Skip to main content

Good science, big hype, bad archaeology

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | June 7, 2012

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.

Comments to “Good science, big hype, bad archaeology

  1. Hello–
    I just finished reading the Preston book on the lidar technology and the discovery of ruins in Honduras.

    My impression is that the controversy reflects the state of funding for the field. Who wouldn’t jump at being part of a project even if totally financed by a film maker? Accepting these conditions also means accepting that the goals of a film maker and writer are different from that of a scientist.

    The team made a mistake by not properly putting the discovery into scientific context and playing up the discovery part. It was political from the start as the president of Honduras was involved and the military helped.

    So, it is an uneasy balance between science and others— is this the tradeoff that we are to expect because of lack of funding? I suppose the National Geographic Society is also seeking ways to sell the story and make it attractive.

    If NSF had had a million bucks to spend on this it may have resulted in better outcomes.

    The book was a bit tiresome– in the beginning it seemed like a book about men who have always dreamed of being adventurers…and then got their chance.

    I imagine Chris Fisher has done a professional job at publishing results…

    Too bad science got absorbed by other things…

  2. Hi Rosemary, Have you ever heard anything at all about a lost city of gold in the Pacific Northwest? I don’t mean gold mines or the likes, but a city of gold built by early natives or people before them?

  3. For Archaeological research: Suggest the study of reincarnation earlier lifetime memories and their historical data. I can remember some two hundred earlier lifetimes over the last million years. Of Atlantis, it did exist as a large island in the Central Atlantic Ocean. They had a highly advanced civilization, equal to that of today. They had bases on the Moon, which can be seen from the Earth today. Review the information in books of Psychics Edgar Cayce, Ruth Montgomery and Art Ford.

  4. Dear Ms. Joyce,

    An article came out today from NBC.
    Tales of Ciudad Blanca have circulated since at least 1526, when the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez told King Charles V about a mysterious province called Xucutaco that “must exceed Mexico in riches and equal it in the great size of the towns, the multitude of people and the government thereof.”

    Can you tell me if their Science editor is mistaken?

    Thanks for your time,
    Ted Maschal

  5. I truly agree that the traditional way of exploring ruins, mummies, artifacts and a whole lot more of precious finds is still the best way to do it. But we do live in a world wherein modern technology affects us in any possible way. Hoping for the best in your career and more wonderful finds in the future. Hope LIDAR could help you more accurately next time.

  6. Dear Rosemary,

    I totally agree with you! I love that you try to smooth things with people who don´t agree with you, and at the same time you strongly reaffirm your posture. Remember there´s sensitive people who might think you are trying to minimize the importance of the LiDAR´s result.

    Oh by the way I remember that when I was 9 I wanted to be an archaeologist, I loved reading about ancient cultures, and how they managed to build their legacy. Unfortunately I didn´t have the chance to study Archaeology, well I should I don´t because I´m still 19.

    Best wishes.

  7. Hype (NOT LiDAR) is bad for archaeology. It does a disservice to archaeology as a science to discount technological and scientific methods whose purpose it is to aid the science – not degrade it. LiDAR derived data is used to direct the attention of professionals to areas of interest – rather than having a survey party go in blind hoping to stumble upon something. I would classify THIS article as hype, and find it incredibly irresponsible that it is posted on an official UC Berkeley blog.

    • Sorry that you read the blog post this way. You seem to be missing the point so I will re-state it: no “professionals” (as in, archaeologists) were involved in the Honduran work. This led directly to the project overlooking the prior existence of research on the same area. It also led to the project being promoted as the “discovery” of a mythical “lost city”, promoted with false claims of what Spanish sources say, and false interpretations of the actual history of sixteenth-century Honduras.

      The press releases made by the project teams both had these flaws. Because of this, they make overly grand claims. They also systematically overstate how much has been accomplished, because the LiDAR imaging is only the first step in what has to be a process of ground-truthing and site assessment. Your imagination of survey as hoping to stumble on something is precisely the kind of misrepresentation of systematic ground survey that is a predictable outcome of ignoring the actual value of traditional field methods. That is to say, you have just in fact “degraded” archaeological work.

      I find it interesting that the people here who are willing to sign their names to their posts who are experienced in working with LiDAR and other similar technologies in general agree with me that the “Ciudad Blanca” story is indeed damaging to responsible communication about both the advantages of this technology — the “good science” of my blog post title — and the actual complex process of archaeology, which does not stop with site discovery. Where do you see hype?

  8. Hi Professor Joyce, Hi all

    As an native from Honduras, as an expert in engineering remote sensing and as someone who as a student (both undergrad and grad) dabbled in different fields of science including astronomy, geology, planetary science and paleontology (but never archeology or anthropology) I want to contribute my two cents to the discussion.

