Brain Food: NAU Archaeologist Uses LIDAR To Find Mayan Cities

Apr 9, 2015

Space age technology is allowing a Flagstaff archaeologist to see ancient Mayan cities that have been hidden in the jungles of Belize for centuries.

Becan Mayan Ruins, hidden in the jungle of Belize

Jaime Awe teaches at Northern Arizona University. He uses a remote sensing method called LIDAR - or Light Detection and Ranging - to survey the region from a plane. It shoots a light beam through the thick vegetation and records all the contours on the ground revealing royal palaces, agricultural terraces and canal systems.

"When I show people a picture like this," Awe says, "all of a sudden you're looking at these pyramids that just pop out at you. They're all over the place - not just the downtown section of the ancient city. Every hilltop is occupied with buildings."

With LIDAR, Awe says he and his students are making new discoveries about the Mayan civilization. They now believe the population was huge, exceeding a million people around 600 A.D. They've also uncovered a tomb where royals were buried, a ring made from a deer antler complete with a hieroglyphic inscription, and even the ink used to document important events.

Awe says using LIDAR means, "we don't have to go through with machetes hacking down trees so that we can find these sites. Now we can actually look at our computer screens and see them, which is God's gift to the tropical archaeologist."

Awe says archaeologists are able to inventory artifacts so officials in Belize know what's in the jungle. Now, they can start protecting cultural resources from looters and vandals, possibly even turning the areas into national archaeological and environmental preserves.