Historically Speaking: The Drama of Finding Lost Cities

We are always a discovery away from rewriting ancient history.

The Wall Street Journal

March 21, 2024

In January, scientists announced the discovery of the oldest pre-Columbian cities in the Amazon. They were built in the Upano Valley in Ecuador by an organized urban society that flourished between 800 B.C. and 600 A.D. Surprisingly, this lost Amazonian civilization created cities that resemble modern suburbs, complete with low-density housing, ample green space and manicured road networks. It would seem that ancient urban complexity didn’t just arise in the familiar model of the Eurasian walled city.


This kind of challenge to the scholarly consensus is actually fairly common with the discovery of lost cities. When civilizations are erased from history, bringing them back into the narrative can lead to a dramatic realignment of facts.

The discovery of Troy is an early example of this phenomenon. In 1870, after 12 years of fruitless searching, a German businessman and amateur archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann found Troy’s ruins near modern Hisarlik on the Turkish Aegean coast. His careless excavation of the site makes modern archaeologists cringe, but against incredible odds Schliemann proved that Homer’s Iliad was based on real events. The study of ancient Greece was changed forever.

Three major discoveries in the early 1900s also reshaped our understanding of the Bronze Age. In 1906, German archaeologists digging through the ruins of a windswept plateau in north-central Turkey uncovered the forgotten city of Hattusa. Its royal archive confirmed that the city had been the last capital of the Hittites and the nerve center of a powerful empire that rivaled Egypt. After a glorious run of five hundred years, the Hittite civilization disintegrated so completely by around 1200 B.C. that little was known about it beyond the mentions in the Bible. The recovery of Hattusa redrew the map of the ancient world, this time with the Hittites at the center.

Across the Aegean, Sir Arthur Evans similarly rescued the Minoans with his discovery around 1905 of the Palace of Knossos on Crete, which flourished between 1700 and 1500 B.C. Evans’s breakthrough was to show that Minoan culture was nonviolent, unlike the other ancient Greek societies known at the time. It was also perhaps matriarchal. The palace, which lacked fortifications, had frescoes of women in authoritative poses. Recovered sculptures often featured goddesses. Evans ultimately argued that Knossos was proof that gender inequality was not, as generally believed, intrinsic to civilization.

The discovery in 1911 of Mohenjo-daro in present-day Pakistan was no less revelatory. This once-vital center of the Indus Valley Civilization, a trading society that thrived between 2500 and 1700 B.C., notably lacked temples, palaces, noble houses or even rich or poor neighborhoods. The city seems to have spent its wealth instead on civic amenities, such as public granaries and universal plumbing.

The egalitarianism at the heart of Mohenjo-daro suggests that the more cities and civilizations we find, the more it will complicate our understanding of human society’s origins. It is humbling to know that we are always a discovery away from rewriting ancient history. It’s invigorating, too.

Historically Speaking: The Modern Flush Toilet Has Ancient Origins

Even the Minoans of Crete found ways to whisk away waste with flowing water.

The Wall Street Journal

June 9, 2021

Defecation is a great equalizer. As the 16th-century French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it trenchantly in his Essays, “Kings and philosophers shit, as do ladies.”

Yet, even if each person is equal before the loo, not all toilets are considered equal. Sitting or squatting, high or low-tech, single or dual flush: Every culture has preferences and prejudices. A top-end Japanese toilet with all the fixtures costs as much as a new car.


Pride in having the superior bathroom experience goes back to ancient times. As early as 2500 B.C., wealthy Mesopotamians could boast of having pedestal lavatories and underfloor piping that fed into cesspits. The Harappans of the Indus Valley Civilization went one better, building public drainage systems that enabled even ordinary dwellings to have bathrooms and toilets. Both, however, were surpassed by the Minoans of Crete, who invented the first known flush toilet, using roof cisterns that relied on the power of gravity to flush the contents into an underground sewer.

The Romans’ greatest contribution to sanitary comfort was the public restroom. By 300 B.C., Rome had nearly 150 public toilet facilities. These were communal, multi-seater affairs consisting of long stone benches with cut-out holes set over a channel of continuously running water. Setting high standards for hygiene, the restrooms had a second water trough for washing and sponging.

Although much knowledge and technology was lost during the Dark Ages, the Monty Python depiction of medieval society as unimaginably filthy was somewhat of an exaggeration. Castle bedrooms were often en-suite, with pipes running down the exterior walls or via internal channels to moats or cesspits. Waste management was fraught with danger, though—from mishaps as much as disease.

The most famous accident was the Erfurt Latrine Disaster. In 1184, King Henry VI of Germany convened a royal gathering at Petersburg Citadel in Erfurt, Thuringia. Unfortunately, the ancient hall was built over the citadel’s latrines. The meeting was in full swing when the wooden flooring suddenly collapsed, hurling many of the assembled nobles to their deaths in the cesspit below.

Another danger was the vulnerability of the sewage system to outside penetration. Less than 20 years after Erfurt, French troops in Normandy captured the English-held Chateau Gaillard by climbing up the waste shafts.

Sir John Harington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, rediscovered the flushable toilet in 1596. Her Majesty had one installed at Richmond Palace. But the contraption failed to catch on, perhaps because smells could travel back up the pipe. The Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming solved that problem in the late 18th century by introducing an S-shaped pipe below the bowl that prevented sewer gas from escaping.

Thomas Crapper, contrary to lore, didn’t invent the modern toilet: He was the chief supplier to the royal household. Strangely for a country renowned for its number of bathrooms per household, the U.S. granted its first patent for a toilet—or “plunger closet”—only in 1857. As late as 1940, some 45% of households still had outhouses. The American toilet race, like the space race, only took off later, in the ‘50s. There is no sign of its slowing down. Coming to a galaxy near you: The cloud-connected toilet that keeps track of your vitals and cardiovascular health.