Archive for May, 2010

Lidar ranging

May 12th, 2010 No comments

There’s nothing as seductive as new technology, particularly in the world of archaeology.   Some years ago I co-led an expedition that expended an inordinate amount of energy using a thermal imaging camera.  We flew over the cloud forest near Machu Picchu to determine the full extent of the nearby site of Llactapata, at a cost of $1000 per hour for the plane, let alone for the camera.  Its infra-red vision was supposed to be able to detect the difference in temperature between stone buildings which retain heat, and vegetation which does not.  By using it, we hoped to  be able to see through the cloud-forest to any ruins below the canopy  – the archaeological equivalent of those X-Ray specs sold in schoolboys’ comics to look through women’s skirts, and in the event about as successful.

We ended up going into the forest on foot and looking in the more traditional manner, with machetes, frustration and a great deal of sweat.  (The full story is told in Cochineal Red for those interested.)

But an even newer technology has come along that sounds rather more effective:  lidar (‘light detection and ranging’).  Gamers have used it to create virtual reality sites for some time.   Now the husband-and-wife team of Arlen and Diane Chase have adapted  it at Caracol in Belize to penetrate the jungle cover and create 3-D images of one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.

In the process they’ve established that the site was far more extensive than had ever been expected:  the city sprawled over some 70 square miles.

Diane Chase was quoted as being  ‘blown away’ by the new technology:   ‘We believe that lidar will help transform Maya archaeology much in the same way that radiocarbon dating did in the 1950s and interpretations of Maya hieroglyphs did in the 1980s and ’90s.’

Apparently, however,  they also emphasized that ‘it would not obviate the need to follow up with traditional mapping to establish “ground truth.” ’  What a terrific phrase – ‘ground truth’.  Now that’s something I’ve been searching for my whole life…..

Mine’s a michelada

May 1st, 2010 No comments

Once Acapulco was a remote and glamorous resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast.  Mass tourism from abroad and from within the country has changed all that.

Now it should be enjoyed more for the vitality and vulgarity of a latin Blackpool or Coney Island: plates of fried bananas and whelks;  rubber rings and trinkets in brash colours;  kids dashing under the waves or burying themselves under the brownish sand (no one can claim Acapulco has the purest water in the Pacific – a million people live there).  Along the central drag is a large, kitsch statue of a plump Diana firing her arrow directly at a gigantic inflated bottle of Corona.   Overhead, frigate birds try to mob the boobies and the gulls to get them to disgorge their fish.

I like best the old working fishermen’s beach at the north end of the shore, near the fort once used to keep the area free from English pirates like El Drago (Drake).  There the pelicans cluster round the catches, hopping from foot to foot like embarrassed teenagers at a ball waiting to be asked to dance.  These are not the picturesque Disney white pelicans of further north and California, but the brown ones of the Latin American seaport, with their ponderous heavy-jowled flight. 

The drink of choice for the locals is not tequila – that’s for the norteños or the American college kids who come here for their ‘Spring Break’ to party hard in the surf.  No the drink here is the michelada, a light beer with salt and lime on the rim of the glass, and a dusting of chilli powder to give more power to your elbow.  The more of it you  drink, the more of it you need to drink. 

I have one on the old fishing pier, watching the pelicans clustering together on a buoy and looking down the strip towards the gleaming high-rise hotels at the south end of the shore, now half empty with all the talk of Mexican drug crime (20 were killed in a nearby Acapulco suburb recently).  And then I have another.

Postscript:  and for those doubting that Acapulco has been infected by Mexican drug crime, see this more recent report