June, 18, 2012 -- Slashing through jungles searching for lost cities may be a thing of the past, now that a team from the University of Houston has developed a way to peer through even dense foliage to find signs of hidden ruins. The team used a laser-based light detection and ranging (LIDAR) system to find ruins blanketed by the forest in eastern Honduras.
In 1526, conquistador Hernán Cortés heard tales of a white city, la Ciudad Blanca, hidden in the forests of Honduras. Explorers have searched the forest, called La Mosquitia, for centuries in vain. The LIDAR system may have found what generations of treasure-seekers overlooked.
The system used more than four billion laser pulses to map La Mosquitia, the largest wilderness area in Central America. The image shows what looks like a central courtyard surrounded by structures.
No one has ventured into the area yet to confirm the observations. And if this really is the legendary city, no one knows anything about the mysterious structure except that it exists. So it looks like the days of Indiana Jones are not yet over; there is still a job for machete-wielding adventurers to go out and find lost cities. And throughout history archeologists, explorers and thieves have trudged through the wilderness endeavoring to do just that.
On the other side of Honduras from the recently discovered ruins, the Mayans built Copán, a city that some call the Athens of Mesoamerica because of its exquisitely carved sculptures.
After 2000 years of occupation, the political structure of the city collapsed in the 800's A.D., possibly due to overpopulation and environmental collapse. Pollen samples show that farms around Copán had crept up the steep surrounding hillsides. This not only reduced the amount of wood for buildings and cooking fires, it also left the denuded slopes open to erosion and landslides.
The area was never completely abandoned, but many of the finely carved statues fell and were buried in sediments from the nearby river. Some of the statues now now bear scars from where plows scraped against them as locals continued to work the land. Other carved stones from the region were re-purposed as building materials in the dwellings of the local farmers.
The former beauty of the city was largely forgotten after the Spanish conquest. A few explorers sent back tales of the intricate artwork during the 19th century, including writer and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and illustrator Frederick Catherwood. Their book "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán" helped to popularize the ruins and turn it into an international tourist destination.
While exploring the region, Stephens reportedly bought all of the ruins of Copán for $50, though he never capitalized on his investment.
Copán suffered a slow slide into oblivion, but other lost cities died violent deaths. The blind poet Homer told of Troy, the great city-state laid low when Menelaus, king of Mycenean Sparta, went looking for revenge. Menelaus led a coalition of Greeks against Paris, the Trojan prince who kidnapped Helen, Menelaus' fantastically beautiful wife. By the end of Homer's tale, Greeks hidden in a wooden horse had sacked Troy, and Helen was on a ship bound for Greece.
The ancient tales of Homer were thought to be nothing more than legends until until 1865 when English archaeologist Frank Calvert followed ancient clues to Hisarlik, Turkey. He dug a few trenches and uncovered artifacts that convinced him he was on the trail of Homer's heroes. Calvert's initial discoveries were soon overshadowed when he teamed up with the impetuous German amateur archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann.
Schliemann gouged through the artifacts and sediments of later settlements with a speed and lack of care that left modern archeologists aghast. He even tried to recapture the beauty of Helen by dressing his own young wife in gold and jewels discovered at the site. But for all his recklessness Schliemann found enough evidence to convince the world that Troy had been found.
More recent geological studies and archeological excavations have confirmed that the site may well have been the ancient battlefield where Achilles was brought to heel, Odysseus lost his way, and Hector found that chariots can be a real drag.
Homer wasn't the only Greek with stories of lost cities. In 360 B.C., Plato wrote about Atlantis. The philosopher wrote that, although Atlantis had conquered many lands, it was brought to ruin in a single day and night.
No one has ever proven if Atlantis ever existed or to which ancient civilization it referred. One of the top contenders is the Minoan civilization on Crete, which was destroyed in a single cataclysmic day. The Minoans, named for their king Minos, held sway over trade in the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. But in the second millennium B.C. a volcano on the nearby island of Santorini unleashed one of the largest eruption in human history. Earthquakes and tidal waves leveled the Minoan capital of Knossos and deluged the island's farmland.
The Minoans never recovered but their memory persisted in the region. The Romans remembered the island as the home of Minos and minted coins on the island depicting the Minotaur, the mythological bull-headed man who stalked Theseus in Minos' labyrinth.
