Ancient, lost cities holding secrets of their own trigger our fascination like most other parts of history don’t. Some of them used to be so advanced and well-built that they shatter the common notion of history as a consistently forward march and people in history as primitive versions of ourselves.
They also remind us that human progress can be completely halted and erased at any time, either due to nature, war or simply to being lost in the sands of time.
As our tools and techniques get better and more sophisticated, we’re finding more and more ancient cities and settlements buried under the sand, each with its vast set of secrets waiting to be discovered and studied.
10. Lothal, India
The Indus Valley Civilization was one of the cradles of civilization, along with the regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was a successful Bronze aAe civilization that regularly traded with places as far as West Africa, and Lothal – one of its few sites we’ve managed to find – provides a glimpse into its vast reach.
Lothal was a thriving port city with one of the world’s first known docks, used to transport goods like gems, silk and tools to other settled regions of the world. It was also the earliest centers of rice cultivation in the region, as it was built along the fertile river valleys of the Indus river system. Lothal was discovered by the Archaeological Survey of India in excavations made between 1954 to 1960, and remains one of the most important excavations we’ve made from that era.
9. Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb, China
Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in China is one of the most important heritage sites in the country. He’s still remembered as the first emperor of China, as he was responsible for conquering the remaining factions during the warring states period and eventually unifying the country for the first time in its history.
It’s also one of the biggest mysteries of archaeology, as we’ve barely managed to scratch the surface of what lies underneath it. It was only discovered in 1974, when some workers digging a well in the region came across pieces of broken clay, which turned out to be an entire army of terracotta soldiers and horses.
That was just the beginning, as later excavations uncovered an entire web of underground caverns and pits, most of which are inaccessible. In fact, a big chunk of what appears to be an entire city underneath the tomb is surrounded by a moat of mercury, making any attempts to dig it up potentially lethal.
8. The Yonaguni Monument, Japan
The Yonaguni monument is a set of structures found off the coast of Yonaguni islands in Japan, first discovered by a casual diver in 1986. On first look, it appears to be nothing more than a rectangular set of rocks sitting on the seafloor. If some archaeologists are to be believed, though, it’s the remains of an ancient civilization that existed in the region before it was flooded, even going as far as to call it the ‘Japanese Atlantis’.
The monument itself is a rectangular monolithic structure with steps, complete with engraved markings and other structures nearby that may resemble an ancient settlement. According to one archaeologist, the 165 foot long, 65 foot wide structure is actually the remains of a long-lost civilization in the region, though we have no historical record of anything like that ever existing there. Moreover, some experts on big rocks maintain that there’s nothing peculiar or man-made about the rocks in the first place, and it’s entirely possible that they’ve been shaped like that due to natural factors.
7. Shicheng, China
Shicheng is an underwater city in China discovered by the Chinese government in 2001. Unlike most of the other sites on this list, though, Shicheng was purposefully flooded in 1959 to make way for a dam, and about 300,000 residents of the city had to be evacuated for it.
The lost city boasts of stone architecture from the Ming and Qing eras, complete with elaborate engravings found on archways and buildings throughout the settlement, as well as five huge entrance gates marking its boundaries. It’s still well preserved, as the water protects it from erosion and heat. You can even go and see it for yourself, though as the site is still being mapped and prone to damage, the dive is restricted to experienced divers.
6. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
While it’d be inaccurate to say that the ancient Sri Lankan city of Sigiriya was ever ‘discovered’ – as the locals always knew of its existence – it was only after a British major stumbled upon it in 1831 that it was archaeologically studied for the first time. While the settlement goes back at least five thousand years, King Kashyapa turned it into a city only in the fifth century.
Complete with huge frescoes, parks, reservoirs and five entrance gates, the urban planning of the city was far more advanced than anything else from that time. There’s also an entire network of caves surrounding the site, with elaborate, mysterious murals of hundreds of women. Some archaeologists believe that the city may have been a kind of a place of worship, as ancient settlements at high places are usually built as gateways to the gods.