    First I have to say that all the discussion and debate generated by Professor Joyce’s blog post are the basic elements of scientific endeavour and I’m pleased with all the excitement and interest that this story has created in both the scientific and general public communities independent of their own opinions and beliefs. As like with everything in life, this blog post and subsequent comments have elements some of which I agree with and some I disagree with and rather than add timber to the fire and comment on the character, opinions, attitudes and facts presented by the different posters I want to make a point of why this “discovery” is good in general included why it can turn to be good archeology. Finally I would like to make a reflection on the reaction of traditional science to the reality of the 21st century.

    First, this is not the first time that remote sensing has been used to try to obtain evidence to hint that there might be more to the Ciudad Blanca than just a legend (See ). Also, this is not the first time that film-makers have ventured into the Honduran jungle aiming to either bring attention to the myth or themselves. (among many: , . However, what it is definitely worthy is that this is the FIRST time that we have seen crisp clear three-dimensional maps of an extended area under the canopy. ( I have never seen this type of detail in either peer-reviewed publications or the public web. Moreover, it seems that most experts agree that these images show anthropogenic alteration of the natural topography underneath heavy canopy. Been buried under canopy hints to the fact that whatever these features are they are somewhat ancient. So lets assume for a minute that what is shown in these images is not actually a new “discovery”, lets assume that professor Chris Begley has been there before. Can he recognize the area? Does he have field maps or sketches obtained with traditional field mapping techniques that outline the different features with the accuracy and detail that the LiDAR images show? I don’t know, probably not. As they say, “an image is worth a million words” and here is where I believe that independent of this being a “discovery” or not the few images that have been made public as now represents an advance and improvement to the current knowledge and thus has the POTENTIAL to be GOOD Archeology. I said potential, because at least two things need to happen… 1) these remotely sensed data needs ground truth, which can be extremely difficult due to the location and extreme vegetation and 2) data needs to be made available to the scientific community for review and scrutiny.

    Second, as Professor Joyce, Professor Begley and all of the professional archeologists that have worked in Honduras will know. Doing Archeology in Honduras is extremely difficult in terms of bureaucracy (obtaining permits), figuring out logistics, ensuring personnel and equipment safety, dealing with severe weather, dense vegetation, not to mention dangerous critters. So I think it is a bit of a stretch to assume that archeologists have not being at least consulted for this project (for one you need permits from the IHAH to do any filming and/or exploration in the country), also those that have worked on the field and know how hard this is will probably agree that it is pretty impressive that a group of “Amateurs” are able to pull something like this, which again has all the potential to enhance the knowledge on the topic.

    Third, as you may imagine, this is a story that has many layers and many participants. There is a film production company working on a documentary, there is an academic institution that has a branch that provides engineering remote sensing support to the research community at large and of course you have the Honduran government involved. Here is where I want to bring in a bit of the Honduran perspective, specially the government perspective. If you follow the news, you might now that Honduras has recently received very negative press coverage and has been labeled as the murder and drug traffic capital of the world, justifiably? I think maybe. So now, put yourself in the shoes of a Honduran authority who has the opportunity to show to the world something positive about your country, would you do it? would you super hype it? As a scientist maybe not, but as a government official YES. Is this condemnable, is this bad for science?

    Finally, at the beginning I mentioned that I dabbled in Astronomy. What does this has to do with Archeology you might ask. Well here is where I want to leave with a small reflection about science in the 21st century. As a college sophomore I got a job at an academic observatory. I remember that there was always friction between “professional” and “amateur” astronomers, however it is interesting that in astronomy professional and amateur astronomers have learned to work together, you might want to check the biography of David Levy… Levy as in Shoemaker-Levy 9. Also in astronomy both professional and amateurs have together created awareness and raised interest in the general public. In astronomy a discovery by an amateur is only seen as beneficial to both knowledge and science and not as something that is BAD for astronomy. Should the archeology community incorporate some of the best practices developed by astronomers? Should the professional archeologist work with the amateurs to raise awareness and interest in the field? and most important should the professional work with the amateurs so that the latter develop a sense of the best way to divulge and PRESERVE their findings for the benefit of science?

