When your profession is studying ancient temples and cultural artifacts, you need a toolbox that matches the magnitude of the job. Brushes, buckets, and sieves have long been the foundation of an archaeologist’s work, but today, those essentials are paired with groundbreaking technology to deepen human understanding of our collective past.
While studying the Cajamarca culture, which existed in the highlands of northern Peru, archaeologist Solsire Cusicanqui has a variety of high-tech tools that enable her to analyze without doing damage.
Cusicanqui later processes the photographs taken with the Mavic with a sophisticated software program called Agisoft Photoscan. It allows her to create 3D models of her sites — virtual replicas that are geographically accurate representations of where she works. Cusicanqui, and other archeologists who do the same, can layer these digital, 3D models over pre-existing maps to get a better sense of the areas tophography and elevation. Essentially, the photogrammetry software stitches together the hundreds of photographs taken with the drone, resulting in a composite image. Goodbye treasure map, hello perfectly accurate digital model.
But those aren’t the only technological tools that archaeologist use to amp up their work.
LIDAR is an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging and has a wide use of applications ranging from navigating autonomous cars to helping farmers sense where they should apply fertilizer. Archeologists also make use of the remote sensing method: In the hands of excavators, LIDAR is used to create highly accurate and detailed 3D maps of ground surface tomography. It not only maps hundreds of miles — it alerts archeologists to the possibly hidden temples and tombs on those maps as well.
A LIDAR instrument consists of a laser, scanner, and GPS receiver. The laser sends out light pulses capable of penetrating deep vegetation, which in turn generates 3D information about the surface characteristics of the region its evaluating.
In 2018, archeologists announced that they used LIDAR to map 470 deep-jungle square kilometers, a process that revealed more than 15,000 ancient Maya architectural remains — a huge jump from the eight square kilometers and 1,000 structures they had identified previously. Laser scans can expose networks of temples and palaces, if archeologists shoot them in the right direction.