Lost Civilizations and Crazy People

I came across an old news report on the BBC website that piqued my interest.

The remains of what has been described as a huge lost city may force historians and archaeologists to radically reconsider their view of ancient human history.

Marine scientists say archaeological remains discovered 36 metres (120 feet) underwater in the Gulf of Cambay off the western coast of India could be over 9,000 years old.

The vast city - which is five miles long and two miles wide - is believed to predate the oldest known remains in the subcontinent by more than 5,000 years.

The breathless style made me cautious, but then the reporter quoted Graham Hancock [Fingerprints of the Gods].

The city is believed to be even older than the ancient Harappan civilisation, which dates back around 4,000 years.

Marine archaeologists have used a technique known as sub-bottom profiling to show that the buildings remains stand on enormous foundations.

The whole model of the origins of civilisation will have to be remade from scratch

Graham Hancock

Author and film-maker Graham Hancock - who has written extensively on the uncovering of ancient civilisations - told BBC News Online that the evidence was compelling:

"The [oceanographers] found that they were dealing with two large blocks of apparently man made structures.

"Cities on this scale are not known in the archaeological record until roughly 4,500 years ago when the first big cities begin to appear in Mesopotamia.

"Nothing else on the scale of the underwater cities of Cambay is known. The first cities of the historical period are as far away from these cities as we are today from the pyramids of Egypt," he said.

That really set of the bullshit meter. Unusually for such a cultish subject, Wikipedia had a pretty good entry on this.

Marine archeology in the Gulf of Cambay - now known as the Gulf of Khambhat - centers around controversial findings made in December 2000 by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT). The structures and artifacts discovered by NIOT are the subject of contention. The major disputes surrounding the Gulf of Khambhat Cultural Complex (GKCC) are claims about the existence of submerged city-like structures, the difficulty associating dated artifacts with the site itself, and disputes about whether stone artifacts recovered at the site are actually geofacts. One major complaint is that artifacts at the site were recovered by dredging, instead of being recovered during a controlled archeological excavation. This leads archeologists to claim that these artifacts cannot be definitively tied to the site. Because of this problem, prominent archeologists reject a piece of wood that was recovered by dredging and dated to 7500 B.C. as having any significance in dating the site. Another major issue is that no marine archeologist has actually inspected the site. All current research has been based on controversial sonar scans, and artifacts dredged from the sea bed.

I like unusual archeology as much as the next guy, but it works better if you can dig up some real cities.

Rethinking the Iron Age

An interesting pre-print out of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Ancient Blacksmiths, the Iron Age, Damascus Steels, and Modern Metallurgy. There is at least a possibility that the Neaderthals could have made wrought iron. The process is quite doable, you simply put iron oxide in an open hearth in a windy area, and you can make iron without melting. What is most interesting to me is the observation that large amounts of iron ore were mined in prehistory, millions of pounds. The known use of this was as ochre, a pigment.

Now, who would go to all the effort of whipping those slaves just to get some face paint? If you could make weapons or tools out of all that, it might be worth it. This is made plausible by the fact that iron rusts into nothingness readily, leaving little evidence. Iron ore is also much more plentiful than tin, needed for bronze, and iron is stronger than copper alone.

As in the case of Gobekli Tepe, ancient peoples were much more advanced than anyone would have dreamed until recently. Something terrible seems to have happened to civilization in the past that erased the memories of this, but it is unclear just what or even exactly when this was.

Byzantine History

Lars Brownworth has a nice lecture series on Byzantine history available as a podcast. In some ways, this can qualify as lost history, because few in the West know much about the Byzantine Empire. They had a pretty good run. If you go from the fall of Rome, it was another 1000 years before Byzantium was finally overrun by the Turks. 

There are a lot of interesting threads here. Byzantium is partially neglected because of the Great Schism in 1054, when Eastern and Western Christianity sundered their communion.  Also there is an element of cultural strangeness for us Westerners, because Byzantium took a very different cultural course than Europe. The history of Byzantium is also tied up in the history of the Crusades, and of the rise of Islam. 

Even the Mongols get into the act, coming in from the East to harry the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad. Actually, harry is too gentle a word. In 1258 Baghdad was obliterated by the Mongols, and the Abbasid Caliph killed. After this, the Middle East became a much rougher place, because the dynasties that arose to replace the Abbasids were less pleasant. This may also be the source of the legend of Prester John, the Eastern Christian king who it was hoped would help conquer Islam. A sizable minority of the Mongol Empire was Christian, and emissaries were sent back and forth to Europe regularly.

This lecture series is an easy introduction to this part of world history.

Ubar and the Empty Quarter

The interior of the Arabian peninsula is a vast sandy desert. So little is found here that the Arabs refer to it simply as the Empty Quarter or the Rub' al Khali (الربع الخالي). However, this was not always the case. Once Arabia (and the Sahara) was lush and verdant. This we can surmise by the existence of the wells in the Empty Quarter that the Bedouin use. The Bedouin did not dig them. They freely admit this, they simply found them in the desert. Someone went to the trouble of digging wells all over Arabia. Unfortunately, archeology is not among the sciences that Wahhabi Islam is interested in, so not much information about previous inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula is forthcoming. The find at Gobleki Tepe may indicate that a substantial civilization could be found in this area that has remained unknown.

After the climatic shift that brought sand and scorching heat to Arabia, civilization could still be found in the Empty Quarter. The City of Ubar was such a place. Ubar was a trading city of the 'Ad, the place where caravans rested before braving the desert. The primary trade good was incense, valuable even today, but worth as much as gold to the ancient world. Ubar is mentioned in the Qu'ran as a city that was destroyed by the wrath of God. However, the ruins of the city were purportedly left entire in the desert. This legend was enough to entice Sir Harry St. John Philby into the Empty Quarter to look for the lost city. What he actually found was a meteorite impact site, but given that the city had supposedly been destroyed by fire from heaven, this could have been entirely appropriate Later, the City of Ubar was found by the use of satellite imagery. The city had the misfortune to be built atop a limestone cavern, and it collapsed, destroying the city.

The legend spawned by this city and its sudden demise has proved fertile in fiction. Ubar, also known as Wabar and Irem, has been featured in H. P. Lovecraft's the Nameless City, the Arabian Nights, Tim Powers' novel Declare, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic.

Powers conflated the impact site with the actual city, making it a part of his story. At the impact site, one can find tektites, small bits of ejecta from the impact crater that were mistaken for pearls by the Bedouin. These were supposedly real pearls dropped by the women fleeing from the harem, scorched black by the doom that overcame Ubar. In Powers' telling, the pearls were the cause, rather than the result of the doom of Ubar. The impact site is 300-400 years old, while the city was destroyed approximately 1600 years ago. While it would have been fun for the city to have really been destroyed by fire from heaven, that seems to not be the case.