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  • Lasers to Map Mayan Ruins
May 2008
ORLANDO, Fla., May 23, 2008 -- 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.”
University of Central Florida (UCF) professor Arlen Chase works at an archaeological site at Caracol, Belize. He will be joined by colleagues Diane Chase and John Weishampel this summer to begin work on a lidar mapping project of Mayan ruins. (Photo: Jerry Klein)
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.
One of the Maya civilization archaeology sites in Belize, as seen from the air in this still shot taken from video. (Photo courtesy UCF)
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.”
UCF anthropology professor Diane Chase digs at one of the archaeology sites. (Photo courtesy UCF)
NASA is backing the project because, if successful, the same technology and techniques could be applied to scan and map other archaeological sites.

The University of Florida’s National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping will provide the research-grade elevation and topographic data from the data collected in Belize. Partners in the study at UF are professor Ramesh L. Shrestha and assistant professor K. Clint Slatton. Jason Drake, a UCF adjunct assistant research professor and Jaime Awe, the director of the Institute of Archaeology in Belize, round out the group, which brings together experts in three different fields to revolutionize archaeology.

“Someday, we may all be using this technology routinely, and that could mean huge progress in learning about our past and applying lessons learned to our future,” said Diane Chase.

The team began laying the groundwork in Belize in March and will be back at Caracol this summer to begin their laser expedition.

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