NASA archaeologist Tom Sever and scientist Dan Irwin of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, along with William Saturno, an archaeologist from the University of New Hampshire, are using remote sensing technologies to locate Mayan ruins in the rain forest of Guatemala. The scientists are using both space and aircraft based remote sensing technologies to find sites by identifying the different chemical compositions of building materials used by the Mayans to construct their cities.
A NASA Space Act Agreement with the University of New Hampshire, along with support from the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History, and the Department of Pre-Hispanic Monuments will ensure that a team of scientists will visit Guatemala every year through 2009. The researchers will continue to develop the remote sensing capabilities and aid in locating other ancient sites and carry out other research in the area.
Without remote sensing technologies, locating ruins buried for centuries in the rain forest was extremely difficult. From an airplane the trees obscure everything but the tops of the few remaining pyramids, and, on the ground, the 60-100 foot trees and the dense undergrowth can hide objects as close as 10 feet away, making it possible for archaeologists to walk through the ruins of an ancient city and not see it.
Sever has been an innovator in the use of remote sensing technology to locate archaeological sites. Using high-resolution images of the rain forest obtained by commercial satellites and data from NASA’s Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar, which can penetrate clouds, snow and tree canopies, Sever and the other members of the team were able to survey an area around San Bartolo, Guatemala, which had not been previously mapped. A connection was found between the color and reflectiveness of the vegetation and the location of previously discovered Mayan sites.
The Mayan empire once spread over parts of what is today Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, most of Guatemala and Belize, flourishing from the third century until it mysteriously vanished in the ninth. The Mayan civilization was known for advanced building techniques, an extremely accurate calendar system, hieroglyphic writing and advanced mathematics. In spite of their impressive achievements, this complex society collapsed, and it has been suggested that it was perhaps due to an environmental disaster brought on by deforestation.
Scientists believe that discovering the cause of the demise of the Mayans could help our civilization avoid a similar fate. One research feature used climate models to discover the effect of the Mayan deforestation on the ancient Central American climate, to determine if droughts can be caused by deforestation, and if the Mayans themselves had created the conditions leading to a catastrophe.
NASA’s Earth-Sun System Division is extending the benefits of remote sensing technologies in an ongoing effort to discover how changes, both natural and man-made, affect the Earth’s environment.