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Cutting-edge laser technology used to uncover treasure in Yucatán jungle

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
LiDAR technology allows archaeologists to study and document the internal structure of ruined constructions without having to dig. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeologists in Yucatán are using cutting-edge laser technology to discover the remains of long-lost ancient cities and settlements across Yucatán.

Among the recent findings is a massive acropolis in the south of Yucatán dating to the 8th century BCE.

The newly discovered site was described by archaeologists as a treasure trove of information regarding the formative Maya period on the Peninsula.

“It seems to have been a very prosperous and advanced settlement for its time. We can detect the presence of a great many stone structures and an abundance of resources,” said Anthropology Professor Willian Ringle. 

The ancient acropolis was discovered in the Puuc region thanks to a laser technology known as LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging.

For maximum coverage, LiDAR relies on laser sensors that are deployed from the air by aircraft or drones. However, archaeologists sometimes also use handheld units for more detailed observations.

Earlier: Grad student uncovers colossal ancient Maya mask in Yucatán

The technology works by emitting a laser capable of seeing through vegetation, water, and even solid rock to construct a 3D map of the area being probed. This allows archaeologists to detect the presence of structures they would have never been able to find with the naked eye. 

The use of LiDAR has revolutionized the field of archaeology and led to a great many discoveries across Meso-America. Other important finds include the discovery of a network of chambers beneath the great city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico and the documentation of thousands of structures in southern Campeche and northern Guatemala.

The technology has the added benefit of allowing archaeologists to see what lies below the surface, even before they begin digging. 

“In 45 minutes of flying, the LiDAR team accomplished a decade’s worth of archaeological survey,” said Anthropologist Christopher Fisher regarding a dig in central Mexico.

The technology is also used to make high-resolution maps, with applications in surveying, geology, seismology and forestry. 

LiDAR was invented for military use, but was first applied widely by meteorologists intent on studying clouds.

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