Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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Maya News Updates 2020, No. 21: Caracol, Belize - Laser Technology Leads To New Archaeological Discoveries
During the Spring of 2009 archaeologists Arlen and Diane Chase, University of Central Florida (Orlando), adopted a new technology in their archaeological project at Caracol, Belize: a survey by 3D laser imaging, or LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging). This is also the laser technique to be applied at El Tajin (see Ancient MesoAmerica News Updates 2010, No. 15 [May 6, 2010). The New York Times had the story on Monday, May 10, 2010, including excursions into other areas in which LIDAR has been and will be applied (edited by MNU; photo: The New York Times):

Mapping Ancient Civilization, in a Matter of Days - For a quarter of a century, two archaeologists and their team slogged through wild tropical vegetation to investigate and map the remains of one of the largest Maya cities, in Central America. Slow, sweaty hacking with machetes seemed to be the only way to discover the breadth of an ancient urban landscape now hidden beneath a dense forest canopy.
Even the new remote-sensing technologies, so effective in recent decades at surveying other archaeological sites, were no help. Imaging radar and multispectral surveys by air and from space could not “see” through the trees.
Then, in the dry spring season a year ago, the husband-and-wife team of Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase tried a new approach using airborne laser signals that penetrate the jungle cover and are reflected from the ground below. They yielded 3-D images of the site of ancient Caracol, in Belize, one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.
In only four days, a twin-engine aircraft equipped with an advanced version of lidar (light detection and ranging) flew back and forth over the jungle and collected data surpassing the results of two and a half decades of on-the-ground mapping, the archaeologists said. After three weeks of laboratory processing, the almost 10 hours of laser measurements showed topographic detail over an area of 80 square miles, notably settlement patterns of grand architecture and modest house mounds, roadways and agricultural terraces.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Diane Chase said recently, recalling their first examination of the images. “We believe that lidar will help transform Maya archaeology much in the same way that radiocarbon dating did in the 1950s and interpretations of Maya hieroglyphs did in the 1980s and ’90s.” The Chases, who are professors of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, had determined from earlier surveys that Caracol extended over a wide area in its heyday, between A.D. 550 and 900. From a ceremonial center of palaces and broad plazas, it stretched out to industrial zones and poor neighborhoods and beyond to suburbs of substantial houses, markets and terraced fields and reservoirs.
This picture of urban sprawl led the Chases to estimate the city’s population at its peak at more than 115,000. But some archaeologists doubted the evidence warranted such expansive interpretations. “Now we have a totality of data and see the entire landscape,” Dr. Arlen Chase said of the laser findings. “We know the size of the site, its boundaries, and this confirms our population estimates, and we see all this terracing and begin to know how the people fed themselves.”
The Caracol survey was the first application of the advanced laser technology on such a large archaeological site. Several journal articles describe the use of lidar in the vicinity of Stonehenge in England and elsewhere at an Iron Age fort and American plantation sites. Only last year, Sarah H. Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham predicted, “Lidar imagery will have much to offer the archaeology of the rain forest regions.”
The Chases said they had been unaware of Dr. Parcak’s assessment, in her book “Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology” (Routledge, 2009), when they embarked on the Caracol survey. They acted on the recommendation of a Central Florida colleague, John F. Weishampel, a biologist who had for years used airborne laser sensors to study forests and other vegetation. Dr. Weishampel arranged for the primary financing of the project from the little-known space archaeology program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The flights were conducted by the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, operated by the University of Florida and the University of California, Berkeley.
Other archaeologists, who were not involved in the research but were familiar with the results, said the technology should be a boon to explorations, especially ones in the tropics, with its heavily overgrown vegetation, including pre-Columbian sites throughout Mexico and Central America. But they emphasized that it would not obviate the need to follow up with traditional mapping to establish “ground truth.”
Jeremy A. Sabloff, a former director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and now president of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, said he wished he had had lidar when he was working in the Maya ruins at Sayil, in Mexico. The new laser technology, Dr. Sabloff said, “would definitely have speeded up our mapping, given us more details and would have enabled us to refine our research questions and hypotheses much earlier in our field program than was possible in the 1980s.”
