How I decide if archaeology news is believable.
Over the past two days, all of my dearest friends and family have sent me links to various versions of this story: Quebec schoolboy, 15, credited with discovery of lost Mayan city. Why? Because I like Maya stuff, and do Maya archaeology, and write about the Maya a lot, and was in that part of Mexico last year. Upon opening the first link I realised I was going to have to tell the people I like most in the world that they had been had. The story is bunk. There is no city. The kid didn’t find anything really. This thing had no fact check. It’s a classic example of extremely poor archaeology reporting.
Way back in my undergraduate days I took a course called Pseudoscience in Archaeology and it was great. Beyond having an interesting forum to discuss how the discipline is perceived by the public and the media, a core activity was to take archaeology news straight from the papers and assess it. We needed to ask, can we believe what is presented? What is right with this picture? What is wrong with it? Perhaps most importantly, we were asked to think about how we would prevent our own work from being misrepresented. Reporters who contact me: this is why I ask to see what you’ve written before you publish. This Maya city+magical stars+kid story had all the warning signs.
So, I am going to take you through the warning signs I saw here, to tell you why I knew this story was rubbish before it was rubbished by others (e.g. see this Wired piece). Please be clear, I am not criticizing this kid, good on him for giving it a go. I am criticizing the ‘professionals’ who let this happen. Who refused to call an expert before they foisted some kid into the limelight. This might be a bit long as I am going to take this version of the article apart piece by piece.
What’s the point? Well, you should all do this to every article you read before you decide to believe it. Science reporters should do this to any story before they write it.
Quebec schoolboy, 15, credited with discovery of lost Mayan city
Will Pavia, The Times
The word “Mayan” is a bit of a shibboleth. It can only be used for the spoken and written language. Cities are Maya cities not Mayan cities. A media report that gets it wrong is suspect. An alleged professional who gets it wrong is a big red blinking warning light.
A Quebec schoolboy who matched the sites of ancient Mayan cities to the star charts of their astronomers has been credited with the discovery of a lost city in the jungles of Mexico.
William Gadoury, 15, led his search for a settlement in Central America from his home in Saint-Jean-de-Martha, a small town 60 miles northwest of Montreal. He enlisted the help of a satellite imaging specialist and the Canadian Space Agency, which hailed his discovery as exceptional.
We are getting into weird zone. In that part of Mexico you have Maya cities that hit their peak at vastly different times: 1000 years or more apart. Has the kid controlled for that? What period of building are we talking for this star matching plan. Also at any one given time, most Maya cities were either flat out at war with each other or in an alliance that may or may not have been fragile. They didn’t exactly call up the lord of a rival city to discuss planning.
Takeaway point, does this sound like something that a diverse group of people spread out over a large area would do? You don’t need to know about the Maya to say no.
At least one Mayan scholar cast doubt on his theory yesterday, however, and the site he pinpoints on radar images is so remote that it would be difficult and expensive for archaeologists to verify his findings.
…but none of the articles specifically tell where the site is so you (or me) the independent checker can’t check it. That’s your red flag. Turns out the “site” is close to the REAL site of Uxul. Uxul is well known, kinda sucks to get to if I understand correctly, but a hike out from Calakmul or up from Mirador to verify this would be like any other Maya site survey: hard work but possible.
Side note, I’ve communicated with some of the folks who looted sites in this area, including Calakmul. They were able to get back there in the late 1960s. Here are 40 photos of a site near there being looted.
If William is proved correct, it could represent something of a first in the history of searches for pre-Columbian cities, in which so many men struck out for far-flung jungles, only to vanish. The prize of discovering an ancient city lost to mankind for centuries would be for William merely the culmination of a high school project.
Does that sound true to you? It shouldn’t. Various satellite images and other remote sensing techniques have been used in the Maya region for a long time. Here’s an article in the Guardian from just last year. I’ve poked around on Google earth looking at deforestation+new site discovery+looting. A simple Google search shows you that folks have been finding Maya sites from the sky for a while.
It began after he developed a theory that the cities of the Maya people were placed, not according to the strictures of geography, but in alignment with the stars.
“I did not understand why the Maya built their cities away from rivers, on marginal lands and in the mountains,” he told the Journal de Montreal.
Alright team, major cities need water. They do. People have a funny way of dying without it. The Maya built their cities in places where they had access to water, much of it significant underground water so no obvious river. I am not knocking the kid but this is where you should be worried.
He compared the scattering of 117 Mayan sites to the constellations listed in the Madrid Codex — a Mayan text that has been dated to the later period of the civilisation, between 900 and 1521.
Drawing the constellations on to transparent sheets and laying them over maps of Mayan cities suggested to him that the sites adhered to the same patterns. “I was really surprised and excited when I realised that the most brilliant stars of the constellations matched the largest Maya cities,” he said.
