would dust himself with gold, float out on a lake on a raft, and throw gold and jewels into the water as an offering to the gods. The Spanish started looking for this gold, and somehow the story of this treasure grew into an entire city of gold. British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh conducted two ill-fated expeditions to find El Dorado around 1600, the second of which ended in the death of his son in a skirmish with the Spanish, and on his return to England, Raleigh was beheaded for fighting with Spain.

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