Landscape Archeology

For most people, the only archeology they come across is in movies such as Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones. The image is of scientists carrying out painstaking searches for ancient artifacts. Whether by carefully excavating fossils over the course of weeks and months, or racing Nazis into booby-trapped dungeons, movie archeology is romanticized into a quest for long lost historic items. Landscape archeology is quite the opposite of this image, but its methods promise to teach us much about the way civilizations lived and worked.

Landscape archeology does not focus on the grand structures of a society such as pyramids or temples. Instead, it spreads its gaze over entire areas where people lived in the hopes of finding clues and patterns that teach how the people once lived. It aims to see how a people transformed the landscape around them. It is much broader in scope than the traditional archeology fields and uses modern technology to assist in its searches.

Ironically, landscape archeology has aided in the discovery of grand structures that went overlooked due to the fact that their enormous size made it hard to identify them close up. Examples of such structures are the mounds built by Native Americans in North America and the Nasca Lines in Peru.

1) Mounds acres wide and dozens of feet high were built by Native Americans across North America. Some are in the shape of animals, some in intricate shapes, and others simply enormous earthen mounds of simple circles or squares. Landscape archeologists stumbled across these structures by chance at first, then later on used aerial photography and GPS to map them.

2) The Nasca Lines are similarly huge in size and were not recognizable from the ground as anything more than random streaks of turned over desert soil. Aerial photography, however, reveals breathtaking images of animals and human figures that cover the landscape.

Aerial photography and satellite imaging has opened up a whole new view of the world that landscape archeologists are eagerly exploring for clues to past civilizations. A couple other discoveries of importance revealed by these methods are the following:

1) The hedgerows of England have been maintained for centuries or more without archeologists realizing that they in fact still mark the ancient borders and property lines of people long since dead. The hedgerows were originally planted as clear property lines, which when coupled with research into the area, gives archeologists a sort of unwritten map of ancient dwellings. This in turn give them better clues as to where traditional archeological digs might best be carried out.

2) The jungles of Central and South America quickly overgrow any buildings left unattended, so archeologists would have to be right on top of even major structures before realizing they were there. Satellite imaging has cut through the cover of jungle by mapping vegetation with different coloring. This differing color is caused by the calcium from ancient limestone structures leeching into the soil. By mapping the calcified areas, landscape archeologists have discovered huge sprawling cities of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Landscape archeology has only scratched the surface of what its new techniques can uncover. In time, we may learn about countless societies we had no idea existed. Or we may also learn how the cultures that built the pyramids and great wonders of the world lived the rest of their lives. Either way, the future looks very promising indeed for landscape archeology.