So…117 Maya sites which have their foundations a thousand+ years apart, some of which would be abandoned and forgotten by the time later ones went up were compared to something in the VERY late document, the Madrid Codex. This is going bad.
The only anomaly in his theory related to the constellation of Orion, which is said to have a central place in Mayan religion and culture.
Cite your sources.
He believed that two of three stars in the constellation corresponded to the sites of Calakmul, in Mexico, and El Mirador, in Guatemala. The third, by his reasoning, ought to have been in Mexico.
Look up the cities on Wikipedia. They are both massive. They were founded and hit their peak at totally different times. There is no indication whatsoever that they were built in relation to each other.
“He had this hypothesis three years ago,” Armand LaRocque, a research technician in the forestry department of the University of New Brunswick, said.
Dr LaRocque, who specialises in remote sensing and the use of satellite data, said he helped the teenager source images of the site where he believed a ruin would be. “It was not possible to see anything because of the very dense vegetation there,” he said. “Fortunately with the help of the Canadian Space Agency it was possible to get radar images from RadarSat2” — a radar satellite launched in 2007.
Now this is the bad guy of the story. I am sure he is a nice person, but he is being touted as a professional but isn’t acting like one. Step one in assessing his credentials is to look him up. Here’s what you find. Fella has no Maya experience yet he is so ready to talk about Maya things. This is very problematic. If your source doesn’t have expert knowledge of a topic and hasn’t demonstrably drawn from another expert source, the article is probably not believable.
A spokeswoman for the space agency confirmed that it helped the project.
Dr LaRocque said a large square was visible on the radar images. “I don’t think it was natural,” he said. “It seemed to correspond to the size of a Mayan pyramid — 50 to 100 metres across.”
Older satellite images were said to have shown the same area after a fire had removed some of the canopy. William discerned a street network and other buildings, Dr LaRocque said.
The expert just used the word “Mayan” incorrectly. Not good. To go more into specialist stuff, the Maya didn’t really have ‘street networks’, at least not in that sense. At some sites they built ceremonial white roads called sacbe (plural, sacbeob). These aren’t city streets between houses etc., these are religious things connecting temples and sacred places. Maybe kid saw what he thought were sacbeob in their typical pattern but you aren’t likely to think of them as a street network.
William’s findings will be presented at a science fair next week. “It’s very difficult to go to this place but as a result of this project, maybe some local archaeologists will plan to go there,” he said. The theory raises further implications. “William thinks there is a relationship between the stars and the cities,” Dr LaRocque said. “If this is right, we should be able to discover more cities.”
I don’t think they even know who works near this place, let alone contacted them. Less local, more from The University of Bonn. There will be ‘locals’ at Calakmul (and tourists; you can drive to Calakmul now) and maybe someone would go out to that site if you asked…but there is every indication that they didn’t even bother to call Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) who manage all sites and archaeology. Maybe they did and the INAH said “this is dumb”. But for you, skeptical reader, you should worry that the heritage authority of the country is not commenting in the article.
Susan Gillespie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, was rather more sceptical, however, dismissing the star theory as another symptom of the modern tendency to try to make the Mayans exotic.
“The Mayans did not locate their cities according to the stars,” she said. “They located them according to the local ecological conditions. If you look at the greatest city of all, Tikal, in what is now Guatemala, it’s located near these great bajos, or swamps. During the rainy season, this would be great for canoe trade, plus its located next to a great source of chert, or flint, which they used to make their tools.”
She suspected that if there was a Mayan site where William specified, this was a mere coincidence.
“The Mayans go from 1500BC, to 1500AD — that’s 3000 years of history in which they filled up pretty much everywhere,” she said.
Given the extent of their civilisation, there are still areas that haven’t been investigated. She said: “If there is a blank space on the map there may be a city there.”
I bet she said “Maya” not Mayans. Great job, paper, correcting it to wrong. Let’s look up Prof. Gillespie: here is her faculty page. Aha! Not only does she seem to be extremely qualified to talk about the Maya, she also has a warning up that she doesn’t authenticate Maya objects because to do so is unethical! Heck yeah Prof. Gillespie! Compare the two ‘experts’. Who should you listen to?
All in all, the square thing the kid found is likely an abandoned modern agricultural field.
I want to reiterate, I am not bashing this kid. He’s a kid. I am bashing the people who built this up around him, put him out there in the limelight, without doing even a smidgen of archaeological research on the topic. If you have something cooking in your mind that is a step outside your field, YOU CALL AN EXPERT. The great thing about academia is that network of experience you can draw on. I email my colleagues and friends all the time to ask about stuff. They email me for the same. We informally peer review our ideas. People who don’t tend to get called out. It’s just a shame some kid was pulled into it.