5. Atlit Yam, Israel
Atlit Yam is a Neolithic-era settlement off the coast of Israel, first discovered by a marine archaeologist Ehud Galili in 1984. Since that time, we’ve uncovered a settlement spanning across an area of over 40,000 square meters, making it one of the largest lost cities ever discovered.
The 7th millennium BC settlement gives us a glimpse into one of the first settled societies in our history, and thankfully, being underwater has preserved a large part of its infrastructure. Till now, we’ve uncovered bodies with perhaps the earliest known cases of tuberculosis, wells, huge stone circles presumably meant for rituals, over a 100 species of plants, and countless artifacts made up of different materials from the site, and the excavations are still going on. It’s also one of the earliest settlements with evidence of cattle domestication, making it one of the first steps in our transition from hunting-gathering to farming.
4. Pavlopetri, Greece
Pavlopetri was an ancient Greek city with signs of occupation going as far back as 2800 BC, until it was submerged by a series of earthquakes around 1000 BC. That makes it one of the oldest submerged settlements in the world, and the oldest one in the Mediterranean. Because of being underwater, the site has remained undisturbed by nearby civilizations, and we can still see most of its infrastructure intact.
Lying barely 12 feet below the surface, the settlement was first discovered in 1968, though it was only in 2009 that it was fully mapped and studied. Once a bustling harbor town in Mycenaean-era Greece, Pavlopetri was likely an important trade center, and one can still see its graves, courtyards, roads and chamber tombs almost intact.
Unfortunately, the site is next to a region popular with tourists, putting it under constant threat from things like boats dragging their anchors, souvenir hunters and a rising number of marine animals in the waters.
3. Port Royal, Jamaica
Established by the Spanish at the end of the 14th century, Port Royal in Jamaica – at its peak – used to be the largest city in the Caribbean, and one of the largest in the world. While it was known for its pirates, slave-traders and gambling dens, the town was also an important trading center for the rising European colonial powers, quickly turning it from a small coastal town to a bustling, diverse city, right up until the 17th century.
Port Royal was hit by a massive earthquake in 1692, which was particularly devastating as the whole town was built on top of sand. According to eye-witnesses, entire blocks of houses – along with the people living inside – were swallowed into the ground.
As you can guess, the city – which now lies up to 40 feet underwater – never really recovered from the disaster. Thanks to recent archaeological efforts, we’ve been able to find many intact structures and artifacts from that time, giving us a tiny glimpse into how life was like in what was once known as the British Capital in the Caribbean.
2. Tanis, Egypt
Ancient Egypt existed so long ago that everything we know about it comes from archaeology. While we’ve dug and mapped up a large part of the empire at its peak, we know very little about the other times.
The discovery of Tanis – once a busy port town on the banks of the river Nile – sheds light on one such era. At its peak, it served as the wealthy capital of the Tanite Egyptian kings in the Third Intermediate period. It was one of the many times in Egypt’s history that it wasn’t ruled by Egyptians. Tanites were Libyan by birth, which is why the ruins of the city are different from other Egyptian finds in the region. The city likely fell into ruin due to its branch of the Nile drying up, leading to the capital being shifted to Memphis.
Ever since it was discovered by a French archaeologist after years of excavations in 1939, we’ve found quite a few things hiding underneath the once-bustling town, including a vast burial chamber full of precious gems and artifacts, a temple, and even parts of roads and urban districts from that era.
1. Herculaneum, Italy
Almost everyone has heard of the ruins of Pompeii – a vast ancient city in Northern Italy leveled by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Viral photos of the site reveal horrifying glimpses of everyday life cut short by the disaster, as most of the inhabitants of the city never really got a chance to escape.
What most of us don’t know, though, is that Pompeii wasn’t the only city affected by the eruption. Herculaneum – known at the time as a sister city to Pompeii – suffered pretty much the same fate, although due to global attention largely focused on Pompeii, we know surprisingly little about it.
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum actually had time to prepare. That explains why all the bodies found there showed signs of hard labor, as it’s likely that everyone other than the slaves working in the city had already fled before the eruption.