• Dr Michael Scott with an abandoned car in Naples' Bourbon Tunnel. (SBS)Source: SBS
History still has plenty of unsolved mysteries.
Shane Cubis

19 May 2017 - 1:19 PM  UPDATED 23 May 2017 - 11:30 AM

In Italy’s Invisible Cities, Alexander Armstrong and Dr Michael Scott explore the layers upon layers of civilisation that exist beneath the feet of the Boot’s current denizens. It’s frankly amazing how many separate incarnations of those cities – Naples, Venice and Florence – have disappeared into the past.

Casting our eye further afield, the planet has played host to many more communities that vanished from time. Here are five of them...


Great Zimbabwe became a political football

Now believed to have been built by the ancestors of the Shona people, Great Zimbabwe was a sprawling granite city, spanning 722 hectares, that was situated along a busy trade route. Theories about why it was abandoned include overgrazing and people taking their trade elsewhere. Of course, European explorers/conquerors were quick to scotch any thought that native Africans could have built such architectural marvels, instead attributing them to such historical personages as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (And now you know where H Rider Haggard got his ripping yarn from.)


Palenque offers some clues to the fate of the Mayan civilisation

Their apocalyptic calendar may have been wrong when it predicted the world would end in 2012, but at their peak, the Mayans were responsible for the construction of some extraordinarily sturdy settlements. Palenque is a well-preserved tourist destination these days, where intrepid backpackers can marvel at the ancient temples and marketplaces, but back in 1567 when a Spanish explorer rediscovered the place and gave it a Spanish name, nobody knew how much info on those mysterious Mayans would be found there. A huge number of inscriptions and sculptures have been the key to unlocking historical secrets, although opinion is still divided on why Palenque was abandoned. Was it famine? Invasion from a neighbouring state? A calendar mix-up?


The colonists of Roanoke vanished with hardly a trace

The first British colony in the New World, on Roanoke Island, was off to an inauspicious start. When Governor John White returned from a supply trip, there was no sign of the 100+ people he’d left behind (including his granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first Brit born in America), aside from a carving that simply read “CROATOAN”. Further investigation turned up no sign of the unfortunates, even on nearby Croatoan Island. No trace of them was ever found. One of America’s greatest mysteries, Roanoke has inspired some great fiction, including Greg Keyes’ Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone fantasy series.


The Easter Islanders left nothing but giant heads

One of the world’s most iconic wonders, Easter Island is justifiably famous for its enormous stone heads (they’re even available in emoji form). But the island also represents a mystery – what happened to the people who put so much effort into carving and mounting the ridiculously heavy moai? The best-known theory, which Jared Diamond talks up in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is that they cut down all their trees to make room for crops and the ensuing environmental situation couldn’t support their growing population. But there are other theories: alien abduction and rat infestation being two of them.


Thonis-Heracleion fell into the sea

A city lost beneath the waves – is there anything more evocative for the budding past-digger? Thonis-Heracleion was an ancient Egyptian settlement that fell into the Mediterranean some time around the end of the second century BC. Name-checked by such luminaries as Herodotus and partially named after Hercules, it was thought of as a mythical city until submariner archaeologists starting finding more and more bits of it beneath the waves from the early 2000s till now. We still don’t know exactly what happened, but the slide into Atlantis territory seems to have happened slowly over a long period.


Watch Italy’s Invisible Cities on Sundays at 7:30pm on SBS. Missed the first episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand right here:


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