Aguada Fénix: laser mapping reveals the largest and oldest Mayan temple

A 3D image of the newly discovered Maya site of Aguada Fenix based on lidar, a new technique that is revolutionizing archeology.

It is painstaking work that has led to completing entire careers.

But now, archaeologists – or at least their tools – are climbing to heaven.

A new remote sensing technique called lidar, or detection and ray of light, can produce detailed models of any terrain, revealing secrets usually hidden by trees and forests.

This laser mapping is increasing the speed and scope of archaeological discoveries and has now revealed the oldest and largest ceremonial structure ever built by the Mayans – covering more ground than the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt.

“It is so large horizontally that if you walk on the site, it looks like a part of the natural landscape. You wouldn’t recognize its rectangular shape. But in the lidar it came out beautiful,” said Takeshi Inomata, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and lead author of a document on the discovery, published Wednesday in Nature magazine.

“Without lidar, probably recognize the importance of this site in the end. But it would have taken many seasons of laborious mapping on the ground, “he said.

Called Aguada Fénix, this previously unknown Mayan site in Tabasco, Mexico, was built between 1000 BC. and 800 BC The huge elevated platform is located 10 to 15 meters above the surrounding area with nine causeways that extend from the platform.

Inomata stated that its volume, 3.8 million cubic meters, is larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (2.6 million cubic meters) — although it is much shorter than the pyramid.

The platform would have been used for rituals and the team found jade axes and other valuables at its core, Inomata said.

Axes excavated from the site, which date back to 1,000-700 BC. Other precious objects have also been found.

“The ritual probably involved processions on the causeways and the gathering of large numbers of people in the rectangular square. It was a gathering place for the community, which probably motivated people to build it.”

The Mayans were a Mesoamerican civilization that flourished in Mexico and Central America from 2000 BC. until the times of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century. They are mostly known for the higher step pyramids built on sites like Chichen Itza.

Change of game

Lidar revolutionized the field of archeology in much the same way as the discovery of radio carbon dating in the 1940s, said Patricia McAnany, Mayan archaeologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not involved. in research.

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Laser mapping discovers dozens of ancient Mayan cities

The technique is based on laser pulses, which are emitted from a plane or drone, and the bouncing signals generate data. Image processing can therefore produce models of bare soil from which vegetation has been digitally removed.

“Straight lines and angles in a bare terrain model suggest elements that have human rather than geological origins,” McAnany wrote in a commentary on the study also published in Nature.

Previously it took years of fieldwork to map a large ancient Mayan city such as Tikal in Guatemala and Caracol in Belize, McAnany said in the comment.

“I spent thousands of hours working in the field walking behind a man who wielded local machetes who would cut straight lines through the forest,” said McAnany. “This process creates a grid within which we archaeologists proceed on foot to identify any structures present. So, after further cuts to the machete to reveal the angles, shape and height of the ancient buildings, the structures could finally be mapped .

In addition to mapping Aguada Fenix ​​from the sky, the team also excavated the site, discovering ceramic ships and other objects.

“Lidar images of an air flight can provide more information than decades of conventional archaeological investigations could generate,” he said.

Human collaboration

This latest discovery sheds light on a central question in archeology: how did community life develop? Did it start with sedentary life in small villages or periodic meetings for ritual activities, such as religious or astronomical observances?

McAnany said that sedentary life was generally designed to pave the way for ritual gatherings, but new evidence is emerging to suggest that it was the other way around.

In the newly discovered site, the study claims that the lack of residential platforms suggested that its inhabitants led at least a partially mobile life.

Stone sculpture found in Aguada Fenix ​​in 1000-700 BC

Inomata said that the discovery also questions the traditional view that large construction projects in ancient times required powerful elite and social inequality.

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No clear indicators of marked social inequality were found on the site, such as the sculptures representing high-level individuals, said Inomata, which means that the construction of Aguada Fénix was carried out in the “absence of a powerful elite”.

“Although there were probably some leaders who played a central role in planning and organizing this work, the main factor was the voluntary participation of people in such constructions. It tells us the potential for human collaboration that does not necessarily require centralized government.” .

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