Last June, explorer Franck Goddio scuba dived into the Mediterranean Sea, and 8 meters (26 feet) underwater swam face-to-face with a huge statue. "The face of a pharaoh was absolutely perfect," he says. What astonished Goddio even more was a sunken world of intact houses, columned shrines, and even gold coins and jewelry. He'd found the fabled Egyptian coastal city of Herakleion, which sunk more than 1,300 years ago. In disbelief, Goddio removed his fins and walked along the paved streets. "It really was a frozen world," he says.
For years, the French archaeologist (scientist who studies past cultures) labored to find the ruins of the once-thriving port (see map, p. 14), but until recently he lacked the technology to locate it. Now, armed with a battery of high-tech instruments, Goddio and other archaeologists are discovering ancient ruins at the fastest rate in history.
For months before his dive, Goddio scoured Abu Kir Bay using thousands of sonar (sound wave) readings to map the size, shape, and elevation of the seafloor. Irregular bumps offered clues to the buried city's exact location.
What sank Herakleion? Soil analysis shows the Egyptians couldn't resist building the city on marshlands at the gateway to the Nile. A major storm or earthquake may have caused the city to vanish in days or hours. Fortunately, ocean sediments (eroded rock and living matter) helped preserve the lost world.
As the Euphrates River in southeast Turkey slowly rises, archaeologist Mehmet Onal grows troubled. A new dam threatens to plunge the ruins of Zeugma, a 2,000-year-old outpost of the Roman Empire, underwater. Zeugma may boast the world's most spectacular mosaic floors. No matter how fast Onal's archaeology team uncovers the mosaics and other artifacts (ancient objects), it won't be fast enough. By late fall the waters will flood Belkis (the current town built atop Zeugma) and submerge one fifth of the ruins.
"The battle is futile," says Onal. It's a battle he can't win. The Turkish government claims it must dam the Euphrates to produce much-needed electricity for nearby towns. In the case of Zeugma, archaeology will take a back seat to the needs of human industry and development.
Zeugma is just one of several newly unearthed cities reshaping ancient history. Just across the Syrian border, archaeologists recently discovered a buried metropolis sprawling over 2 sq. km (500 acres) and speckled with 6,000-year-old ruins. The Syrian ruins, called Tell Hamoukar, contain a collection of ovens large enough to feed an army. Archaeologists believe the concept of people cooking communally for each other is a clear sign of planned civilization--and so far this is the earliest civilization ever found!
LA GRAN SAPOSOA, PERU
Last spring, much like Indiana Jones in Raider's of the Lost Ark, American explorer Gene Savoy hacked his way with a machete through a snake-infested cloud forest (high-elevation rainforest) in eastern Peru.
And with his team of 46 amateur explorers, the 76-year-old Savoy stumbled on a hidden city that might just be the remains of the mythical El Dorado, where gold was said to be as plentiful as dirt.
For days, explorers crawled through rivers of mud and dense jungle. What they discovered may make it all worthwhile: the remains of a 39 sq. km (15 sq. mi), pre-Incan city. In the ruins sat temples and burial towers dating back to the Chachapyos, a 1,300-year-old South American warrior tribe. Savoy named the site La Gran Saposoa after the nearby Sapo River. Having studied Spanish colonial history, he immediately speculated his discovery could be the fabled El Dorado, one of seven "golden cities" sought by Spanish explorers in the 16th century.
Savoy used handwritten maps from Spanish colonial times to guide him to his find. And unlike recent excavations in Turkey and Syria, La Gran Saposoa wasn't buried in dirt and sand--it was swamped by vegetation. The first sign of the city: remnants of a stone path. Savoy wielded infrared binoculars, which use high-frequency waves, to scan the region for unusual rock formations; infrared binoculars distinguish objects by the heat they release. Since vegetation emits more heat than rocks, Savoy could see the entire hilltop was littered with hidden ruins.
Walls, towers, temples, and roads adorned hill after hill of the Peruvian cloud forest. "When you find a city hidden for hundreds of years, it's a feeling of satisfaction like no other," says Savoy.
Social Studies: Pick one of the ancient cities described in "Buried Cities"--Herakleion, Zeugma, or La Gran Saposa ("El Dorado")--and write about the people, their customs, and religion.
Did You Know?
* Ancient pig and goat teeth found near human remains are often indicators of animal domestication, an important part of farming and agriculture.
* In France, 30,000-year-old cave paintings predate any sign of organized civilization. However, most archaeologists believe cave dwellers did not farm, build houses, or write, which are clear markers of a civilized culture.
* In some cases, damming rivers has helped archaeologists by creating a "dig or lose" situation. They either quickly dig out a ruin or lose it forever.
National Science Education Standards
Grades 5.8: ability to distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans * science as a human endeavor
Grades 9-12: geochemical cycles * science as a human endeavor * historical perspectives
"Dam in Turkey May Soon Flood a `Second Pompeii,'" The New York Times, May 7, 2000 p. A1
"Cities in the Sand," U.S. News & World Report, July 10, 2000, p. 46
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