LIDAR Technology Uncovers Remains of Ancient Mayan City

This technique consists of analyzing the properties of a beam of light sent back to its emitter. It is similar to radar, except that instead of radio waves, light is used. This makes it possible to generate precise and three-dimensional information of the earth’s surface and its characteristics.

“It just changed the situation,” says archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor of the University of Calgary. “You can try to study and map hidden sites in the rainforest, but that takes years. LIDAR can do this in days by flying over large regions. »

Dr. Reese-Taylor has worked for several years with the Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project led by the University of Calgary in collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

She visited the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul in present-day Mexico with a colleague more than a decade ago.

We had to walk 13 kilometers to get there. We were amazed at the sight before us: preserved ruins that had not been excavated or looted. And we came back. »

A quote from Kathryn Reese-Taylor, Archaeologist, University of Calgary

“To be there, to climb in these structures and to admire the landscape, it was an amazing experience. We were perhaps the first people to visit them in over 1000 years. It’s really exciting. »

LIDAR, “like a Christmas present”

Pre Reese-Taylor says Calakmul was the new capital of the powerful Kanu’l (or Serpent) dynasty which dominated the Maya lowlands by controlling several vassal kingdoms. LIDAR has provided a better picture of urban settlement and changes to the Calakmul site, she adds.

“Some people may think it’s just a big hill, but we know there’s a big temple there, for example, or a palace. […] Residential-type buildings have been identified in this area. Some had up to 60 individual dwellings. They were clustered around temples, shrines and, perhaps, markets. Calakmul was one of the greatest cities in the Americas of the 700s.

The archaeologist underlines that the researchers were able to establish a link between the urban population and the transformations of a physical place. The site is covered with canals, terraces and dykes.

Every time we use LIDAR, it’s like opening one of our Christmas presents. You never know what to expect. It is an extraordinary gift to see this now. »

A quote from Kathryn Reese-Taylor, Archaeologist, University of Calgary

LIDAR, Light detection and ranging, is a laser remote sensing technology. A transmitter installed on an aircraft sends out hundreds of thousands of laser beams which are reflected off the surface of the ground. This makes it possible to collect information such as the height of the trees, but also the microrelief.

Photo: Radio Canada

Pre Reese-Taylor plans to visit the site in April, after the winter semester. She hopes to stay there for two months until the rainy season. The area of ​​Calakmul extends over at least 195 square kilometers.

“It really was one of the largest cities in the Americas at that time,” says the archaeologist. “We could fit the city of Vancouver twice. Washington, Amsterdam and Brussels have roughly the same area. »

The first excavations were modest, despite the presence of temples and palaces. “I’d really like to dig into the new temple, really.” But, I think right now we have to focus on residences. After all, we already have information about the history of temples and other civic buildings, but we don’t have data about the people who lived here. »

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