“Lost Cities” and the press [UPDATE]

UPDATE: JB Chevance has also posted a response and I wanted to highlight it here as well, it is posted below Damian’s response, so scroll down to read more.

Damian Evans, the lead author of the Lidar paper (full-disclosure, also a friend) had a great quote in a Phnom Penh Post article about some additional findings from the LiDAR data:

“This is one of the things that we dread as archaeologists in finding things like this that we don’t really understand. Our current lack of a decent explanation for these features leaves the door open for all kinds of cranks and frauds to come up with their own whacky hypotheses about them,” Evans said.

“I’m sure that there’s a reasonable explanation for these things that does not involve aliens. We just have yet to work out what it is.”

The spirals are really interesting, but will have to wait for another blog post. In the meantime, I’d like to note that communicating archaeological work to the press and to the public is a challenge many archaeologists face. Damian posted a rather lengthy comment on my previous post about his experience in the media spotlight, and I thought it deserved to be highlighted. I’m re-posting it here to provide some clarification on some of the various articles about the LiDAR data that have been in the press.

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.

Below is JB Chevance’s follow-up

JB Chevance
Thanks for these clarification Damian, and for your post Alison.

As the ADF team leader, you can imagine the discovery of the “lost city” was a .. discovery for us! Quite unusual to learn from the press you have discover something you have been working on for years. It all depend on what you talk about but journalists have a terrible tendency to summarise, cut and sell cliche and if you do not control the info (which is very difficult of course), they take over the facts.

As you know and precisely because of the natures of the features as well as the characteristic of the Kulen sites (forest cover, topography…) we were very surprised with such a urban system up in the plateau. That is precisely the major advantage of a great tool such as the lidar in this environment.

However, the cliche of a “lost city” is unbearable. From inscriptions to temples, royal palace, massive hydraulic features, dikes and others features, all pointed out that there was a city up there…Years of work completely denied in these 2 words.
I am sure you can understand, as archaeologists excavating, researching, leading team, looking for funds (among them the one who paid the Lidar in Kulen, allowing us to join the Kalc consortium,set up by Damian), dealing with donors, local and international institutions… my feeling about this.
I am not trying to deny (I would be crazy!) this discovery, i am just trying to put things back into their context, which is what we have been doing with Damian for the last 10 days.
I am aware of the distance we should have with historic text. However,
you just can not say “there was an idea that Mahendraparvata existed on Phnom Kulen, but archaeologists weren’t exactly sure what the texts were describing where it was or the extent of this place”.
You do not come across a mountain temple (2009 campaign), a very probable royal palace (2009, 2010, 2012 campaigns), dozens of temples (6 campaigns from 2008 to 2010) in a provincial site. It became more obvious, thanks to our research, that the capital was there. We could also see some spatial organisation between the main sites (cf. my PhD, dec.2011), the beginning of an urban system.

But of course, the city as a urban organisation comprising all these unknown features was the main discovery. It give us now the big picture, at least a window open on a very important urban system, extremely organised in an chaotic topographical environment. The mapping of these feature is the real discovery so I think we all agree on the fact that it all depend on what we talk about. Therefore, playing with words could last forever if people, and specially medias, do not know what they talk about.
As you said Alison, there is a difference between ground archaeology in this environment and remote sensing archaeology. You just don’t get the same kind of datas and the same results. Nevertheless these two should add together instead of being completely opposed or/and denied. It would be rejecting & denying all the works done by previous researchers, myself since 2003 and ADF since 2008.
I also agree with your sentiment on the fact that too much attention was given to Kulen, putting the other results on Angkor and Koh Ker in the shade. I am now just asking, who brought them to Kulen? Why they did not talk about the other results?

The moral of this media buzz story and a bit of advise for all my colleagues: publish as soon as you can and select the journalist you want to communicate with, be extremely careful on how journalist can interpreted the information you give/show them!
One last example: talking to Michelle Vachon with Damian last week for the Cambodia Daily, in that spirit of balancing the discoveries and putting things back into their context of research: just showing her the lidar image of Banteay convinced her that we found the royal palace with the lidar. It is (very roughly) on Boulbet’s map, 1979, we had 3 campaigns (exca + topo) on this site and I spend hours ground surveying it and organising demining operations…even if I told her that!
cheers, and thanks.

6 responses to ““Lost Cities” and the press [UPDATE]

  1. Pingback: Not quite the lost city... | SEAArch - The Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog

  2. From a former intel analyst who wouldn’t qualify as even an amateur archo–but who has a possibly useful thought on Kulen’s relationship with Angkor. Kulen, being earlier, may have been situated in the hills for defensive purposes. It grew by conquest or simple domination, consequently population became unmanageable. During this stage, leadership would’ve been pressuring its best and brightest to come up with ideas of sustainability. Moving to the lowlands would provide plenty of space, and there was plenty of ‘muscle’ to provide security, but how sustain the increasing population down there? Flooding would have made food supply unreliable. Water management on such a scale would be much trickier and much different than in the hills. After a couple of decades and probably some experimentation, the first canal and reservoir ideas were tested and revised and revised again, until the emergence of a plan to sustain a major population center was devised on working models. Dominated people were forced into the chosen area to do the work, and forced to remain. Children maintained and expanded what their fathers had built as Angkor grew larger and larger. I realize this scenario may have occurred to archos a long time ago; if so, I apologize for wasting time.

  3. Hi Rob
    Thanks for reading and your thoughtful comment, it is interesting, but the data right now do not follow the hypothesis you are proposing. According to the texts, Jayavarman II crowned himself king on the Kulen, and obviously, established a city. However, the first capital was in the lowlands, at Hariharalaya (now called Rolous) and he moved back the (if my memory is correct) after being in the Kulen. JB would need to comment more direction on if any of the structures seem defensive. The lowlands are actually the best place to grow rice and food for a growing population and there were several large Pre-Angkorian complex societies in the lowlands before Angkor, perhaps dating to the early first millennium AD in the Mekong Delta. Water management was already happening during this early period in the Mekong Delta, so by the time of Angkor, people were pretty well versed in the basics of water manaement. The very early capital of Hariharalaya had a baray and water management network that just seems to have been replicated and expanded during later periods. You can read a nice article (free!) about the growth of the water network at Angkor here: http://ejournal.anu.edu.au/index.php/bippa/article/view/642/630
    Hope this adds some food for thought!

    • Guess I should stick to pol/mil security analysis…thanks for taking the time to set me straight, very interesting. I did know about the Mekong Delta rice but thought, apparently wrongly, that the peculiarities of the terrain around Angkor made water control trickier than the more predictable Delta. Didn’t know about Hariharalaya, obviously. Now I’ll head for the article you linked.

      BTW, I got another reply to my comment–somebody in Canada trying to sell real estate development service.

      • No worries! Right now it seems the problems with the water management network and its failure are related to some extreme climactic changes that caused periods of drought and strong monsoons, that taxed the system. But this is all cutting edge research with more work being done on the questions as we speak. I hope you keep following your interest in Angkor!

  4. Pingback: The city around Angkor Wat | Alison in Cambodia