By modern times, the civilization itself had been lost in the labyrinth of time until Arthur Evans, an English journalist and scholar, appeared on the scene in the early 1900's . Before he could start digging, Evans had to help bring about peace between Crete's Muslim and Christian populations as the island struggled for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Evans used his power as a journalist to decry the massacres each side perpetrated and to influence the British Empire to step in and enforce order.
Once the bloodshed had ended, Evans' workers uncovered an elaborate network of workrooms, living quarters, storerooms, and administrative centers. The sprawling complex was adorned with brightly colored frescoes. The British School at Athens offers a virtual tour of the site.
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Volcanoes destroyed more than one city in the ancient Mediterranean. In 79 A.D., the Roman historian Pliny the Younger observed and recorded the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius as it engulfed Pompeii. He watched his uncle Pliny the Elder sail with the Roman navy across the Bay of Naples in a doomed rescue attempt from which the Elder would never return. The city, along with many of its inhabitants, was entombed in ash for more than a thousand years.
In Pompeii, it wasn't just the lava that was hot. Graffiti found near the town's center from around the time of the eruption labeled the city as “Sodom and Gomorrah,” referring to the cities of sin destroyed in the Old Testament of the Bible. The city's sexual proclivities were such that after its rediscovery many of the city's wall frescoes were censored or hidden away from the prudish eyes of the public.
In 1599, after the accidental discovery of Pompeii during a construction project, architect Domenico Fontana may have reburied or used plaster to cover wall frescoes that were too hot for the Renaissance, including depictions of the god Priapus with his giant engorged phallus. In 1819, the king of Naples had the erotic art of Pompeii locked away and only allowed adults to view the images. It wasn't until the year 2000 that the works were re-opened for public viewing.
The ancient world of Homer and Plato has passed into memory, along with many of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. In 2007, a new set of wonders was inaugurated by means of a global vote. One of those wonders was Machu Picchu. The ruined site high in the mountains of Peru was built by the Incas in the mid-1400's, but was largely forgotten after disease and civil war left the Incan Empire vulnerable to Spanish invaders.
American historian Hiram Bingham is generally credited with alerting the outside world to Machu Picchu's existence after an 11-year old boy led him to the site on July 24, 1911. When he arrived, there were indigenous people living amongst the ruins, so it can't be said that he discovered the site. It may be that he wasn't even the first foreigner to walk amongst the perfectly cut, jigsaw-like blocks of stone that make up parts of the “Old Peak,” the Quechua translation of Machu Picchu.
Bingham may have been beaten by a German businessman, Augusto Berns, who seems to have been looting the site in 1867. Berns had set up a sawmill at the base of the mountain below Machu Picchu and used it as a base to pilfer artifacts to sell in Europe. An old map led historical detectives on the trail to uncover the robber of Machu Picchu. No one knows exactly what or how much Berns made off with.
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Augusto Berns at Machu Picchu was one of the many thieves who have sought to line their pockets by pilfering from the past.
In the mountains near Santa Marta, Colombia, La Ciudad Perdida, Spanish for the lost city, lives up to its name. The city once housed up to 8,000 people and was the center of the Tairona civilization. It was mostly abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest. The descendants of the Tairona kept quiet about the city to outsiders, although they continued to visit it themselves. The indigenous people's secret was safe until tomb raiders found the city in 1972 and began selling the Tairona's gold treasures and ceramics on the black market.
The city was lost to the outside world again in 2003 when eight foreign tourists were kidnapped by the Marxist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army. The guerrillas demanded investigations into human rights abuses by the government. By 2005 the area had been pacified and tourists were allowed back in.
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Anthropologists, conquistadors and grave robbers weren't the first Europeans to explore the Western Hemisphere by a long shot. The Greenland Saga and Saga of Eric the Red tell of Norse voyages to the west which found bountiful lands of timber, called Markland, and grapes, named Vinland, in approximately 1000 A.D.
In the sagas, Leif Eriksson reported building a large house in one of these western lands he and his men explored. Thorfinn Karlsefni was the first Norseman to make a real effort to colonize Vinland. He led 60 men and five women to found a colony, but returned to Greenland after three hard years of rough weather and mutual hostilities with the native peoples. While in Vinland, he was the father of Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first European born in what would become the Americas.
The story of the Norse in the Western Hemisphere was relegated to the dustbin of mythology by many historians until a discovery on the northern tip of Newfoundland proved the Norse had beaten Columbus by 500 years. Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian, found evidence of at least nine buildings left by his fellow Scandinavians 1000 years before.
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