Last year, it was revealed how laser technology had uncovered tens of thousands of structures built by the Maya people over a millennium ago. The astonishing discovery in northern Guatemala, which included homes, palaces, tombs and highways across an area of over 800 square miles, astounded archaeologists, who although confident that the work would reveal some interesting results, were not prepared for the sheer scale of the discovery. And in the latest issue of Current World Archaeology, Tom Garrison, Assistant Professor at New York’s Ithaca College Department of Anthroplogy, who is part of the ground-breaking project, explains how the follow-up field work is revolutionizing our knowledge of Maya state power.
In addition to the discovery of new structures, including entire previously unknown settlements, the study has shed light on what had been current thinking. For example, the technology has revealed that what was originally thought to be natural features are actually two new pyramids. And by looking at patterns across an entire landscape, rather than within individual sites, long causeways have been identified that link different sites. “In some cases, they run right off the edge of our data, and we don’t even know what they’re connecting to,” said Garrison. “So there are definitely Maya superhighways out there!”
The so-called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data has also uncovered the existence of grids and networks of canals, and what are thought to be field systems among the bajos, which are depressions or seasonal swamps in the local geology. As Garrison explains, it’s known from work in Belize that the Maya exploited wetlands there, so they must have found a way to use these swamp systems too.
Carmen has just recently returned from a trip to Guatemala, organized by her friend and LiDAR project founder Marianne Hernandez of Pacunam, where she was able to witness the key sites first hand, including a tour of El Zotz, hosted by Dr Garrison. “It’s been inspiring to see the impressive work that the Pacunam organization has led with this incredibly talented team of academics and scientists,” she said.
The extensive survey work has revealed that the Maya were far more populous and sophisticated than previously suspected. And as archaeological excavations in the region continue, further insights into this ancient civilization will no doubt emerge.