Archaeology -- often slow-paced, precise work unless your name is Indiana Jones -- is going high tech, with lasers set to unlock the secrets of the Maya civilization hidden by dense forest canopy.
A University of Central Florida (UCF) study under way in the Central American country of Belize involves using lidar (light detection and ranging), or a collection of laser-based sensors that transmit and receive signals. The work could revolutionize the field by allowing archaeologists to map in a few months what traditional methods have taken decades to do.
“The lasers we’re using to map the ruins have never been used before,” said UCF archaeologist Arlen Chase. “And it’s going to make a world of difference because traditional methods of mapping are very time consuming, very laborious and very slow.” Arlen and Diane Chase, anthropology professors at UCF, are working with UCF biology professor John Weishampel, two University of Florida (UF) professors, an archaeologist from Belize and a UCF research scientist.
In 24 years of digging at Caracol, Belize, the Chase team has mapped 24 sq km in the dense rainforest, but the researchers believe the site is 177 sq km. The laser approach promises to enable them to gain the data necessary to produce a map of the entire area in about two months. The Chases will combine the complete landscape record with actual archaeology to better define the socio-economic, cultural, political and religious systems of the ancient Maya.
In the study, a plane will fly over the archaeological site and shoot signals to sensors on the ground. The combination will produce an image of the topography. What’s unique about this approach -- designed by Weishampel -- is that lidar promises to provide a complete map of the canopy and surfaces below the canopy, which includes buildings, roadways and even terraces once used for farming by the Maya. Weishampel has been using lasers to study forests and other vegetation for the past several years, but archaeologists are just starting to tap into the more advanced lasers and other modern equipment. Most archaeologists today still use the same survey equipment that city workers use for roadwork. They cut through vegetation with machetes to set up the surveyors for the line-of-sight calculations they need.
Weishampel is interested in the results because it will give him a snapshot of forest vegetation today and how it was influenced by land use practices of 1000 years ago. This understanding will be useful in analyzing trends in how humans impact the levels of carbon storage. Rainforests play an important role in understanding and managing global warming.
“It’s very exciting,” said the biologist who, in combination with the Chases, landed the $412,000 NASA and Space Research Initiative grant that made the project possible. “I’ll be in the plane as we make passes over the terrain this summer. It’s my opportunity to be Indiana Jones in a very high-tech way.” "
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