A Revolutionary Technology

Archaeologists are finding LiDAR to be remarkably effective, but it also presents problems that they’re working to resolve.

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This LiDAR image of the center of Caracol reveals pyramids, plazas, agricultural terraces, roadways, and other features. Credit: COURTESY OF ARLEN AND DIANE CHASE, CARACOL ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS.
This LiDAR image of the center of Caracol reveals pyramids, plazas, agricultural terraces, roadways, and other features. Credit: COURTESY OF ARLEN AND DIANE CHASE, CARACOL ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS.

Summer 2018: By Linda Vaccariello.

Arlen Chase’s recent field season at Caracol, the large Maya site in western Belize that he and his wife, archaeologist Diane Zaino Chase, have been investigating for more than thirty years, was nothing less than exhausting. Among the challenges was a forty-minute uphill slog through the rainforest to the excavation site every day. “It was a really hard season,” Chase said. “Which, at my age, was pretty stupid.” But in one way Chase’s job is much easier than it was when he began exploring Caracol.  Since 2009, he has been using data from LiDAR, the technology that is revolutionizing archaeology in areas with heavy vegetation by making it possible to digitally map remote sites with incredible accuracy.

LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging. It’s a remote sensing technology that operates on the same principle that a bat uses to navigate a cave or find a mosquito to gobble. The bat sends out an ultrasonic chirp, the sound waves bounce back when they hit something solid, and the bat calculates the distance between itself and that object based on how long it takes the sound to return. Instead of sound, LiDAR uses lasers, sending out thousands of pulses of light a second and calculating the distance of objects by analyzing the time it takes for the pulses to return. If the LiDAR unit is aloft in a helicopter or an airplane and linked to a GPS, the data from the reflected light can be used to produce a map of the terrain below, surveying large areas quickly and accurately.

LiDAR emerged in the 1960s, shortly after the first lasers were invented. The early applications were in the military, atmospheric science, and the space program. By 1971, Apollo 15 used the technology to map the surface of the moon. Today, LiDAR has a wide range of uses, from monitoring the earth’s melting glaciers to preventing self-driving cars from crashing. LiDAR enables users to survey vast swaths of territory quickly and precisely. But it’s the ability of this technology to digitally sweep away the vegetation and map the land below that makes it so valuable to archaeologists.

Read More in our SUMMER 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 21 No. 1.             Browse Content of this Issue: SUMMER 2018.

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