    Also as scientists we sometimes like to work in a vacuum, in a bubble isolated of what happens in the world outside our field. We sometimes feel that science is better performed in our academic environment. However, in the 21st century many smart individuals and groups are doing science, research, development and exploration outside the bubble of academia. This is particularly true and fully accepted in the computer science and engineering areas, in some other areas not easily accepted. Support coming from the entertainment industry is also a reality that is very controversial. Take for example the recent exploration by James Cameron of the deepest spot on the Earth’s oceans or his recent announcement of a venture to mine asteroids or the recent announcement of the Dutch company “Mars One” to set a colony in Mars. These will be great achievements, but because these are not made in academia and not funded thru the traditional science grant process are they less science? Will science benefit from these efforts? or will these effort harm science? I believe that all these developments will enhance knowledge and science. We as scientists will gradually evolve to the new realities, but from Darwin we know that evolution is a slow process! 🙂

    • Thanks for the contribution to the discussion. Two quick comments, and then we probably will have to agree to disagree. First, it is a fact that no archaeologists have (so far) been involved in this project. That has been acknowledged by the group, led by a film-maker, that started this. The Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia did promote it, but the person who publicized it is not a scholar of any kind, and remarkably, although there are accomplished archaeologists working for the Instituto– including one whose own dissertation is in a previously unstudied area of the country not far from the Mosquitia– none of these archaeologists have been mentioned in any press coverage of the story in Honduras, or in any press releases about the story.

      Second, I agree entirely with your argument that this work has potential to be interesting. But in my view, that potential is undercut by the failure of the principals to educate themselves about what is already known, including reading Chris Begley’s dissertation. If they had knowledge of the archaeological record for the Mosquitia– which, I repeat, goes back to the 19th (and actually, research I am doing shows, even the 18th) centuries, then they could have publicized their findings in terms of advances in knowledge– rather than the first rays of light in the dark. And, I would like to think, if they had educated themselves about the existing archaeology, they might not have chosen to hitch these findings to the entirely-modern entirely-made-up story of Ciudad Blanca. The real history of the Mosquitia is interesting enough on its own.

  9. Hi Rosemary!

    I love the blog. As a fellow archaeologist (specifically technoarchaeologist) I understand the dangers that come with the different technologies that are utilized to document and record sites as well as survey existing sites or provide new avenues for future research. If it’s OK with you, I’d like to share my thoughts.

    One of the most significant challenges to the problem of over-hyping/jumping the proverbial archaeological gun, lay in the terminology that is utilized to describe data. Because I am most familiar with the archaeogeophysics/archaeological prospection communities (both remote-sensing (from satellites, powered parachutes, or planes and near-ground remote-sensing via geophysics)I know what the term ‘anomaly’ is used to describe, and more importantly I know WHY it is used. Anomalies, to me, (paraphrasing Ken Kvamme) are “locations of sub-surface features with physical/chemical properties that contrast highly from the surrounding “normal” background. These anomalies are extreme in value and tend to be statistically significant.(Kvamme 2010). Once anomalies are identified, they must be GROUND-TRUTHED to determine whether or not they are actually archaeological sites.

    However, some scientists like to jump the gun and claim that their anomalies are actually sites without that critical ground-truthing component. There are many reasons for this as you stated above for doing so, and I would like to a few more.

    Because these technologies and methods are high-tech and visually exciting, people–both archaeologists and the public–are often willing to suspend a critical level of disbelief when looking at the data because what looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, “must be” so. Quite simply, it’s due to a lack of understanding by both archaeologists and laypeople as to what *exactly* they are looking at. As these technologies become more widely available and more automated LiDAR surveys turn up new anomalies to investigate, we will undoubtedly see more of those types of articles, instead of “New anomalies found in Honduras, testing to follow”.

    A solution would be for the older generation of archaeologists (as well as our up-and-coming students) to familiarize themselves with the basic intricacies of remote-sensing, and practice better reservation of judgement on anomalies that could become highly controversial. Part and parcel to this is the need for better visualization ethics and standards. Once those of us with letters in front and behind our names put an image in the public’s eye, it becomes legitimized–for better (or in this case) for worse.

    • Exactly!

      One of the more interesting things I am seeing in responses to this blog posting is that I am getting flack from a certain segment of the public (accusing me of just being disgruntled because this wasn’t my “discovery”, or (my favorite) being resistant to use of new technologies. But at the same time, I am hearing from a lot of truly talented archaeologists specializing in the application of new technologies, who– like you– are also caught by the way that the real difficulties of the use of these technologies are jumped over in press reports.

      The really funny thing about the first category of reactions is that I am an enthusiastic supporter of a wide range of technologies– from non-invasive methods of site prospection such as ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry (which Tiffany Tchakirides employed for her Cornell PhD dissertation at Los Naranjos, Honduras, as part of a project I co-directed with John Henderson of Cornell), to the application of physical and chemical materials analyses in work with artifacts ranging from pottery to obsidian. But what that enthusiasm has led me to realize is that when people are encouraged to think of science as “zapping things with rays”, then they are bad consumers of the knowledge that is produced. And that includes the people who are archaeologists.

