Lasers Reveal Secrets Of An Ancient Maya Highway And A Powerful Warrior Queen's Empire

 Traci Ardren/University of Miami

Archaeologists armed with jungle-penetrating lasers are revealing the secrets of a sacred Maya highway and the ambition of an ancient warrior queen. 

Known as a Sacbe 1 or sacred road, the white plaster-covered stone road was built at the turn of the 7th century CE and stretches some 100 kilometers (62 miles) between the ancient cities of Cobá and Yaxuná on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science this week, archaeologists from the University of Miami and the Proyecto de Interaccion del Centro de Yucatan have recently used LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, to survey the area from the skies above. This revolutionary technique is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to survey land. Not only can it be used to analyze huge areas of landscapes, but the lasers are also capable of detecting subtle features that would otherwise be obscured by trees or vegetation. 

The aerial LiDAR survey managed to reveal 8,000 structures along the route, many of which have become lost beneath centuries of tree growth. While much mystery still surrounds this incredible feat of engineering, the team believes their new research could help confirm the idea that the road was built under the command of Lady K’awiil Ajaw, the powerful warrior queen of Cobá, as a means to expand her influence over the emerging Chichén Itzá empire.

A LiDAR map of downtown Yaxuna reveals many ancient houses, platforms, palaces, and pyramids. Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer/University of Miami

Unlike earlier surveys taken in the 1930s, the research highlights that the road is not perfectly straight. Instead, the highway slightly weaves and curves in order to link up pre-existing settlements towards the Cobá-end of the highway. 

“The lidar really allowed us to understand the road in much greater detail. It helped us identify many new towns and cities along the road—new to us, but preexisting the road,” said Traci Ardren, archaeologist and University of Miami professor of anthropology, in a statement

“This road was not just connecting Cobá and Yaxuná; it connected thousands of people who lived in the intermediary region.”

But the question remains, why would anyone undertake such a momentous construction project? Arden and her team suspect that it has something to do with K’awiil Ajawand and the Cobá empire's last grip on power. In a bid to extend its influence across the Yucatan Peninsula and compete with the Chichén Itzá empire, Cobá and its allies might have commissioned the road for trade or the transport of soldiers. To uncover the meaning of Sacbe 1, the archaeologists hope to continue to excavate the towns and settlements along the route to see whether their household objects share any similarities, which could indicate cultural exchange and trade.

"I think the rise of Chichén Itzá and its allies motivated the road,” Ardren said. “It was built just before 700 [CE], at the end of the Classic Period, when Cobá is making a big push to expand. It’s trying to hold on to its power, so with the rise of Chichén Itzá, it needed a stronghold in the center of the peninsula. The road is one of the last-gasp efforts of Cobá to maintain its power. And we believe it may have been one of the accomplishments of K’awiil Ajaw, who is documented as having conducted wars of territorial expansion.”

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