If you’ve never been out on an archaeological dig, you may have been misled by Indian Jones style accounts of pulling fantastic treasures out of tombs and gold littering the floor of an abandoned temple. As much as it pains me to admit it, real archaeology isn’t like that (usually!).
Mayan stonework uncovered in Guatemala recently strikes me as a noticable exception. Wow! Photo source: National Geographic, image by Francisco Estrada-Belli.
Especially when working in inhospitable environments, like the jungles of South America, archaeology is very hard work. “There aren’t a lot of people who want to undergo the kind of pain it takes to work out there”, says Dr. Chris Begley, an archaeologist working in Honduras. I can vouch for this through the experiences of some of our former interns here in our lab. By a matter of chance, both Madeline and Margaret had gone on archaeological digs in Belize. While Maddy came out of the experience loving Mayan archaeology and ready to dig some more; Maggie, who faced off with a Fer-de-Lance, which was hiding out in a specimen drawer in the processing lab in Belize, was permanently dissuaded from pursuing that kind of archaeology.
If you found this in your drawer, you might have been dissuaded too... Fer-de-Lance are a particularly venomous viper. Image source and more info: BBC.
One of the hardest parts of doing archaeology work is figuring out where (and if) to dig, and surveying the site before any work is begun. In the jungle, that means slogging through terrain so dense and inhospitable, that a pyramid can practically bite you on the nose (if a snake doesn’t first!) because it is so hidden in vegetation (Preston, 2013). Due to these difficulties, it can take years, if not decades to properly map out the sites lying in wait. Until recently, large areas of Honduras were almost entirely unknown; the terrain was just that impassable. However, with the advent of LIDAR, or Light detection and ranging machines, explorers have been able to take a closer look at the heretofore unseen ground features, which were otherwise hidden under dense canopies and vines. Flying a small plane over the area in tightly controlled patterns using a variety of high-tech GPS and other devices, Steve Elkins and his team were able to reveal a large number of undiscovered archaeological sites.
Thick Honduran jungle potentially hiding the lost White City, or La Ciudad Blanca. However, this popular legend may in the end refer to multiple archaeological sites located in the dense jungles of the Mosquitia region. Photo source: The Atlantic.
Using LIDAR will open up a whole new vista for archaeologists that might have previously spent decades on even locating sites, before being able to dig, discover, and interpret. When archaeologist Chris Fisher, first saw the data coming back from Elkins expedition he said, “I almost started crying when I saw the lidar images… I thought, Oh, my god, I’ve just got back ten or twelve years of my life. It would have taken me that long to survey those nine square kilometers.” (Preston, 2013) This technique and others like it, has amazing potential for the future of archaeological research, as well as the possibility that we may start uncovering “lost” cities that have been well hidden from obvious detection. It will also enable us to more accurately study multiple sites in a regional sense to see what kind of connections exist between smaller sites and city centers, and general landscape use.
Comparing hand-drawn archaeological survey map with LIDAR map. Photo copyright A&D Chase, Souce: BBC. For more, see the article(s) on work done by other archaeologists on Mayan city of Caracol, seen above.
LIDAR is part of a revolution in how archaeologists study sites without excavating. In the 1970s Dr. Rogers used a proton magnetometer to look below the ground surface of the Spiro Mounds site to map artifacts, house ruins, and even mounds that were otherwise invisible. Proton magnetometers have gotten a lot better since the 1970s and new techniques, like ground penetrating radar have been added to the toolbox (Goodman et al. 1995). These techniques are good for getting up close and finding the details, but you can also step back and let LIDAR give you the big picture. But sometimes you don’t even need that. Google Earth is its own revolution, by making satellite images easily available. In Mongolia, where the ground isn’t covered by jungle, sites can be found and mapped without leaving the office.
This kind of armchair archaeology is an excellent way to find out some things, but once in a while you still need to get the boots muddy. So don't throw away your machete or magnifying glass just yet; you'll need it when you get there!
How has technology transformed your field of work? Are you an archaeologist using similar technology? Please comment!
By: Meghan Mulkerin with Dr. J. Daniel Rogers.
Goodman, Dean, Yasushi Nishimura, and J. Daniel Rogers. 1995. GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) Time Slices in Archaeological Prospection. Archaeological Prospection 2:85-89.