      In the case of the Ciudad Blanca hype, it is clear that had there been archaeologists involved from the beginning the research design would have been informed by knowledge of the existing survey data from the Mosquitia. That would have helped a great deal in avoiding hype. The archaeologists and engineers need to work together from the beginning on projects like this.

      I also like that you note the ethical responsibility we have for the way we promote our findings to the public. I routinely give lectures in museums, and through the travelling lecture program of the Archaeological Institute of America. What I find is that the public is fully capable of understanding the uncertainties of what we do, and often, is dubious about the over-hype.

      I am really encouraged about this, actually– and I promise to keep calling BS* out where I see it.

      *BS= Bad Science

  10. Dear Rosmary, your headline, mummies, tombs, etc., made me laugh because long ago we subscribed to Archeology Magazine which keeps arriving and each month seems to feature another one of the aforementioned. I never read them.
    Last month had an article about a Norwegian ship, the Vasa which sunk on its maiden voyage that we found interesting. I can appreciate your vigilance about media hype and your responsiveness to those who leave comments. Thanks.

    • The Vasa was a Swedish ship, named for the Royal family. It’s exhibited in it’s own museum in Stockholm, remarkably well perserved. The stories surrounding the “discovery” of this ship is almost as full of hyperbole as the Lost City. The amateur archaeologists, who did a truly excellent job getting together financing and experts to raise it from the water in 1961, neglected to mention that the site of it’s sinking had been known for a long time and made a great story of how he found it. He also conveniently erased some people who assisted him with information from the final story, to inflate his own importance.

      Hype is as old as archaeology. 🙂

    • Patricia, thanks for getting the point about how archaeology is so much more than just those traditional themes. Again, whenever I speak to the general public– most often, through the sponsorship of the Archaeological Institute of America– I find real complexity in what people are interested in, the questions they ask, and the answers they find satisfying. So I encourage you and others to demand more– of the press, and of us.

      Asa, wonderful addition. Yes, there has been a long history of using great stories of discovery to advance personal agendas. Part of my current research on histories of museum collections has led me to newspaper articles that are amazing examples of this– including very similar themes of the challenges of getting through the wastelands, only since there are other contemporary sources, I know that the archaeologists are exaggerating more than a little.

  11. Is knowledge not made up of a series of discoveries? 🙂

    I would say working in every science constitutes adding to the existing knowledge-base through discoveries.

    • Brendan, philosophically, I have to say that while doing science does include processes of discovery– of detecting and describing phenomena not previously included in the scientific explanations within a field– knowledge cannot simply be equated with a series of discoveries.

      Knowledge is understanding, it is explanation. If I find (as I have!) evidence that occupation of an area of Honduras started 1000 years earlier than previous archaeologists thought, that might be considered a discovery: after all, it consisted of buried remains of a village with some level of wealth, with people who cultivated cacao far earlier than previously thought, who imported luxuries from far away.

      But on its own, that is not what I mean by knowledge: it is just a string of facts or data or observations. I need to explain those previously unseen things. In this specific example, I needed to produce a satisfactory explanation (the first version was published in Latin American Antiquity) for the existence of this village earlier, and wealthier, than previous models and explanations would have led us to expect. It was those explanations that got the research funding from the National Science Foundation– not just the discoveries– and it is the explanations that have implications for other models for the earliest village life in Central America.

  12. As a commercial archaeologist in the UK of over 30 years experience, what you say about sensationalism and journalists chimes very true. How sad that scholarly endeavour is reduced to what feels like a cheap headline. You are spot on; Lidar is fantastic (and currently expensive) but you still need to ground truth the results with folk on the ground (which can be more cost effective).

    • LiDAR is fantastic– and there has been great work done in projects with archaeological engagement from the beginning, by people like Chris Fisher.

      The key thing for me is that we archaeologists ensure that the general public– and the press– understand that site discovery, no matter how detailed and amazing the imagery involved, is one step in a long process. The rest of those steps also routinely involve technologies that even a few years ago we would not have dreamed of being able to apply so easily.

      But it isn’t the technology that makes great archaeology. It is the shaping of explanations that are true to the observations that can be made, that are honest about the points of uncertainty, and that make explicit the principal assumptions made. That’s science.

  13. Im not sure why it would be out of reason to imagine he was told about a city of Gold, considering his actions in Tenochtitlan, He first arrived in the Caribbean where they told him of the gold in Mexico after the genocide that occurred there he continued onto Mexico were the rape,genocide and theft continued. So why would he stop,because he encountered God? I mean theres no question of his motives, His only motive was gold.