At first, Payson D. Sheets, a University of Colorado archaeologist, was not impressed with lidar. A NASA aircraft tested the laser system over his research area in Costa Rica, he said, “but when I saw it recorded the water in a lake sloping at 14 degrees, I did not use it again.” Now, after examining the imagery from Caracol, Dr. Sheets said he planned to try lidar, with its improved technology, again. “I was stunned by the crisp precision and fine-grained resolution,” he said.
“Finally, we have a nondestructive and rapid means of documenting the present ground surface through heavy vegetation cover,” Dr. Sheets said, adding, “One can easily imagine, given the Caracol success, how important this would be in Southeast Asia, with the Khmer civilization at places like Angkor Wat.”
In recent reports at meetings of Mayanists and in interviews, the Chases noted that previous remote-sensing techniques focused more on the discovery of archaeological sites than on the detailed imaging of on-ground remains. The sensors could not see through much of the forest to resolve just how big the ancient cities had been. As a consequence, archaeologists may have underestimated the scope of Mayan accomplishments.
For the Caracol survey, the aircraft flew less than a half-mile above the terrain at the end of the dry season, when foliage is less dense. The Airborne Laser Terrain Mapper, as the specific advanced system is named, issued steady light pulses along 62 north-south flight lines and 60 east-west lines. This reached to what appeared to be the fringes of the city’s outer suburbs and most agricultural terraces, showing that the urban expanse encompassed at least 70 square miles.
Not all the laser pulses transmitted from the aircraft made it to the surface. Some were reflected by the tops of trees. But enough reached the ground and were reflected back to the airborne instruments. These signals, measured and triangulated by GPS receivers and processed by computers, produced images of the surface contours. This revealed distinct patterns of building ruins, causeways and other human modifications of the landscape.
The years the Chases spent on traditional explorations at Caracol laid the foundation for confirming the effectiveness of the laser technology. Details in the new images clearly matched their maps of known structures and cultural features, the archaeologists said. When the teams returned to the field, they used the laser images to find several causeways, terraced fields and many ruins they had overlooked.
The Chases said the new research demonstrates how a large, sustainable agricultural society could thrive in a tropical environment and thus account for the robust Maya civilization in its classic period from A.D. 250 to 900. “This will revolutionize the way we do settlement studies of the Maya,” Dr. Arlen Chase said on returning from this spring’s research at Caracol.
Lidar is not expected to have universal application. Dr. Sheets said that, for example, it would not be useful at his pre-Columbian site at Cerén, in El Salvador. The ancient village and what were its surrounding manioc fields are buried under many feet of volcanic ash, beyond laser detection. Other modern technologies, including radar and satellite imaging, are already proving effective in the land beyond the temples at Angkor, in Cambodia, and in surveys of the Nile delta and ancient irrigation systems in Iraq.
Laser signals breaking through jungle cover are only the newest form of remote sensing in the pursuit of knowledge of past cultures, which began in earnest about a century ago with the advent of aerial photography. Charles Lindbergh drew attention to its application in archaeology with picture-taking flights over unexplored Pueblo cliff dwellings in the American Southwest.
NASA recently stepped up its promotion of technologies developed for broad surveys of Earth and other planets to be used in archaeological research. Starting with a few preliminary tests over the years, the agency has now established a formal program for financing archaeological remote-sensing projects by air and space. “We’re not looking for monoliths on the Moon,” joked Craig Dobson, manager of the NASA space archaeology program.
Every two years, Dr. Dobson said, NASA issues several three-year grants for the use of remote sensing at ancient sites. In addition to the Caracol tests, the program is supporting two other Maya research efforts, surveys of settlement patterns in North Africa and Mexico and reconnaissance of ancient ruins in the Mekong River Valley and around Angkor Wat.
