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Lost Civilisations: Why cultures collapse and historic communities disappear – six online talks by Professor John Darlington

posted on 28/07/23


‘History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.’ This thought-provoking series explores the loss of ancient civilisations, the collapse of ruling elites and the disappearance of more recent communities and their local traditions. Some of these are now sealed under 3,000-year-old peat, others lost to rising seas or sands, or are represented by the carcasses of 20th-century buildings, which serve as reminders of the destructive power of war.

John Darlington brings these compelling stories of fallen or lost places together under the themes of war, climate change, natural hazards, human self-destruction and simple economics. From the ice of the Arctic fringe, through to the desert landscapes of north Africa, by way of South America’s high mountains and Southeast Asia’s urban sprawl, the series charts the rise and fall of places and communities around the world, the fascinating characters associated with them and the important events that punctuate their history. Exploring wide-ranging examples from prehistory to the present, Darlington challenges us to recognise past failures and identify what we need to do to protect the cultures of our current world.

They take place every Wednesday from 1 November–6 December at 4.30pm (GMT) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (31st January 2024).

Register for the webinar series for £75

The talks

1. A Changing Climate (1st November 2023)

This first talk focuses on the impact of the changing climate. Given the urgency of the current climate crisis, we tend to frame change in the present or the recent past, and on our own actions that have accelerated or will slow it. But, regardless of the undeniable impact of human influence, the planet’s climate has been changing since before people walked the earth. Four case-studies include the Bronze Age landscape of the Sperrin Mountains in Northern Ireland, the Garamantes Empire, which once thrived in what is now Libya, the old whaling communities of Canada’s Artic Coast and Dunwich on Suffolk’s coast, Britain’s very own shingle-laden Atlantis.

2. Natural Hazards (8th November 2023)

Earthquake, volcanoes, tsunami, mud and landslip may bring an instant and catastrophic end to communities. This talk explores the impact of natural disaster on heritage, most often brought about by the dynamic but devastating nature of the Earth’s crust. Port Royal, once Jamaica’s capital, was a thriving town of 6,500 people until an earthquake struck in 1692. Much more recently, Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano erupted in the 1990s and half the island is still off-limits today. Ani, now in Turkey, was known as the city of 1001 Churches, but earthquake, politics and changing trade patterns, meant it was abandoned by the early 18th century.

3. Human Error (15th November 2023)

Often there is no one left to blame but ourselves. Selfishness, greed, ignorance or short-termism have each had a role to play in the decline or failure of historic peoples and places. This talk will look at the impact of poor decision-making and human frailty, leading to abandonment. Girsu, in Ancient Sumeria, was one of the earliest towns in the world, but the success of early irrigation also contributed towards its downfall. At St Kilda, Scotland’s remotest habitable island, it was the islanders’ tragic lack of natural immunity to disease that contributed to their request to be evacuated in 1930. Rapanui, or Easter Island, represents a microcosm of many of the issues underlying civilisation collapse – ecological disaster, disease, enslavement and more led to a population of over 5,000 shrinking to a mere 111 in 1877.

4. War and Conflict (22nd November 2023)

Four key themes are explored in this talk, which focuses on the destruction of towns, cities and communities during times of war: the loss of power and the return to anonymity that is its partner; the deliberate targeting of ancient buildings and heritage as a means of cultural oppression; the devastating impact of looting, the consequences of which remain today; and the editing of the past as part of the weaponisation of cultural heritage. Stories will range from war in the heartlands of the Ancient Assyrians, a tragedy repeated not once but twice in what is now northern Iraq, through to two stories from China, one on the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in the 19th century, the other on the impact of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 on the Temple of Confucius.

5. Economic Collapse (29th November 2023)

Money, trade or wider economic change is often at the root of failing civilisations, particularly when combined with growing populations and the over-exploitation of finite resources. This talk focuses on the collapse of cultures and historic communities that disappear because they cannot compete, or because newer, more efficient technologies make them redundant. The mining for saltpetre in the Atacama Desert in the late 19th century contributed to 50 per cent of Chile’s total national revenue – but everything changed with the invention of artificial fertilizers. Route 66 was part of the first US national road network, with its settlements bypassed as more efficient highways were constructed. The story of the rise and fall of Beaudesert Hall in Staffordshire is representative of the loss of the country house in England during the 20th century. Finally, we will explore the damming of the River Nile and its impact on ancient and more recent civilisations.

6. Learning the Lessons (6th December 2023)

The adage, history repeats itself, may be a cliché, but this doesn’t mean it’s not true. The concluding talk in the series identifies the major lessons learned from past collapse and poses a number of questions, with answers, about what these might mean for the future.

During the course of this series we will have explored the key reasons why civilisations collapsed in the past: climate change, natural hazards (earthquakes, volcanos etc), war, economic crisis and human error. And yet all of these pressures are still with us today – war in Ukraine, earthquake in Turkey, as well as global issues, such as the Covid epidemic, economic collapse and the ever-present shadow of the climate emergency. This talk will look backwards to help us plan for the future. It asks what we can learn from the past that will help us today and tomorrow. How we can harness ancient knowledge and technologies, and why the restoration of heritage is an important healing response to conflict or disaster. Ruins are libraries, abandoned books that divulge stories about what happened decades, centuries or millennia ago, and which are repeated. The outcome might not be the same, but we would be foolish to ignore the lessons of history!

Image: Cathedral of Talin by Haykhove, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The speaker

Professor John Darlington

Director of Projects, World Monument Fund, Britain. An archaeologist and author, he joined WMF in 2015 to head the British affiliate. He previously led projects for the National Trust focused on historic mansions, gardens and landscapes across North West England. He also served as County Archaeologist for Lancashire, and is a specialist in medieval towns and landscapes, castles and abbeys. John is a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, and a Professor of Practice at the University of Wales Trinity St David.

Register for the webinar series for £75

Frequently asked questions

What methods of payment do you accept?

An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

How do I purchase the webinar series as a gift?

Please contact us specifying how many subscriptions you would like and who they are for (we require their full name and e-mail address). We will invoice you directly, and after we have received your payment we will release the webinar joining instructions to your friend(s) or family member(s).

Can I purchase a single episode?

No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

How do I join the webinar?

An e-mail confirmation will be sent to you after you have paid for your subscription, which includes your unique link for joining the webinar. Reminder e-mails will be sent to you one day and one hour before each event. We recommend that you download the Zoom software in advance of the first webinar.

Can I watch the live broadcast(s) on more than one device?

Only one device can be connected to the live broadcast(s) at any one time. If you wish to purchase a second subscription, please contact us.

What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

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