Thanks for your post Alison. As the architect of the lidar mission and the lead author of the scientific paper that’s generating the buzz, I too am very disappointed with the vast majority of the reporting on the issue, and would like to further clarify a few things here.
Firstly, you would never find an archaeologist using an awful cliché like “lost city” to describe their finds, and neither myself nor my colleagues have ever made any such claims.
Secondly, the article in the Cambodia Daily implying that there is/was any discord between JB and I (or any other of our co-authors) about the nature and significance of our finds is a fabrication. Basically, when it became clear by Sunday evening that the Phnom Penh Post had completely swept the floor with the Cambodia Daily on this story, we had the journalist in question from the Daily calling us looking to find whatever negative slant she could, in order to downplay the significance of the Phnom Penh Post’s story.
Several of us had long (and we thought positive and productive) conversations with her, and all of us tried to provide her with some desperately-needed context and clarification to provide some balance to the media hype that had run all weekend. What the journalist in question then did was took a couple of those clarifying comments from JB completely out of context and tried to score points against the Phnom Penh Post by running some total beat-up about archaeologists arguing about the nature of the finds. “Lost city not lost after all” would have made a great headline, had we actually claimed it was a “lost city” in the first place, which we most definitely had not. In a week that brought into very sharp relief the shoddy reporting that typically surrounds archaeological discoveries, this lazy and sloppy piece of journalism in the Cambodia Daily was surely the low water mark. JB and I subsequently released a joint press release completely rejecting her claims, which can be found on the angkorlidar.org web site.
The Cambodia Daily article downplaying the significance of the discoveries made an interesting counterpoint to the excellent piece which ran in the Phnom Penh Post on the same Monday, in which eminent scholarly authorities like David Chandler and Michael Coe were enthusing with quotes such as “This is the greatest advance in our knowledge of Angkor as a living city in the past century.” I don’t know how anyone could read those stories side by side and reach any conclusion other than that the Cambodia Daily piece was a hatchet job designed to distract from the simple fact that they’d completely dropped the ball on one of the biggest Angkor-related stories of the year.
So, to address the main question: did we know the city was there? Well, yes and no. As Alison explained very well above, we’ve known since the late nineteenth century that there were a few temples up there, and there are Angkor-era inscriptions that describe that the capital of Jayavarman II as being somewhere up there on the mountain. Plus, JB had been working for years up there on two sites called Rong Chen, a temple-mountain, and Banteay, probably a royal palace; when you have sites like that it’s usually an indicator that there’s probably a broader urban layout. But it is one thing to have a random scatter of points on the map and a handful of notoriously unreliable ancient texts, and a completely different thing altogether to have a comprehensive urban network of roads, canals, dams, residential neighborhoods (not to mention double the number of temples) uncovered and mapped for the very first time, with exceptional clarity. Of course we suspected that we would find something, and we had clues: it’s ludicrous to imagine that you’d mount a quarter of a million dollar remote sensing mission over some random bit of forest in the hope that you might get lucky and find something by accident. But look at the figure that Alison posted above. In it, the green stuff is what we knew before lidar, and the red stuff is what we knew after. Notwithstanding the hype about “lost cities” and so on, readers can look at that image and make up their own minds about the scale and significance of the discoveries.
Of course, you can send out press releases and try to explain the nuances of the scientific findings to journalists until you’re blue in the face, but I know from many years of experience with communicating archaeology to the public that if journalists want to run with a bunch of tired old clichés and personalize the story with protagonists hacking through the jungle with machetes Indiana Jones-style and finding lost cities and so on – and most journalists will – then there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. I suppose it’s easier for them to do that than try to make sense of a dense and highly technical scientific paper, condense that into 500 words or whatever, and get their story in on a tight deadline… and of course it sells more papers besides.
I should echo Alison’s sentiment that all of us are somewhat perplexed by the overwhelming attention being given to the Kulen results. In a 5000 word scientific paper, I think there are maybe like two or three sentences that deal specifically with that aspect of our findings. It actually represents somewhere between 5% and 10% of our actual lidar data coverage. Unfortunately I think the tone and the direction of much of the week’s media coverage was set in the first place by the Sydney Morning Herald, who ran a series of rather sensational pieces that have fixated peoples’ attention on the Kulen, and muddled peoples’ perceptions about the roles of the people and places involved in our program. In fact, some of the most spectacular results are in the forests around Angkor itself. There, as with the Kulen, we uncovered and mapped previously obscured or hidden urban landscapes that we sort of expected to find, but we also found loads of things that have taken us completely by surprise and have already set in motion a major re-think about the historical development of the city of Angkor. Thankfully a journalist with integrity, Michelle Vachon, has redeemed the Cambodia Daily by penning a very sober, thoughtful and balanced follow-up on the lidar work at Angkor that got a full-colour spread today, and hopefully will end up online.
A final note here about the fact that the Sydney Morning Herald mentioned that several of the newly-documented temple sites were ‘unlooted’. I’ve seen a bit of ill-informed criticism of this online, so I just want to address the issue. Firstly, let’s be clear that looters are far better at finding temples than archeologists are, which is why the vast majority, if not all, of the many thousands of temples discovered across Cambodia in recent years have been looted already. The (very few) temples that we’re finding with lidar that are unlooted can’t be seen on the ground. They are buried beneath the ground and covered with dense vegetation in well–protected forest areas e.g. in the Angkor Park, and the lidar instrument is picking up traces of the spatial patterning in the topography of the landscape – bumps and depressions of only a few centimeters that indicate where buildings once stood or moats were dug and so on. These are basically completely unnoticeable on the ground, and it’s only possible to make sense of the spatial patterning and recognize it as a temple from the air – and even then, only if you have a lidar instrument. So, it is impossible for these sites to be looted unless we publish the coordinates, which of course we will never do. The thing is, we specifically asked the Sydney Morning Herald NOT to publish the fact that the temples were unlooted, not because they are in any danger of being looted (they are not), but because we knew it would cause consternation among people who don’t fully understand the situation. They did not comply with our request, but this has absolutely no negative implications for the safeguarding of the temples in question, although I can certainly see why people thought that it might have been irresponsible of them to print this.
Anyway, this has turned out rather long, but I hope it helps to make sense of a few things that have been misunderstood.