    • David, the amazing thing about Cortes’ march to Honduras is that we know a lot about it. Not only did Cortes himself write his explanation of his actions in a letter to the King of Spain; his lieutenant, Bernal Diaz, included this amazing journey in his memoir, “True History of the Things of New Spain”. (Unfortunately, some editions of this don’t include the Honduran campaign).

      So why did Cortes go to Honduras? Because he had sent some of his troops there, and they double-crossed him: once there, they declared it a colony of its own, under their leadership. So, Cortes set of on his march across the base of the Yucatan peninsula, to try to take control again. Once in Honduras, he wrote extensively about what he did, what people in Honduras told him, and what the prospects for wealth were if the colony he re-established were successful.

      Yes, he was motivated by a search for wealth. But most of the wealth he saw as an option in Honduras was not precious metals: it was cacao, the seed that produces chocolate, the highest standard of value in Mexico and Central America. The Ulua Valley in Honduras was known to allies of the distant Mexican Aztecs, who provided Cortes his maps, because it produced highly prized cacao. The first Spanish colonists in Honduras wrote extensive letters about the local leader who was “a great merchant in cacao”.

      Cortes heard from people in Honduras that there were more wealthy provinces further to the east. There were no specific descriptions of cities, nor of gold working. The indigenous people of Honduras did not work gold– they did make copper alloy bells, and Columbus actually described some metal in a Honduran boat seized off the northeast coast of Honduras in 1502. It wasn’t until the late 1520s– long after Cortes came and went– that Spanish colonists discovered gold in various places in Honduras. When they did, they actually relocated their main colony to try to exploit it.

      Geologically, the formations that still today yield gold (primarily for Canadian mining companies) are in the same regions where the Spanish found gold: in Olancho, in the western Honduran state of Copan, and in the area of northwest Honduras around the Naco, Sula, and Quimistan valleys of the state of Santa Barbara. Other gold deposits exist in the far south of the country. The one place where gold has not historically been mined is the Mosquitia, where the new LiDAR images show sites.

      So: no cities of gold in Honduras to attract Cortes; and no reason to think sites in the Mosquitia were major gold producing centers either.

  14. That was the most wonderful observation on archaeology, science, and how “wowsa” promotions for docos do a disservice to both archaeology and informing the public.

  15. I found this article very interesting. My country, South Africa, has its own tale of a lost city of the Kalahari.
    As amateur archaeologist (at best) I have noted that more and more claims are made of archaeological finds without peer reviews. One only needs to look at how many times and at different locations Atlantis had been found.
    What I have done in my writings (in my home language, Afrikaans) is to take a myth and discuss through typical archaeological methodology the possibility of whether the myth may hold some truth. But still stating clearly that until then, it remains a myth. This way, I believe, young people become interested.
    From this side of the Atlantic, stories of pre Columbian contact with the New World is terribly interesting, but one also only needs to Google to see how this had gone haywire.
    More “feel” for real archaeology needs to be developed. In the middle of my city, Bloemfontein, there are ruins of a 100 meter by 50 meter stone structure, judging by the erosion of rocks around, must be several 100’s of years old. The building style is similar used for the construction of Zimbabwe’s ruins, yet the Bloemfontein ruins are on no record of any sorts, and is slowly being destroyed by hobo’s.
    In another province I saw similar ruins, well within the Zimbabwe radius, and pointing that out was told to keep my mouth shut. People tend to place ancestral claims on such sites, as though their grandparents lived there (and thus must have had children at the age of nearly a thousand years old) and land owners rather chuck these rocks in rivers than facing such ridiculous claims.

  16. Bizarre statement in the Begley website to which you link. An explorer in 1939 has links to the CIA? Very difficult since CIA wasn’t established until after WWII.

    • Missed that one, sorry! Morde is a character himself– described as a popular writer and a spy during the 1930s. That would, as you correctly note, be before the CIA was established. If he was a spy, which is suggested in some published works (like Douglas Waller’s Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, then of course he would have participated in a predecessor to the CIA. The idea of spies stumbling around the eastern Honduran rainforest may seem peculiar– but it has been well documented for H. J. Spinden, who actually can be credited as the earliest professional archaeologist to report sites in the Mosquitia. He was enlisted as a spy during his 1917 reconnaissance of Honduras, working for the Office of Naval Intelligence. I will let Chris Begley know he has inadvertently repeated an anachronistic assignment of Morde to an agency that did not yet exist!

