Citadels of Mystery – the top 12 ancient sites of 50 years ago

Citadels of Mystery is the rather intriguing title of a book by husband and wife team L. Sprague and Catherine C. de Camp. Published back in 1972, it featured their twelve most famous legends, myths and romantic sites of the world.

The book, and the De Camps
So who were the De Camps?

Lyon Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) was an American writer and a major figure in science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. He is credited with the first use of the terms “extraterrestrial” and “ET” meaning ‘alien life’. Catherine Crook de Camp (also 1907-2000) was an author and editor who worked mainly in collaboration with her husband, with whom she was married for sixty years.

And what were their top 12?
1. Atlantis and the City of Silver
The Guadalquivir river in Seville, south-west Spain by Harlock20 via Wikimedia Commons

The De Camps weren’t convinced about the reality of Plato’s Atlantis, but they concluded that if it was based on a real place, the likeliest location was in south-west Spain. This is where the city-state of Tartessos may once have flourished, which the De Camps felt had similarities to the descriptions of Atlantis. More recently, Peter Daughtrey proposed in his book Atlantis and the Silver City that the Atlantean homeland comprised parts of Portugal, Spain and Morocco, and lands now lost to the sea.

2. Pyramid Hill and the Claustrophic King
The Giza pyramids by Robster1983 via Wikimedia Commons

Pyramid Hill is the Giza Plateau and the Claustrophobic King was the De Camps’ reference to Pharaoh Khufu. They noted that… “Some claim that the ancient Egyptians must have used powered machines of modern types to build the pyramids…” but dismissed this idea as “probably the fantasy of some guide or priest”. More recently, Christopher Dunn has proposed that precisely guided machine tools were used to cut the granite blocks in Egypt (see YouTube).

3. Stonehenge and the Giant’s Dance


The De Camps relate the story of how the wizard Merlin advised King Vortigern to bring the ‘Dance of the Giants’ from Ireland over to England. The De Camps describe how in fact the bluestones came from the Preseli hills in West Wales, and they speculate that: “Probably the Welsh stones had already been erected to form an outdoor temple…”. Indeed, Robin Heath has recently proposed in Temple in the Hills that the ‘First Stonehenge’ was located in Wales.

4. Troy and the Nine Cities
The walls of the acropolis at ‘Troy VII’, Hisarlik by CherryX via Wikimedia Commons

The De Camps describe Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik hill in north-west Turkey, where various successive settlements (over nine major periods) have been unearthed. However, they say that “there is still no solid connection between the story of the Iliad and the material remains on Hisarlik”. This has led some authors to propose alternative locations for Troy, including in northern Europe; see the ASLAN Hub article Someplace else? Alternative locations for Troy.

5. Ma’rib and the Queen of Sheba
The ruins of Old Ma’rib by Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons

The De Camps describe the challenges of archaeological investigations taking place at Ma’rib, the capital city of the Saba’ kingdom and said to be the Sheba of biblical fame. Successive Imams hampered the expeditions and then there was a civil war. They also report the “outstanding engineering feat” of the ancient dam that once existed at Ma’rib. Now a new dam has been built, close to the location of the old one, but Yemen is again afflicted by civil war.

6. Zimbabwe and King Solomon’s Mines
The Great Enclosure and Valley Complex of Great Zimbabwe by Janice Bell via Wikimedia Commons

The De Camps describe the (re)discovery of the ruins in Mashonaland in present-day northern Zimbabwe, which had been proposed as the biblical Ophir. The De Camps were unclear as to who built Great Zimbabwe, although they felt there were reasons for thinking that Ophir was elsewhere. Now the Great Zimbabwe National Monument is inscribed as a World Heritage Site and is understood to have been built by the ancestral Shona from the 11th century onwards.

7. Tintagel and the Round Table
Ruins of the upper mainland courtyard of Tintagel Castle by Kerry Garratt via Wikimedia Commons

The De Camps describe the “very ruinous ruin” of Tintagel Castle, which legends say was the birthplace of King Arthur. They refer in passing to the round table at Winchester, which they say was originally built by William the Conqueror. They concluded that “…the Arthurian stories are mostly fairy tale”, with one theory being that Arthur was a real person who fought the Saxons and was later credited with the deeds of others. There’s more on King Arthur here.

8. Angkor and the Golden Window
A painting of the Khmer king in his golden window by Maurice Fiévet

The De Camps describe how a French naturalist encountered the ruined temples of Angkor in the 19th century, and how it was subsequently reclaimed from the jungle. They also feature the visit by Zhou Daguan of China in the 13th century, and his description of life in the kingdom including how the king gave audiences from a palace window with a golden frame. Today, the Angkor Wat temple complex is considered to be the largest religious monument in the world

9. Tikal and the Feathered Elephants
Tikal great plaza by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons

The De Camps covered the discovery of the ruined city of Tikal and other places in central America, observing at one point that “there are ruins enough in the jungles of Petén (northern Guatemala) to keep all the world’s archaeologists busy for centuries”. The reference to feathered elephants comes from a stela at Copán, which some assumed depicted elephants and others thought were macaws or tapirs. Even today, the “jury is still out”.

10. Machu Picchu and the Unwalled Fortress
Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes

The De Camps relate the expedition of Hiram Bingham to investigate Machu Picchu, and they also discuss how the “lofty, inaccessible site” surrounded by “hair-raising precipices” meant that defensive walls were not required. They suggested that it might have been a hilltop safe place that the Incas would flee to at the sign of trouble. Today, Machu Picchu is referred to as a 15th century Inca “citadel”, even if the site lacks the fortifications normally associated with a citadel.

11. Nan Matol and the Sacred Turtle
Nan Madol by CT Snow via Wikimedia Commons

The De Camps feature the coastal site of Nan Matol (or Nan Madol) at the edge of an island in the Pacific Ocean. The 30ft high walls were constructed basaltic columns laid crisscross like the logs of a log cabin. One story tells of how Nan Madol was used for ceremonies involving captured sea turtles that were later eaten, and the De Camps concluded that the site was a religious or cult centre. Today, it is associated with the Saudeleur dynasty of the 12th to 17th centuries.

12. Rapa Nui and the Eyeless Watchers
Moai that have been re-erected on an ahu

Finally, the De Camps describe the history of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and the Eyeless Watchers, which refers to the Moai statues located on the slopes of the volcano Rano Raraku, from where the Moai were quarried. They are distinguished from those that had been erected on the ‘ahu’ (stone platforms), which originally had eyes made from coral. It is now considered that the Moai were literally ‘walked’ from their quarries to their platforms by ingenious use of ropes.


1. Although Citadels of Mystery was published in 1972, an earlier version was published in 1964 under the title Ancient Ruins and Archaeology; and some of the text of the books had been published in earlier articles going back to 1946.

2. For a more in-depth book review of Citadels of Mystery, try here.

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