Monday, March 30, 2009

Folks just melted away

I've always loved abandoned houses, and by extension, abandoned cities. The currently most famous abandoned city is Detroit in the USA. In 1970, about the time rock musicians like David Bowie were working up entire theses on TEOTWAWKI and making dance songs about them, the population of Detroit was 1,510,000, down from 1, 850,000 in 1950. By 2000, the city's population was 950,000 – about half that of its heyday. The spectacular hollowing out of the city has taken place while the regional population has grown normally - from 3,350,000 in 1950 to 4,740,000 in 2000. For an archeology rat like myself, convinced that something horrible has to happen to cause people to flee their centers – as I had always been told happened to the classic Maya in 950 AD, for instance – it's been a weird thing to watch. Or as I should more properly write, observe from a safe distance. I doubt if the Detroit natives would like me rubbernecking their empty skyscrapers.

Time Magazine recently had a photospread on Detroit, the beautiful, undisturbed decay of ornate buildings and fine furnishings captured by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.
Here's one of their photos – a nice Victorian house, almost settling into the earth.

And here a great theatre is so far gone it is not even fit for its ghosts.

A few years ago, the writers of Detroit Blog posted their adventures exploring these ruins at night, stepping between squatters and dealers and avoiding the police to catalogue such heart-wrenching sights as trees growing from gutters, the glamorous Book Cadillac Hotel reduced to fragments, Mayan symbols painted over the beautiful United Artists building, and flotsam and jetsam drifting from the Motown Building, including chits of Marvin Gaye's benefits statements. Motown, man! The music I grew up with. And these papers were not even snatched up by fans or historians, just scattered on desks and on the floor like autumn leaf litter. (Edit 2017: Detroit blog is no more, but the author has published this book.)

Most abandoned places are either abandoned entirely, like Pripyat, or run by successors to the original inhabitants who will, for several periods every era, vaguely tolerate a visitor for the tourist dollar they bring in, like Petra. My lifelong if rather diffuse ambition was to visit Babylon, and people do keep having wars over it so I haven't managed yet.

But I have been to Egypt. To fail to go to Egypt would be a serious omission indeed. Here we see the Colossi of Memnon, now in fields and towering over geese, repaired a few times over history and still standing, grim and hellish looking doorkeepers now, not fair guardians.

Nearby is the Ramesseum, with the fallen statue that inspired Shelley's Ozymandias.
Here's the view from the top of the pylon – the desert and the fields. On the skyline over the fields you can see the Colossi. They are aptly named.

The area – the Valley of the Kings – is still inhabited, as this picture of our guide shows. I say guide; he was actually a local man who would show you the way around the ruins if he got a kiss from a pretty girl. (Luckily I'd brought one with me.) I'm not really outing him too badly, I hope – the photo was taken over twenty years ago.

Dubai's next, of course. Now the entirely imaginary pile of money that fuelled its growth has disappeared, gone when we stopped believing in it, as with so many other ancient gods, the buildings are being abandoned in mid-skyscrape and the workers are going home, some so fast they are leaving their vehicles at the airport with the keys still in them as they flee their debts in a kingdom not particularly nice to debtors. Shame, in a way. I'd always hoped Dubai would be the Vermilion Sands or similar folly of Western Civilization, but it would have taken a few more years to truly cement (no pun intended) its place. If the towers fall in the desert, will they inspire the same (complete lack of awe) that the Ramesseum inspired in Shelley? Or would the giants be so tall that future explorers will genuinely despair at our mighty works?

A more prosaic explanation for the fall of the classic Maya civilization is, simply, crappy government.
So what happened in the collapse, at least in this part of the Maya world? It was a bellicose place," Emery acknowledges, with evidence of warfare and walls across some ceremonial sites. "But the bodies aren't there," from any massive fighting, she says. More likely, there was just a political collapse in which rulers came to be seen over a two-century period as no longer delivering the goods, better crops or more rain." Modern-day Maya still live relatively close to the abandoned sites, after all, descendants of the folks who lived there long ago. "Folks just melted away" from ceremonial centers, Emery says, just like people today changing rulers come election season."
(USA Today)

Much like Detroit, then

Ref: Buildings Are R Us Population Change.
Did Environmental Disasters Play a Role in Mayan Decline?

(Edited to renew links, where possible, 07/2017)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking the collapse and abandonment of Detroit with the fall of the Mayan civilization. As an anthropology geek, I have long been fascinated with this subject. More recently have been following events in Detroit (like you from afar)in the news and through the wonderful and have been wondering what the next stage of the city will be. An interesting development is the artists attracted by cheap housing and lack of oversight. An attractive if idealistic idea that I'm eagerly watching.

Charlotte said...

Hi great pictures of the decaying buildings it makes me so sad especially that little victorian :( They are very beautiful in thier delapidation.

Amazing theorising on the collapse of the Maya too. :)


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