Nothing like a latter-day Apollo project, of course, but the archaeology program is growing, Dr. Dobson said, and will soon double in size, to an annual budget of $1 million. (Written by John Noble Winford; Source The New York Times)

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Maya News Updates 2010, No. 20: Tak'alik Ab'aj, Retalhuleu - Spectacular Archaeological Discovery of Various Miniature Mosaic Portraits
Yesterday, Monday, May 10, 2010, the online edition of The Guatemalan Times posted a detailed and well illustrated report on the spectacular archaeological discovery of several miniature mosaic portraits masks or heads at the site of Tak'alik Ab'aj, Department of Retalhuleu, in Guatemala on March 23, 2010. The findings date from the Early Classic, the Alejos phase at circa A.D. 150-300 (edited by MNU; photo: Guatemalan Times/Tak'alik Ab'aj National Project, Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala):
Mysterious Mayan ceremonial head found at Tak'alik Ab'aj - Discovery of an extraordinary offering of a jadeite mosaic miniature ceremonial head underscores the importance and political power at the beginning of Early Classic of the ancient Maya city Tak’alik Ab’aj
Tak'alik Ab'aj is an ancient pre-Hispanic city situated in El Asintal, Department of Retalhuleu at the pacific piedmont of Guatemala. This important long distance trade and cosmopolitan cultural center is transcendent because of its long history which endured 1700 years (800 B.C. - 900 A.D). At its beginnings Tak'alik Ab'aj interacted and participated with the Olmec culture, and at its surmise, was one of the protagonists in the development of the early Maya culture. This particularity in addition to the extraordinary production of sculpture programs during these two important cultural periods, make Tak'alik Ab'aj unique in the history of Mesoamerica.
Previous excavations conducted in the center of Structure 6 - one of the most important ceremonial buildings of the main architectonic complex called Central Group at Tak'alik Ab'aj - revealed a series of precious offerings. These offerings were deposited in a sequence of episodes into the earthen construction fill of one of the last versions of this building during the first part of Early Classic (A.D. 150-300 - Phase Alejos).
These offerings consisted of ceramic vessels, the most beautiful of these vessels is decorated with a stepped fret design; a small pedestal stone sculpture, re-used to ceremonially grind jadeite, plenty of intentionally broken stone grinding artifacts for maize or probably cacao (metates), a pyrite mosaic mirror and a few pieces of jadeite.
On March 23, 2010 the team of archaeologists of Tak´alik Ab´aj, discovered in the ongoing excavations at the center of Structure 6 another extraordinary treasure: an offering of 50 jadeite mosaics which had been deposited into the soil of the mentioned construction fill.
These mosaics compose a miniature ceremonial head with celt like plaques hanging underneath the chin, which were worn as part of the ceremonial waist belt of the rulers, as is vastly represented at the Maya steles from Preclassic to Classic times. These miniature ceremonial heads are made of jadeite mosaics, masterfully worked in order to fit neatly together like a puzzle.
In previous excavations at Tak'alik Ab'aj archaeologists had experienced the unique opportunity to find a miniature ceremonial head made of blue jadeite mosaics in situ in the royal burial No. 1 which had been introduced in Structure 7, the most sacred building of the Central Group by end of the Late Preclassic (200 B.C. - A.D. 150 - Phase Ruth). The precise position of the miniature mosaic head in the waist area of the burial confirmed by then that effectively those miniature heads were part of the ceremonial waist belt, an element which can be considered as important in the royal outfit worn by the rulers as the headdress.
Formerly at the western architectonic complex called West Group at Tak'alik Ab'aj, a massive jadeite mosaic offering had been found at Structure 86, dated to the first part of Early Classic (A.D. 150-300 - Phase Alejos). Those mosaics, corresponding to 4 jadeite mosaic ceremonial head assemblages had been deposited in a vessel decorated with a stepped fret design.
The archaeologists, trying to assemble the recently discovered ceremonial head mosaics from Structure 6, were surprised to find out that the mosaics, additionally to the ceremonial head, form a bat miniature head as the headdress of the ceremonial head itself. This particularity distinguishes and makes this ceremonial miniature head unique. With the present ceremonial jadeite mosaic miniature head, Tak'alik Ab'aj has 6 of those ceremonial miniature heads. This quantity seems superior to the miniature ceremonial jadeite mosaic heads registered at any other archaeological site in Mesoamerica and would place Tak'alik Ab'aj as a superlative center with the possession of this kind of lapidary artifacts, together with the exhibition of hundreds of sculptures.
It is important to underscore the fact that 5 of the 6 ceremonial miniature heads at Tak´alik Ab´aj come from archaeological contexts described above, corresponding to the first part of Early Classic. This accumulation of such precious artifacts of lapidary art represents undoubtedly a display of great wealth and power. This, and the association to a specific stepped fret design, which at that time appears on the vessels related to jadeite mosaic offerings, suggests that these mosaic ceremonial heads might be related to one of the most powerful rulers of the history of Tak´alik Ab´aj, whom for that reason has been allegorically called the "Lord of the fret design".
