It seems the media does not have any prejudice in how it reports the facts of an archaeological investigation. Case in point, the “discovery” of a fictional city in Honduras:
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.
But the method the modern researchers used was a little different from previous explorers’ techniques. The modern-day researchers flew over the area in a small plane and shot billions of laser pulses at the ground, creating a 3-D digital map of the topology underneath the trees.
This is one of the first times this technique, called light detection and ranging (LiDAR), has been used to map ancient ruins. Beyond archaeology, LiDAR researchers at the National Science Foundation are looking to develop the technology for mapping disasters using drones, for military spying and for tracking erosion under rivers and shallow parts of the ocean.
Which archaeologists? Sounds like the ‘Allness Trap’ in play here. But wait, there is more. Archaeologists who have worked in Honduras, like Rosemary Joyce, have this to say:
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.
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.
So a filmmaker wants to make a documentary about ancient fiction, lo and behold, another media storm of misinformation ensues. Sounds like another filmmaker I know. And where are the investigative journalists? Why aren’t journalists like Francie Diep over at MSNBC doing any research into this? Stories like this should come with disclaimers like ‘Do not trust the information when it comes from a film maker rather than credible archaeologists.’
My suggestion to everyone: read the rest of Joyce’s post and do your own research before trusting anything from the media. They suck at research.