For a quarter of a century, two archaeologists and their team slogged through wild tropical vegetation to investigate and map the remains of one of the largest Maya cities, in Central America. Slow, sweaty hacking with machetes seemed to be the only way to discover the breadth of an ancient urban landscape now hidden beneath a dense forest canopy.
Even the new remote-sensing technologies, so effective in recent decades at surveying other archaeological sites, were no help. Imaging radar and multispectral surveys by air and from space could not “see” through the trees.
Then, in the dry spring season a year ago, the husband-and-wife team of Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase tried a new approach using airborne laser signals that penetrate the jungle cover and are reflected from the ground below. They yielded 3-D images of the site of ancient Caracol, in Belize, one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.
In only four days, a twin-engine aircraft equipped with an advanced version of lidar (light detection and ranging) flew back and forth over the jungle and collected data surpassing the results of two and a half decades of on-the-ground mapping, the archaeologists said. After three weeks of laboratory processing, the almost 10 hours of laser measurements showed topographic detail over an area of 80 square miles, notably settlement patterns of grand architecture and modest house mounds, roadways and agricultural terraces.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Diane Chase said recently, recalling their first examination of the images. “We believe that lidar will help transform Maya archaeology much in the same way that radiocarbon dating did in the 1950s and interpretations of Maya hieroglyphs did in the 1980s and ’90s.”
The Chases, who are professors of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, had determined from earlier surveys that Caracol extended over a wide area in its heyday, between A.D. 550 and 900. From a ceremonial center of palaces and broad plazas, it stretched out to industrial zones and poor neighborhoods and beyond to suburbs of substantial houses, markets and terraced fields and reservoirs.
This picture of urban sprawl led the Chases to estimate the city’s population at its peak at more than 115,000. But some archaeologists doubted the evidence warranted such expansive interpretations.
“Now we have a totality of data and see the entire landscape,” Dr. Arlen Chase said of the laser findings. “We know the size of the site, its boundaries, and this confirms our population estimates, and we see all this terracing and begin to know how the people fed themselves.”
The Caracol survey was the first application of the advanced laser technology on such a large archaeological site. Several journal articles describe the use of lidar in the vicinity of Stonehenge in England and elsewhere at an Iron Age fort and American plantation sites. Only last year, Sarah H. Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham predicted, “Lidar imagery will have much to offer the archaeology of the rain forest regions.” …