The archaeologists in charge are still in the process of the final assemblage of this latest find. This is just the first glimpse of the new exiting discovery in Tak´alik Ab´aj. What does it mean and who is the mysterious ruler "Lord of the fret design"? Each new finding is a chapter for new questions to be answered by arduous work and excavations of the many secrets of the story of Tak´alik Ab´aj. (Written by Barbara Schieber; source The Guatemalan Times)
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Maya News Updates 2010, No. 19: Toniná, Chiapas - Acropolis Belongs To Largest Buildings Constructed By The Classic Maya
Yesterday, Monday, May 10, 2010, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia informed that the Acropolis at the archaeological site of Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico, is one of the largest buildings constructed by the Classic Maya (or in Mesoamerica in general). The Acropolis at Toniná is some 75 meters high. The report also informs that the urban site core is much larger than previously thought, it measures some 10 to 12 hectares (circa 24.7 to 29.6 acres), as the recent tridimensional mapping of the site has shown (edited by MNU; photo: INAH/Hector Montaño):

Toniná, de las más grandes - Trabajos de consolidación y restauración desarrollados por especialistas del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH-Conaculta) en la parte norte de la Acrópolis de la Zona Arqueológica de Toniná, en Chiapas, han corroborado que se trata de una de las edificaciones más grandes de Mesoamérica, sólo comparable con otras del área maya ubicadas en Tikal y El Mirador, en Guatemala.
El maestro Carlos Pallán Gayol, responsable del Acervo Jeroglífico e Iconográfico Maya (Ajimaya) del INAH, y quien colabora con el proyecto arqueológico en este sitio, dio a conocer que como parte de la reciente temporada de trabajos en el mismo, se avanzó en la exploración de la sección norte de la Acrópolis que alcanza los 75 metros de altura y que está compuesta por diversas estructuras y terrazas modificadas artificialmente. La Pirámide del Sol, en Teotihuacan, Estado de México, tiene una altitud de 65 metros.
Lo anterior se determinó a partir de la reciente conformación de un mapa tridimensional del sector noreste de esta zona arqueológica maya, luego de la adquisición de terrenos por parte del INAH, labores que permitieron abundar sobre aspectos urbanísticos de esta antigua ciudad, entre ellos, que el sitio prehispánico es más extenso de lo que se creía.
“Toniná es más grande de lo que sospechábamos. Sus pirámides están conectadas por medio de calzadas localizadas en lo alto de las elevaciones aledañas, es decir, no sólo el monte donde se erigió la Acrópolis fue utilizado con fines constructivos”. De esta manera los especialistas del INAH han determinado que el núcleo urbano tiene una continuidad arquitectónica de entre 10 y 12 hectáreas, el doble de las que anteriormente se conocían y que correspondían sobre todo a la fachada sur de la Acrópolis.
“Existen pirámides, estructuras abovedadas, enormes terrazas. Desde el edificio denominado, provisionalmente, IV Noroeste —que tiene 10 metros de altura— se tiene una visual desde el punto más elevado en todo el sitio y se encuentra en un área de acceso restringido. Esta construcción se enlaza mediante una gran calzada, de más de medio kilómetro de longitud, con la Estructura I de Toniná, previamente considerada por el público como la más alta.”
Junto con el doctor Juan Yadeun Angulo, director del Proyecto Arqueológico de Toniná, el experto Carlos Pallán dirigió a un grupo de estudiantes en Arqueología y Posgrado de la Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ENAH) que levantó dicho mapa tridimensional donde quedaron registradas las estructuras del sector noreste del sitio, sus dimensiones y su interconexión a través de calzadas artificiales.
El epigrafista, adscrito a la Coordinación Nacional de Arqueología del INAH, comentó que esta instrucción en campo parte primeramente de las aulas, pues tanto el arqueólogo Juan Yadeun como él son los responsables del Curso de Epigrafía y Arqueología de Toniná que se imparte en la ENAH y que actualmente se encuentra en su segunda emisión. (Modificado el lunes, 10 de mayo de 2010) (Source INAH; Tonina photo gallery here)