Fascinating technology

‘A game-changer’: Calgary archaeologist says tech uncovers ancient Maya city

Using light technology allows archaeologists to peel back the rainforest and reveal 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 generate precise three-dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and its surface characteristics.

“It’s just a game-changer,” Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Anthropology and Archeology, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“You can try to survey and map sites in the rainforest, and what would take you years to accomplish, LIDAR can do in a few days of flying over those vast areas.”

Reese-Taylor has worked for years with the Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project, a multidisciplinary research project led by the University of Calgary, in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) Campeche in Mexico.

She and a colleague first visited the former settlement of Calakmul more than a decade ago.

“We walked eight miles to get there, looked around, oh and aah at all the massive unexcavated, unlooted ruins at the site, and then walked back,” Reese-Taylor said.

“Being on the ground and climbing these structures and looking at the scenery all around, it’s just an amazing experience. Some of these structures that you can be the first person to step on in over a thousand years, it’s really exciting.”

She said the site of Calakmul was the new capital of the powerful Kanu’l (Serpent) dynasty, which dominated the geopolitics of the Maya lowlands, controlling a vast network of vassal kingdoms.

The results of the LIDAR analysis give a better picture of urban settlement and landscape changes in the capital itself, Reese-Taylor said.

“What others might just think is a big hill, we know that underneath is a huge temple, for example, or a palace. So we can see all of that.

“Apartment-style residential complexes have been identified throughout the surveyed area, some with up to 60 individual structures. These large residential units were clustered around numerous possible temples, shrines and markets, making Calakmul one of the largest cities of the Americas to 700 AD.”

“An Incredible Gift”

Reese-Taylor said the researchers are able to see that the scale of landscape modification is equal to the scale of the urban population. All available land was covered with water channels, terraces, walls and dams.

“It removes all the vegetation and we can see exactly what we’re looking for. And every time we get the 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 immerse yourself in it and see what’s really there.”

Reese-Taylor said she would visit the site in April after her classes at the University of Calgary were completed, and that she intended to spend two months at the site before the start of the racing season. annual rainfall.

She said the site so far covers 195 square kilometers, and that’s huge.

“One of the greatest cities in the Americas right now,” she said. “Almost two Vancouvers could have fit into this area. Washington, DC, is about the same size, as well as Amsterdam and Brussels.”

Reese-Taylor said that while the presence of temples and palaces is tempting, initial excavations will be a little more mundane.

“I really want to dig into the new temple. But I think right now we have to focus on the households – just because we have information about the history of the temples and the civic structure of the city center, but we we don’t have data on who actually lived there.”