Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Good science, big hype, bad archaeology

By Rosemary Joyce

Being an archaeologist is a funny thing, because archaeology is one of those sciences that catches the popular imagination: pyramids! tombs! mummies! treasure!

But archaeology as a science is not about discoveries. It is about knowledge: understanding the human past, the lives of men and women, the ways that societies developed, how people coped with the challenges of difficult environments and changing climates.

Sometimes, archaeology involves the identification of previously unreported sites. Most often, these sites were unknown to archaeologists because of remoteness of the location from the centers of academic investigation (although, I have to note, local people are rarely unaware of the buildings and trash that are traces of previous societies). In some cases, all surface traces of previous sites have been obscured, by centuries of natural deposition of sand or soil, or by dramatic events like volcanic eruptions.

Even where archaeological research has been practiced successfully, such buried sites may wait for detection by the use of new methods. Such sites can be extremely important in our understanding of human society and history. In the 1970s and 1980s, I worked as an archaeologist surveying an 800 square mile valley near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Sites were reported in this valley by scholars writing in the 1890s, and when we started our survey, there were about 100 registered sites in the valley. By the time we ended, the number was over 500 — and the last of those sites to be identified was not found until bulldozers cut through its buried remains in 1993. Our excavations at the site, supported by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, documented occupation of the valley from at least 1600 BC, provided early evidence of the use of chocolate (500 years earlier than thought at the time), and precisely dated the engagement of Honduras with sites as distant as Mexico's Pacific and Gulf Coasts.

So I personally am never surprised when new sites are found in an area where we have no previous information. Such reports increasingly come from the application of technologies originally developed for other purposes that help us overcome the challenges of survey in remote areas, and especially, in challenging environments, like those with heavy vegetation cover.

screenshot of LaPrensa article on Ciudad Blanca
Press coverage on Ciudad Blanca in the Spanish-language periodical LaPrensa

But all too often, this good science is then hyped as if it was totally unprecedented, surprising, supposedly shattering all our previous ideas. So good science becomes bad archaeology.

Unfortunately for me and my colleagues in Honduran archaeology, the latest such incident is in our bailiwick. In mid-May, Spanish-language news sources in Honduras reported an announcement by the president of the country that LiDAR images had possibly revealed a "lost city", Ciudad Blanca. One government official went so far as to say it "might be the biggest archaeological discovery in the world of the twenty-first century".

Hurray! except that isn't good archaeology —  it's hype.

Let's start with the good science: LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) imagery was created of an area in eastern Honduras covered in thick vegetation. The method proceeds by using lasers, recording images from an airplane, to produce a very accurate image of the ground and vegetation. The image can be processed to eliminate signals coming from vegetation, essentially virtually clearing the forest cover and leaving an image of what the ground surface, and any built structures, might look like.

I have seen one of the LiDAR images (the work has not yet been published or subject to peer review). It is clear that there are archaeological sites in the areas surveyed by the LiDAR team. So in that sense, this is good science. But where it goes terribly wrong is in the failure to involve any specialists in regional archaeology before press releases were issued. Hence the feverish level of hype from Honduran government officials.

The group promoting the story — led by a documentary filmmaker — issued a press release in English on May 15 that promotes the idea that what is visible in the LiDAR images is "the legendary lost city of Ciudad Blanca." Although their press release mentions working with archaeologists, in fact, none have been part of the project — or they would possibly have saved them from promoting the story as the discovery of a fabled lost city.

As scholarly critiques soon noted, Ciudad Blanca is literally a legend —one whose modern circulation the primary archaeologist with experience in the region, Chris Begley, has already taken apart. Begley actually presents a discussion of the Ciudad Blanca folktale on his website, along with a summary of the actual archaeology of the region, which is not such an unknown as the press releases would have you believe.

The critical commentary of the archaeological community (myself included) has reached the team promoting exploration. From an archaeological perspective, good science would require what we call "ground truthing": actually going to the suspected sites to confirm them, and to undertake on the ground research necessary to estimate the dates they were occupied and the activities that took place there. That needs to be divorced from hype; it needs to acknowledge that others have worked in the area already. As Chris Begley has noted, there are many locations already marked on maps of the region as having archaeological ruins — and until someone with professional competence in archaeology compares the locations (as yet undisclosed) of the sites on the LiDAR imagery to those previous finds, we don't even know if these really are new sites — or just really fine images of already known, if not excavated, sites.

Unfortunately, this news seems not to have gotten back to the sponsors of the LiDAR imagery to tell them to drop the Ciudad Blanca claims. So on June 5, the LiDAR scientists issued their own press release. While it has a modest and unmarked link at the bottom that takes you back to Chris Begley's web page debunking the Ciudad Blanca myth, it still leads with the claim that they may have found "the legendary lost city of Ciudad Blanca".

So far, the English language has only been picked up by web aggregators who live off such unverified content, not any mainstream news media. But oh, how these websites have embroidered the already bad archaeology:

Underneath the thick, virgin rainforest cover in the Mosquitia region of Honduras, archaeologists have discovered ruins they think may be the lost city of Ciudad Blanca. Legends say the "White City" is full of gold, which is why conquistador Hernando Cortes was among the first Ciudad Blanca seekers in the 1500s.

Um, no. Cortes never sought, nor was he told, about a city of gold, or a white city, or any city at all. He was in Honduras because troops he sent there to conquer it in his name went rogue and declared themselves head of a new colony there.

Beyond the specific issues I have with the Ciudad Blanca folktale being used to over-promote a spectacle that ignores the actual research already completed, the way that the LiDAR project is described is fundamentally misleading. Try this:

Before LiDAR improved enough for their work, archaeologists discovered ruins the old-fashioned way — by hacking through forests using machetes. LiDAR is faster and cheaper.

"Faster and cheaper"? I beg to differ. LiDAR can produce images of landscapes faster than people walking the same area, and with more detail. But that is not good archaeology, because all it produces is a discovery— not knowledge.

If it's a competition, then I will bet my money on people doing ground survey. And I will be betting less money: LiDAR is expensive. And I question the value you get for the money it costs.

It can detect possible sites, but it cannot tell you what time period those sites were built or occupied, what the external relations of those sites were, what activities people carried out there.

And that may be good science — but it is bad archaeology.