      • Rosemary,
        I came across this site while doing research about Theodore Morde (my great uncle). He was indeed a spy for the OSS and not the CIA and is listed as such in the recently declassified OSS files housed at the National Archives. I have also seen his original OSS correspondence, which was left at my Grandmother’s house after his suicide (he was NOT hit by a car despite what you may read online). However, it is unclear if he was one [a spy] before his Honduran Expedition. His known activities in the OSS were also far removed from that region:

        If you have heard any anecdotes or stories about him during the course of your research, I would be glad to hear them. Thanks!

  17. In my understanding, there is often a vast chasm between what the general public knows and what a handful of experts understand. That is, after all, why they are the experts. “Exciting tales” often become the means of bridging that gap. As Rosemary Joyce pointed out, we all need the promise of legend. If the “myth of Cuidad Blanca” stimulates public interest and funding for your worthy projects, it will have served its purpose well.

    • Yes, there is often a vast chasm between specialist knowledge and public knowledge– something we archaeologists have to overcome (and things like posting on blogs is one way to do this). But the Ciudad Blanca “research” is being presented as science. And it is not, insofar as it doesn’t help the public understand the real facts, but continues to distort what archaeology really is. It mystifies me why real archaeology– which, after all, does include exploring the unknown, and finding out what has not been known– isn’t considered interesting. As for whether the Ciudad Blanca research will encourage public funding of real archaeology– that is questionable, since it actually is promoting something best described as adventuring.

  18. My first reaction to this was that science is not involved at all. Until something is published in a peer-reviewed journal, the data/model/results/whatever should not be considered science. It is just a bunch of journalists and PR people making silly claims (which is what they are paid to do). But then I saw that the LIDAR research is funded by the National Science Foundation. While that fact alone is a far cry from eventual publication in a reputable journal, it does make one wonder about the extent to which the project is scientific in epistemology, as opposed to scientific in technique. You make this distinction in your contrast of knowledge with discovery. I have talked about this in Publishing Archaeology in terms of two definitions of science. Science definition 1 refers to scientific epistemology, your knowledge; Science definition 2 is the use of non-archaeological scientific techniques, which involves discoveries that can be used in the service of science #1, or for other purposes (from authenticating artwork to drumming up publicity about imaginary sites in Honduras).

    I think archaeologists need to speak up more about the nature of a rigorous, scientific approach (definition #1), and even try to critique some of the media silliness. The Dina Spector piece in Business Insider is great – someone to be cultivated and worked with in the future.

    • Spot on, and not surprising, but thanks for underlining this point. As I said in reply to Ray Kerkhove, real archaeology is actually interesting– and blurring the lines in the way the press release from University of Houston did in my view crosses a line that scholars need to try to delineate.

  19. I would take LiDAR over hacking through the jungles any time. LiDAR does provide knowledge; where the potential sites are. If she wants to fly blind by hacking through the jungles with no idea of where a structure/site is that’s fine.

    LiDAR provides knowledge of the most important aspect of field work; “where” the site is. Digging provides knowledge of “who” constructed it, “when” it was constructed, and potentially “why” and “how” it was constructed. You can’t have the latter 4 without the former. Common sense.

    • Thanks for giving me yet ANOTHER opportunity to underline that LiDAR is a great tool for site discovery– if your project has the big bucks to afford it. “Hacking through the jungles”, though, does in fact lead to site discovery as well– and there are plenty of archaeologists doing that hard work today, without the budgets that this one LiDAR project had. More to the point: an archaeologist already has done the hard work, and it was not acknowledged, not even (apparently) known to the team promoting these findings. As a result, they failed utterly in the most important step, which is the interpretation of results. Knowing where sites are may come first– but without knowing the who, what, and when, the where is no advance over the classic map of Honduras by the first modern map-maker, Aguilar Paz, who marked every location with reported archaeological ruins– including in the Mosquitia, providing the original focus for this LiDAR project. How did Aguilar Paz know there were sites along these specific rivers? well, because human beings actually traveled there, long before the first modern archaeologist.

  20. Rosemary,
    Thanks so much for this reasoned, intelligent essay… and followups. In a culture of cacophony, good science requires people to listen to still, small voices. Like prayer.
    Mark Van Stone

    Professor of Art History, Southwestern College
    markvanstone (dot) com

  21. I agree that more research is needed. Whether it was Ciudad Blanca or not the story gets people excited and interested in archeology. This is the power of the myth and why they’re still around today. People should be excited about the possibilities. If it turns out not to be what it was claimed to be, maybe the person following the story learned something they wouldn’t have otherwise. Plus archeology as a science is always having to rethink their “knowledge” based on new discoveries. Look whats happening with the Clovis first theory. Also, people used to think the city of Troy was a myth as well before it was “discovered”.

