While LiDAR technology is primarily being used for vehicle navigation systems or for modern-day geographical mapping, archaeologists are also finding the technology could help unravel some of the mysteries behind ancient civilizations.
Toward that end, a research team led by Traci Ardren, archaeologist and University of Miami professor of anthropology, is using LiDAR to map the 100-kilometer stone highway that connected the ancient cities of Cobá and Yaxuná on the Yucatan Peninsula 13 centuries ago.
The LiDAR study, which Ardren and fellow researchers with the Proyecto de Interaccion del Centro de Yucatan (PIPCY) conducted in 2014 and 2017 of Sacbe 1—or White Road 1, as the white plaster-coated thoroughfare was called—may shed light on the intentions of Lady K’awiil Ajaw, the warrior queen who Ardren believes commissioned its construction at the turn of the 7th century.
In an analysis of the LiDAR study, recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers identified more than 8,000 tree-shrouded structures of varying sizes along the Sacbe—with enough total volume to fill approximately 2,900 Olympic swimming pools. The study also confirmed that the road, which measures about 26 feet across, is not a straight line, as has been assumed since Carnegie Institute of Washington archaeologists mapped its entire length in the 1930s.
The study instead revealed that the elevated road veered to incorporate preexisting towns and cities between Cobá, which is known for its carved monuments depicting bellicose rulers standing over bound captives and controlled the eastern Yucatan, and Yaxuná—a smaller, older, city in the middle of the peninsula.
“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,” Ardren said in an article appearing on the University of Miami website. “We also now know the road is not straight, which suggests that it was built to incorporate these preexisting settlements, and that has interesting geo-political implications. This road was not just connecting Cobá and Yaxuná; it connected thousands of people who lived in the intermediary region.”
Yaxuná’s proximity to Chichén Itzá, Mexico’s most famous Maya ruin which flourished after Yaxuná and Cobá waned, may have led Ardren and other PIPCY researchers to theorize that K’awiil Ajaw built the road to invade Yaxuná and gain a foothold in the middle of the peninsula. Cobá’s ruler for several decades beginning in 640 A.D., she is depicted in stone carvings trampling over her bound captives.
A drawing of a carving found on a stone monument in Cobá depicts the warrior queen who may have built the great, white road to expand her domain.
To test their theory, Ardren, an expert on gender in ancient Maya society who edited the 2002 book “Ancient Maya Women,” and fellow PIPCY scholars received National Science Foundation funding to excavate ancient household clusters along the great white road. Their goal is to determine the degree of similarities between the household goods in Cobá and Yaxuná before and after the road was built.
So far, the researchers have excavated household clusters on the edge of both Cobá and Yaxuná, and they plan to begin a third dig this summer, at a spot informed by the LiDAR study. It sits between the two ancient Maya cities, on the great white road that Ardren says would have glowed brightly even in the dark of night.
Arden noted in the study that the road displayed as much engineering expertise as the monumental Maya pyramids erected across southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Although built over undulating terrain, the road was flat, with the uneven ground filled in with huge limestone boulders, and the surface coated with bright, white plaster. Essentially the same formula the Romans used for concrete in the third century B.C., the plaster was made by burning limestone and adding lime and water to the mixture.