Photo: The University of Houston and the National Science Foundation’s National centre for Airborne Laser Mapping)
For more than four centuries, the legend of Ciudad Blanca, a lost city in Honduras, has captured the imagination of archaeologists.
According to Chris Begley, who has done extensive work in the jungles of Honduras’ Mosquito Coast — where the archaeological ruins are rumoured to be found — there have been many failed attempts to find Ciudad Blanca ever since it was first recorded by Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes in 1526.
A few days ago, however, researchers from the National Science Foundation and University of Houston issued a press release saying they “mapped a remote region of Honduras that may contain the legendary lost city of Ciudad Blanca.”
“May,” of course, is the operative word. It could also be some other long-hidden site, though that finding doesn’t quite have the same allure.
The discovery was made using a method called LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, from an aeroplane. A plane shoots down billions of laser beams, which cut through dense tree cover to produce detailed digital images of the ground. It essentially gets rid of all the vegetation so researchers can map the earth underneath.
Rosemary Joyce, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley, confirms on The Berkeley Blog that researchers have found something, be it a new or excavated site. But there’s absolutely no way to be sure that it is in fact Ciudad Blanca, a point that’s been hyped-up by the media:
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 archeology before press releases were issued.
(Joyce is referring to an even earlier press release by UTL Scientific, a company that provided planning and logistics support to the LiDAR survey project in Honduras, but did not involve any scientists).
[LiDAR] 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.
In sum, archaeologists have uncovered what appears to be ruins in a remote part of the rainforest (still cool); we’ll just have to wait for people to actually hack through the forest to see if it’s the fabled lost city.
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