    • Chris, I decided to be an archaeologist when I was seven years old because of mythology– a children’s retelling of the Aeneid, with a section on Heinrich Schliemann’s quest for Troy. So I do not discount the firing of the imagination that comes from even mythological stories– let alone legends that might carry traces of once-upon-a-time knowledge. But this story ignores what we already know, and promotes a stupid way of thinking about the great help technology gives us– what I call “zap things with rays” science writing. Modern technologies are allowing archaeologists to do much more than before. But they are not, by themselves, enough. You need that knowledge of what was done before; the understanding of how to think about what you see on your LiDAR images; and frankly, you need to think about the damage you do to intelligent discussion by making science seem like, well, magic. Are you really saying that people wouldn’t be as excited if the story were this: “New high tech images show that people once built major towns in heavily forested areas of eastern Honduras, where only a few intrepid archaeologists have ever explored. Now, working with one of those pioneers, a team on the ground will travel to the detected sites to answer the questions posed by the images: who lived there? when were their cities built?”

  22. I am not an archeologist but my first impression when reading this story in the news on another web site was the same as yours.I found it curious that a purported archeological find would be described as it was. I suspect the reasoning is that a hyped up story of gold and famous legends would bring in money for the expedition from dreamers.

  23. Hello Professor Joyce — I thought your analysis here was really interesting and I’d like to learn more. I certainly don’t want to be writing about “bad science,” as you say. May I set up a time to talk with you on Monday, June 11? I’m free any time before 3 pm Pacific. You can email me at the address I gave. Thanks for considering it.

  24. Setting aside the “hype” issue, I was excited to hear of the LIDAR survey. Having spent a number years working with the Pech and Moskito people in the region, I am familiar with the nightmarish terrain, vegetation and general logistic problems and lets not forget the pesky fer-de-lance. One could spend a lifetime stumbling around that region and miss more than you find. A far cry from the Ulua River valley where I assume the authors work has centered.
    I respectfully suggest the LIDAR is “faster and cheaper”, but do agree with Ms. Joyce, there is no substitute for the ground work. I would just call this working smart and quickly opening the door to a better understanding of the region.

  25. You are raising some enormously important issues here, ones that really must be addressed directly in the near future. Lidar images have proven useful to many fields, including, engineering, planning, and environmental modeling. Therefore, we will almost surely see much greater use of this and similar technologies in the near future. Lidar images produced by engineers who planning a road, for example, will inevitably find their way into the wrong hands. We must recognize this and develop a strategy to deal with the threat that this poses to archaeological resources. Lidar data and images and data are already available online at no cost for entire states in the US.

    The mention of documentary filmmakers is especially disturbing, given our recent experience with “documentary” television programming such as American Diggers and Diggers, the latter produced for the National Geographic Channel. Such shows celebrate and therefore encourage looting of archaeological sites with the use of metal detectors, in this case historic and battlefield sites. Can programs that glorify treasure hunting by the use of Lidar and other technologies be far behind?

    Claiming to have found Cuidad Blanca on the basis of what is seen in Lidar imagery in the absence of ground truthing and other evidence that corroborates this is, to me, simply another example of the misuse of this technology. As a Co-President of the International Committee on Archaeological Management, I think that it is time that we turn our attention to developing guidelines for the ethical use of aerial and satellite remote sensing technologies. We should be finding ways to prevent or discourage their use in looting and as the basis for unsubstantiated claims of “discovery” that will ultimately reflect poorly on archaeology as discipline that relies upon thorough, critical examination of evidence before presenting our findings to the public. We alsocan not ignore that these technologies can provide us with a greatly enriched context by which to interpret materials observed by means of more traditional archaeological field methods. An example of this that springs to mind is the way in which Arlen Chase, after decades of fieldwork at Caracol, has used Lidar to see how what he so painstakingly documented fits into larger landscape of the city itself.

  26. Hi Rosemary,

    Thanks for throwing some light on this issue. I have tried to contact myself the IHAH(Institute of Anthropology and History of Honduras) but I have not received an answer yet.

    Cortés did not look for “Ciudad Blanca” because Ciudad Blanca is a shadow, a ghost, not even a legend. Cortes, as most of the Spanish conquers, was looking for gold and sometimes their ambition created cities full of gold where there were none. If something, Ciudad Blanca is a mixture of local myths, Spanish conquers chronicles and a pinch of the “Lost City of the Monkey God” travelogue of Theodore Morde.

    Nevertheless, the IHAH announces the discovery of Ciudad Blanca almost as a fact.

