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Feb 16, 2006

Scientist Use Remote Sensing To Uncover Ancient Maya Ruins

Using space- and aircraft-based "remote-sensing" technology, a team of NASA and University of New Hampshire scientists have uncovered ruins from the ancient Maya culture that have been hidden in the rainforests of Central America for more than 1,000 years.

Looks Can Be Deceiving
"“From the air, everything but the tops of very few surviving pyramids are hidden by the tree canopy," NASA archaeologist Tom Sever explains, "On the ground, the 60- to 100-foot trees and dense undergrowth can obscure objects as close as 10 feet away. Explorers can stumble right through an ancient city that once housed thousands -– and never even realize it."

Remote Sensing Allows Researchers To Look Beneath The Surface
To look beneath the dense rainforest, Mr. Sever, along with scientist Dan Irwin, also from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, teamed up with William Saturno, an archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire. The team discovered the chemical signature of the Maya's ancient building materials.

NASA provided Mr. Saturno with high-resolution commercial satellite images of the rainforest, and collected data from their Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar. When the team looked at observations of known archaeological sites they saw a correlation between the color and reflectivity of the vegetation seen in the images -– their "signature," and the location of those sites. In the image above right, the yellowish areas, which denote discolorations of the forest canopy, indicate ancient Maya building sites.

Putting Theory To The Test

While the idea of discolored vegetation indicating ancient ruins sounds fine in theory, someone had to test it out. So in 2004, the team hiked deep into the Guatemalan jungle to a location the satellite images had indicated would contain an ancient ruin. There the team uncovered a series of Maya settlements exactly where the technology had predicted they would.

Refining Their Methods
NASA and the University of New Hampshire have agreed to continue working together in Guatemalan rainforest through 2009. The team will verify their research and continue refining their remote sensing tools to more easily lead explorers to other ancient ruins and conduct Earth science research in the region.

Mr. Sever, the NASA archaeologist sees modern day benefits to their work, "Studies such as these do more than fulfill our curiosity about the past," he said. "They help us prepare for our own future."