Meet Lidar: The Amazing Laser Technology That’s Helping Archaeologists Discover Lost Cities

Damian Evans/Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative, Author provided

This technology is very exciting for archaeologists. Not only can it rapidly map huge areas of ancient landscapes, but the lasers are actually able to “see through” vegetation by multiple scans and by recording several reflections from a single pulse. By carefully choosing the correct time of year, when the leaf coverage is reduced, it is possible to record landscapes in tropical environments – a feat which ground-based archaeologists have always had great difficulty with, due to dense plant coverage and often poor GPS reception.

A Different Picture

With these findings, a completely novel view of the Khmer culture is emerging, which brings into question what we know about a great many other ancient civilisations.

So far, the great tropical civilisations of the world have remained some of the most enigmatic. Although they have produced great stone monuments, archaeologists still have many unanswered questions about how they operated, where their populations lived and how large they were.

New old worlds. Mark Horton, Author provided

This applies not just to the Khmer of Cambodia, but to civilisations throughout southeast Asia; from Srivijaya in Sumatra, to Borobudur in Java. Similarly, in Africa, we know little about the great kingdoms of Kongo or Benin, which are still largely covered in forest.

Lidar may well help us find answers to some of these questions. Already, Lidar is beginning to enrich our understanding of Mayan civilisation, especially the extensive field systems, which were used to support large cities. In Honduras, a large number of ancient sites have been found belonging to a largely unknown culture. And in Amazonia, settlements and fields are now beginning to emerge from beneath the rain forest canopy, thanks to remote sensing.

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