CALGARY – The use of light technology is allowing archaeologists to peel away the rainforest and uncover the remains of an ancient Mayan city nearly 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 pulses and combines with other data recorded by the airborne system to produce precise, three-dimensional information about the Earth’s shape and its surface features.
“It’s just a game changer,” Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archeology at the University of Calgary, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“You can try to survey and map locations in the rainforest, and what would take you years to do, LIDAR can do in a few days by flying over these large areas.”
Reese-Taylor has been collaborating for years with the Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project, a multidisciplinary research project at the University of Calgary, in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) Campeche in Mexico.
She and a colleague first visited the ancient Calakmul settlement over a decade ago.
“We hiked eight miles to get there, looked around, oohed and aahed at all the huge, unexcavated and unplundered ruins on the site, and then walked back,” Reese-Taylor said.
“Being on the ground and climbing up these structures and looking at the landscape all around – it’s just an amazing experience. On some of these structures, you might be the first person to step inside in over a thousand years, so it’s really exciting.”
She said Calakmul was the new capital of the powerful Kanu’l (Snake) Dynasty, which ruled the geopolitics of the Maya lowlands and controlled a vast network of vassal kingdoms.
The LIDAR scan results give a better idea of the urban settlement and landscape changes in the capital itself, Reese-Taylor said.
“What other people might take for a big hill, we know that underneath is, for example, a huge temple or a palace. So we can see it all.
“Apartment-style residential complexes have been identified throughout the surveyed area, some containing up to 60 individual buildings. These large dwelling units were clustered around numerous temples, shrines, and possible marketplaces, making Calakmul one of the largest cities in America by AD 700.”
Reese-Taylor said the researchers were able to see that the scale of the landscape change matched the scale of the urban population. All available land was covered with water channels, terraces, walls and dams.
“It peels off all 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.
“I’m an amazing gift to be able to browse through and see what’s actually there.”
Reese-Taylor said she will drive to the site in April, once her classes at the University of Calgary have finished, and intends to be there two months before the start of the annual rainy season.
She said the site covers 195 square kilometers so far, and that’s huge.
“One of the largest cities in America at the time,” she said. “Almost two Vancouver could have driven to this area. Washington, DC is about the same size, as are Amsterdam and Brussels.”
Reese-Taylor said while the presence of temples and palaces is alluring, the initial excavation will be a little more mundane.
“I really want to dig in the new temple. But I think we need to focus on households now – just because we have some information on the history of the temples and the civic structure downtown, but we don’t have data on the people who actually lived there.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 29, 2022.
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