While Jaime Awe was growing up in western Belize, digging in the dirt and discovering ancient pottery pieces, the idea of using lasers to find Mayan ruins would have sounded like science fiction to the budding archaeologist. Today, the assistant anthropology professor is using data from the technology to unearth archaeological treasures and help NAU students study ancient civilizations.

Awe calls the technology “God’s gift to the tropical archaeologist,” because LiDAR, the light detection radar captured from a plane, records detailed images of the landscape or buildings. “In areas of really thick jungle, where it would be costly and time-consuming to go and try to locate ancient sites, now you can see them,” Awe said.

Before coming to NAU this past fall, Awe spent the past 14 years in Belize. He served as director for that country’s Institute of Archaeology, where a private grant covered the $350,000 cost of the LiDAR survey. A smaller NAU faculty grant will help Awe and three graduate students return to Belize this summer to continue research on the Maya’s archaeological sites.

One of Awe’s goals this summer is ground-truthing, which he describes as “physically observing and confirming features identified by LiDAR and recording them using conventional survey methods.”

Modern-day researchers can learn a lot from the Maya in Belize, who numbered near 1 million in A.D.600, three times the country’s present day population. By analyzing formerly undiscovered sites, scientists could learn more about agricultural methods used to sustain its larger population and how the civilization was affected by drought, which is believed to have contributed to the Maya’s demise. Awe also is interested in studying an area where the Maya constructed an extensive canal system to manage flooding.

LiDAR image

This LiDAR image of a Maya site shows agricultural terraces used to increase effectiveness in farming. The technology allows researchers to see evidence of human activity through the thick cover of jungle.

Additionally, Awe plans to employ and collaborate with modern descendants of the ancient Maya and engage them in cultural heritage research in Belize. Awe and one of his graduate students will also work with the Belize government who is interested in preserving and developing archaeological sites for tourism.

Many of the opportunities available to Awe and his students at NAU are the result of LiDAR technology. “In only a few parts of the world do we have archaeologists who are able to acquire this kind of data, so in a big way, it is putting us at the cutting edge of research in archaeology,” Awe said.