    You can see it here

    The title is “descubrimiento” (discovery) but the only paragraph where they actually mention something similar to a discovery is this:

    “El análisis inicial de los datos LIDAR indican lo que puede ser evidencia de la existencia de ruinas arqueológicas dentro de un area territorial que por mucho tiempo se ha rumorado contienen la legendaria Ciudad Blanca.”

    “The initial analysis of the LIDAR data indicates what could be evidence of the existence of archaeological ruins inside a territorial area that, for a long time, has been believed to contain the legendary city of Ciudad Blanca”

    Is that the statement of a discovery?

    They have even uploaded the video of the session where the “announcement” was made.

    I wonder what will they say if it turns out to be an already known archeological site as Chris Begley says or if its something that can not be related to the idea of “Ciudad Blanca”. Maybe Honduras is trying to jump to the same bus of Mexico and Guatemala that are somehow encouraging the idea of end of the world 2012 even in their official websites, probably to get more tourists?

    See the countdown at right, this is a guatemalan government site

    Below a mexican government site where it says to the right “Mundo Maya 2012, la cuenta que hará historia” (Maya World 2012, The countdown that will make history.)

    Countdown to what?

    My two cents.

    Alan Brain

  27. Unfortunately, only hours after I posted this, one major newspaper went ahead with the story: and actually made it worse. The LA Times inaptly named feature ScienceNow embroidered the press release, not only repeating the entirely false claim that Cortes went to Honduras in search of a city of gold, but also claiming that Aztec mythology identified Ciudad Blanca as the origin of the god Quetzalcoatl. I wish it were needless to say, but perhaps not: the Aztec (or Mexica) are a Mexican society; their mythology is not relevant to Honduras. I am patiently waiting for the LA Times to publish a correction.

  28. I was an early Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras, 1965-67, and heard of La Ciudad Blanca while in country. I even had a chance to make a canoe trip down the Rio Patuca and other Mosquitia streams. We didn’t see anything resembling a stone ruin, such as those at Copan and other areas of the western part of the country, nor did we run across any direct, eye-witness reports of it. There was lots of rumor and legend, but no photos, relics, or other evidence. I did speak with a SAHSA pilot in about 1967 who swore he got a glimpse of “white buildings” near the Nicaraguan border, but never saw them again on subsequent flights. I suppose the Ciudad is just a legend after all. More’s the pity.

    But there was another rumored “lost” ruin of sorts in that area, on the Mosquitia coast: a WWII Nazi U-boat pen, complete with U-boat scuttled inside, completely covered by vines, mangroves, etc. Wonder if LiDAR locate that legend, too?

    • Jim: Chris Begley, whose work you can begin to find here, has amply documented the presence of archaeological sites with large stone structures, including ballcourts, in the Mosquitia. The key difference– as with most of Honduras– is that most buildings were made of river cobbles, not cut stone. So they would not look like Copan (at least, not like reconstructed Copan). The biggest problem with hyping good LiDAR imagery as a mythical city is that it obscures the fact that the new imagery shows sites with plans very much like those Professor Begley found.

      Jon, as the response to Jim indicates, I am not simply relying on my own experience in the Ulua valley– and in the neighboring Cataguana drainage, or earlier in the Naco valley, in all of which, by the way, we faced logistic challenges and more than one fer de lance. But I do not have to project from my own considerable experience: Chris Begley undertook significant archaeological survey in the Mosquitia with impressive results using traditional methods. That research was either unknown to the team hyping this LiDAR survey, or ignored by them. Begley managed to make his way, despite the challenges you cite. So this new LiDAR work cannot be said to be opening the door– contrary to the claims made, it is not the first survey, and without better communication with the expert in the area, we do not even know that these are previously unreported sites. And I stand by my skepticism of the “faster and cheaper” claim. The cost of the LiDAR imaging is extremely high. The same amount of funding invested in traditional archaeological survey would enable a wide area to be surveyed, and that kind of work would produce evidence to enable dating and relating the sites to others in the region.

      Thanks to Douglas Comer for giving me an opportunity to underline that the “good science” of the title of this piece means the LiDAR imaging itself. Clearly, this is a useful technology– when treated as one means of conducting research, and not used to promote sensationalist ideas. That also means acknowledging what LiDAR imagery alone cannot tell us; and it includes admitting that if we put the same level of funding into older methods, the results obtained might be quite high.

      Alan, you may find two posts at the blog I maintain with Rus Sheptak interesting: the first is about this latest announcement of supposed discovery by IHAH; the second is about how Honduras is trying to promote 2012 tourism.

Comments are closed.