Lost Cities

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I’m no archaeologist. Not even an amateur, except maybe in the sense of being a devoted fan. Still, ever since reading C. W. Ceram’s classic potboiler Gods, Graves and Scholars back in the 1950s I’ve been fascinated by the physical detritus of history. I’ve even had the good luck to play archaeologist on several occasions, though I’ve never found anything of importance.

Of course archaeology is not so much about finding things as it is of understanding them, of being thrilled and engaged by the past. So I treasure the recollection of a month spent on a sandy beach at the southern tip of Sardinia excavating, with a small trowel and a couple of brushes, what was either a Phoenician altar or (more likely) a 3,000-year-old kebab grill. Nor would I for the world wish to have missed taking part in the exploration of a seventeenth-century Spanish wreck off the coast of Bermuda in a couple of fathoms of beautifully clear water; nothing much there except a pile of ballast rock and a few boxes of indigo that exploded into a great cloud of blue dye if you were careless enough to touch one. For a pretend archaeologist they were great adventures.

These days I have to admit I find it more appealing to read about other people’s exploits, and fortunately there are wonderful examples to choose from ‒ Sir Aurel Stein exploring the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan or the one-time circus strong man Giovanni Belzoni on the trail of Egyptian antiquities. Such characters might be accused of being more interested in treasure-hunting than archaeology, but the two always did go together. I’m a sucker for treasure-hunting, anyway.

In this class of writers there is one who, to me, is a standout, partly because I’ve had the good fortune to poke through some of the ruins he brought to the world’s attention, and partly because he is a terrific writer ‒ direct, cool, funny, even romantic when necessary. Between 1839 and 1841 John Lloyd Stephens m

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About the contributor

Charles Elliot is an editor and writer who has been to Tikal three times and is prepared to go again at the drop of a spade. His latest book is Why Every Man Needs a Tractor.

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