The use of light technology has allowed archaeologists to peel back the rainforest and reveal the remains of an ancient Mayan city almost twice the size of Vancouver.
LIDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser. The light is pulsed and combined with other data recorded by the onboard system to generate precise, three-dimensional information about the Earth’s shape and its surface features.
“It’s just a game changer,” said Catherine Rees-Taylor, a professor in the department of anthropology and archeology at the University of Calgary, in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“You could be trying to survey and map places in the rainforest, and what would take you years to accomplish, LIDAR can do in a few days flying over these large areas.”
Reese-Taylor has worked for years with the Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project, a multidisciplinary research project led by the University of Calgary in conjunction with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) Campeche in Mexico.
She and a colleague first visited the ancient village of Kalakmul more than a decade ago.
“We walked 13 kilometers to get there, looked around and huffed and puffed at all the huge unexcavated and unlooted ruins of the site and then walked back,” Rees-Taylor.
“Being on the ground and climbing these structures and looking at the landscape around – it’s just an amazing experience. Some of these structures you might be the first person to walk on in over a thousand years, so it’s really exciting.”
She said the site of Calakmul was the new capital of the powerful Kanu’l (Snake) dynasty, which dominated the geopolitics of the Maya lowlands, controlling a vast network of vassal kingdoms.
The results of the LIDAR scans provide a better picture of urban settlement and landscape changes in the capital city itself, Rees-Taylor said.
“What other people might just think of as a big hill, we know that underneath it is a huge temple, for example, or a palace. So we can see all of that.
“Apartment-style housing complexes were identified throughout the study area, some with as many as 60 separate structures. These large housing units were clustered around numerous temples, sanctuaries, and possible markets, making Kalakmul one of the largest cities in the Americas by 700 AD.”
Rees-Taylor said the researchers were able to see that the scale of the landscape modification was equal to the scale of the urban population. All available land was covered with water channels, terraces, walls and dams.
“It peels off all the vegetation and we can see exactly what we’re looking for.” And every time we get LIDAR, it’s like opening one of your favorite Christmas presents that you just don’t know what to expect.
“It’s an amazing gift when you can look at it and see what’s actually there.”
Reese-Taylor said she will go to the site in April after her classes at the University of Calgary finish, and intends to spend two months at the site before the annual rainy season begins.
She said the site so far covers 195 square kilometers and that’s huge.
“One of the greatest cities in America right now,” she said. “Almost two Vancouvers could get into that area. Washington, DC is about the same size as Amsterdam and Brussels.”
Rees-Taylor said that while the presence of temples and palaces is tantalizing, the initial digs will be a bit more mundane.
“I really want to dig in the new temple. But I think right now we have to focus on the households – simply because we have some information about the history of the temples and the civic structure in the center, but we don’t have any data about the people who actually lived there.”