Thursday, June 7, 2012

Honduras' lost city: Big hype, bad archaeology

Anthropology prof 
University of California Berkley
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.
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.
Read more here.

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