|Image via Wikimedia Commons|
But although one's armchair is a fine and private place, it's not without its perils, as the cautionary tale of a Canadian teenager who claimed to have discovered a lost Mayan city reveals. The searcher, fifteen-year-old William Gadoury of Québec, had been using star constellations to find correspondences with the placement of cities, and according to press reports, found one star without a known city that matched. With some help from the Canadian Space Agency, he obtained some fairly detailed telemetry of the site, and found a promising square shape that he believed was an ancient city covered with undergrowth. Alas, according to the experts who have since weighed in, it's more likely to be a fallow field, or perhaps a marijuana plantation, though there's still some talk of taking a team to visit the site just to see if it holds any surprises.
This apparently 'false positive' shows the limits of such technology. What's really needed, in addition to visual telemetry, is a system such as LIDAR which is capable of penetrating surface cover and creating detailed imagery of physical terrain. Such a system was used by archaeologist Sarah H. Parcak this year to search for possible Viking settlements in maritime Canada, leading to a much-vaunted claim of having found several. Work on the ground, though, has yet to yield unambiguous results, and the radiocarbon dates from the sites explored gives a range from 800 to 1300 A.D., which doesn't necessarily confirm -- although neither does it exclude -- the finds being Viking-related. The site supposedly had evidence of 'turf walls,' along with bits of "bog iron" that suggested the possibility of smelting activity, but no items of definitive human manufacture.
Which brings up one of the limits of the armchair/satellite method -- it can indeed locate potentially promising spots, but can't definitively identify anything without work on the ground, which still requires the expense and time of proper archaeological investigation. Still, with very large data sets such as LANDSAT now freely available, it's certainly a valuable way to sort out the promising from the unpromising, a particularly worthwhile endeavor in the Arctic, where the shortness of the search season makes every day count.
And it's not only with on-site archaeological work where armchair searchers can make significant contributions. New images of Franklin's officers, new interpretations of surviving documents, and new understandings of the equipment supplied to Franklin, have all been discovered and developed by dedicated amateurs. What's more, since this work is undertaken in a collective spirit and regularly shared -- via sites such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group -- it has enabled multiple minds to focus on a single question, often yielding fresh interpretations that would be much harder, if not impossible, for any lone individual to discern. And this is the other way in which such groups can make a difference: even once something is discovered, its significance still takes time to understand, a process that can be greatly accelerated when people with many different areas of interest and expertise are part of the crowd.