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Massive Maya City Revealed by Lasers

May 23, 2010
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  • A 3-D map shows the buildings and topography of an ancient Maya city.

  • An aerial 3-D picture of Caracol's biggest temples and palaces.

  • A Maya ruin in the Belize jungle.

  • Four views of the ancient Maya city of Caracol.

  • An aerial image of extensive agricultural terraces in an ancient Maya city.

  • A picture of a ceramic vase adorned with the Maya sun god.

  • A picture of anthropologist Diane Chase working at the ancient city of Caracol.

A 3-D map shows the buildings and topography of an ancient Maya city.

Maya City in 3-D

Airborne lasers have “stripped” away thick rain forests to reveal new images of an ancient Maya metropolis that’s far bigger than anyone had thought.

An April 2009 flyover of the Maya city of Caracol used Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) equipment—which bounces laser beams off the ground—to help scientists construct a 3-D map of the settlement in western Belize. The survey revealed previously unknown buildings, roads, and other features in just four days, scientists announced earlier this month at the International Symposium on Archaeometry in Tampa, Florida. (Read about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)

University of Central Florida anthropologists Arlen and Diane Chase have spent decades hacking through the tangled undergrowth that has engulfed the powerful city—which thrived between A.D. 550 and 900. So far they’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of the ruins.

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