Archaeology From Above

Technology called lidar is revolutionizing archaeology. By measuring the distance light travels to the ground and back, researchers can digitally strip away the canopy from forested areas like Mosquitia, in Honduras—revealing ancient settlements.

Light Pulses

Cloud Creation

Canopy

Ground

Lost City Illuminated

Light Pulses

Lidar, or “light detection and ranging” technology, directs hundreds of thousands of pulses of light toward the ground.

Cloud Creation

Most beams of light reflect off the forest canopy; a few reach the ground and reflect back through gaps in the canopy. Recording how long it takes the light to return to the device produces a “point cloud.”

Canopy

Researchers use sophisticated software to translate the reflected laser points in the point cloud to create a model of the forest canopy.

Ground

By identifying the laser points that reach and reflect off the ground, researchers produce bare-earth topographic models.

Signs of Life?

Experts then look for traces of man-made structures or human-induced changes to the landscape to identify promising sites for excavation.

Lost City Illuminated

An artist used lidar data to portray structures surveyed in the T1 valley in Mosquitia during the February 2015 expedition. Many more features remain to be mapped and explored.

CANALS
Evidence hints that canals were dug to irrigate agricultural areas.

MOUNDS
Earthen mounds of different shapes and sizes are scattered throughout the site. They likely supported structures.

BUILDINGS
Large thatched-roof structures likely had stone foundations; smaller ones were made of wood and earth.

PLAZA
Open areas flanked by mounds were probably used for large gatherings.

TERRACES
Farmers cut terraces into the land, making it easier to grow and harvest crops.

CACHE
Fifty-two artifacts, including a stone seat decorated with the head of a jaguar, were found poking out of the ground at the base of an earthen pyramid.

Manuel Canales, NGM Staff; Amanda Hobbs. Art: Greg Harlin, Digital Rendering; Stfan Fichtel. Animation: Mariya Khan
Sources: Juan Carlos Fernandez-Diaz, NCALM/University of Houston; Christopher T. Fisher, Colorado State University; Alicia M. González; UTL Productions