Lasers are Driving a Revolution in Archaeology

LiDAR technology has helped archaeologists find a lost Mayan city along with other ancient sites—transforming how researchers approach unsurveyed land.

Light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, has changed the face of archaeology by making it possible to measure and map objects and structures that might otherwise remain hidden.

Modern LiDAR relies on laser sensors that are deployed from the air or via handheld units. As lasers shine on the area to be mapped, they emit brief pulses of light. The amount of time it takes for those pulses to reflect back to the instrument is measured, and each measurement is plotted using GPS. Computers then use that data to construct a 3-D map of the area.

Remote sensing has been credited with an “archaeology revolution” that is shifting the way researchers think about their work. In the early 2010s, archaeologists looking for evidence of hard-to-find Maya sites were astonished when LiDAR revealed a lost Maya city.

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