Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

by Annalee Newitz

Hardcover, 2021



Call number



W. W. Norton & Company (2021), Edition: 1, 320 pages


"A quest to explore some of the most spectacular ancient cities in human history--and figure out why people abandoned them. In Four Lost Cities, acclaimed science journalist Annalee Newitz takes readers on an entertaining and mind-bending adventure into the deep history of urban life. Investigating across the centuries and around the world, Newitz explores the rise and fall of four ancient cities, each the center of a sophisticated civilization: the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Central Turkey, the Roman vacation town of Pompeii on Italy's southern coast, the medieval megacity of Angkor in Cambodia, and the indigenous metropolis Cahokia, which stood beside the Mississippi River where East St. Louis is today. Newitz travels to all four sites and investigates the cutting-edge research in archaeology, revealing the mix of environmental changes and political turmoil that doomed these ancient settlements. Tracing the early development of urban planning, Newitz also introduces us to the often anonymous workers--slaves, women, immigrants, and manual laborers--who built these cities and created monuments that lasted millennia. Four Lost Cities is a journey into the forgotten past, but, foreseeing a future in which the majority of people on Earth will be living in cities, it may also reveal something of our own fate"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisCarey
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member evano
While the descriptions of the four lost cities were rich and deep, what ruined it for me was the speculation about the thought, actions, and intents of the people living in these lost cities. Maybe it's just me, but I found myself putting the book down every chapter and saying "How could Newitz
Show More
possibly know that?" The writing was entertaining, the sense of place was well done, and if you can get past the fictions in this non-fiction work, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member DellaPenna
Excellent read, well written with an abundance of accessible end notes supporting the author's narrative. This book discusses the changes in archaeological interpretation since the 20th century; it also introduces isotopic analysis in human migration patterns.
LibraryThing member Shrike58
When I picked this book up I'm going to admit that my expectations were only moderate, in that I expected superficial coverage tying back in to "Scatter, Adapt, and Remember:" which remains the author's signature work. However, Newitz does a good job of packing a lot of information into her
Show More
chapters on the various cities covered and I learned something new in each one; that's all you can ask of a popular history book. And yeah, Newitz does wind up invoking her previous book but, for the most part, the points are well made. Still, the point that civilizations are actually pretty hard to kill, and are more likely to transform than to go extinct, is also not news; though maybe only if you've been reading grad-school level history and sociology on a regular basis. To be fair, I'm probably not the person this book was written for.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LibroLindsay
The information here is really fun and does a great job at moving away from the colonial context and meanings assigned to them. My favorite section was on Çatalhöyük, mostly because I knew the least about it, and my heart bursts with pride for a popular author actually giving some air time to
Show More
Cahokia. I'm overdue for a hop across the river...
Show Less
LibraryThing member Fosnight
Okay… wanted to like it, but not collection worthy. Good book to get from library.
LibraryThing member Bodagirl
I would have liked this book better as a print book because I had a hard time picturing some of the structures, mainly Çatalhöyük and somewhat Angkor. The section on Cahokia was particularly strong and I think Newitz made excellent points about popular misconceptions about Native American
Show More
civilization. The epilogue was possibly the most thought provoking art of the book and I immediately saw Newitz's skills with speculative fiction grounded in reality.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This book examines 4 cities that eventually stopped being cities (Çatalhöyük, Ankor Wat, Pompeii, and Cahokia), and explores what the end of a city looks like: why did people leave these cities? How long did it take? Did it feel like an apocalypse, or a process of change? Obviously the answers
Show More
are different for each city. In looking at the ends of these cities, Newitz also writes about current catastrophes, particularly climate catastrophes, and whether there are any useful lessons in history as modern cities face existential crises. I already knew quite a bit about some of these cities (although of course I learned more!), so I was particularly interested in thinking about the ends of modern cities, but Newitz didn't go into as much detail as I was hoping she would. Still, this is an interesting read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Castlelass
This book is part memoir and part history. It covers the history of four ancient cities that have been deserted for centuries. The four cities are: Çatalhöyük (Turkey), Pompeii (Italy), Angkor (Cambodia), and Cahokia (US). Newitz visited each site, interviewed experts, and recounts what has been
Show More
discovered, focusing on how the people lived and how the city died out.

My favorite is the first part set in Çatalhöyük. I think it is a brilliant move by the author to follow what can be gleaned of the life of a regular person. A female skeleton, named Dido by archeologists, was found at the site, along with relics of her home life. It really helps bring the history to life. Since so much time has passed, they have to speculate, but it is based on logical reasoning and the author tells us how they came to those conclusions.

The Pompeii section contains lots of information I had already known, but there are some new tidbits, such as where the people went after they evacuated in the wake of the eruption of Vesuvius. The Angkor section shows how important it is to plan a city, rather than place the water source at the whim of the person in charge. The final section portrays life in an ancient city near St. Louis. I did not know much about this site and found this section informative.

This book is filled with fascinating facts about how people lived in ancient times. Other accounts call them “lost” cities, but the author points out that they were abandoned over a period of time for a variety of reasons. If you enjoy archeology or sociology, as I do, you may want to check it out.
Show Less



Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

9.4 inches


0393652661 / 9780393652666
Page: 1.2091 seconds