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Archaeologists use NASA satellites to find ancient Mayan site

Spotting ancient Maya ruins -- a challenge even on the ground -- has been virtually impossible from the sky, where the dense Central American rainforest canopy hides all but a few majestic relics of this mysterious civilization. Now, NASA archaeologist Dr. Tom Sever and scientist Daniel Irwin of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and archaeologist Dr. William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham are using advanced, space-based imaging technology to uncover the ruins. High-resolution satellite imaging, which detects variations in the color of plant life around the ruins, can pinpoint sites of Maya settlements from space. The research, primarily conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and the University of New Hampshire, is made possible by a partnership between NASA and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. (NASA/T. Sever)

NASA, university scientists uncover lost Maya ruins --- from space

by Steve Roy and Erika Mantz

Remains of the ancient Maya culture, mysteriously destroyed at the height of its reign in the ninth century, have been hidden in the rainforests of Central America for more than 1,000 years. Now, NASA and university scientists are using space- and aircraft-based "remote-sensing" technology to uncover those ruins, using the chemical signature of the civilization's ancient building materials.

NASA archaeologist Tom Sever and scientist Dan Irwin, both from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, are teaming with William Saturno, an archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, to locate the ruins of the ancient culture.

"From the air, everything but the tops of very few surviving pyramids are hidden by the tree canopy," said Sever, widely recognized for two decades as a pioneer in the use of aerospace remote-sensing for archaeology. "On the ground, the 60- to 100-foot trees and dense undergrowth can obscure objects as close as 10 feet away. Explorers can stumble right through an ancient city that once housed thousands --- and never even realize it."

Sever has explored the capacity of remote sensing technology and the science of collecting information about the Earth’s surface using aerial or space-based photography to serve archeology. He and Irwin provided Saturno with high-resolution commercial satellite images of the rainforest, and collected data from NASA’s Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar, an instrument flown aboard a high-altitude weather plane, capable of penetrating clouds, snow and forest canopies.

These resulting Earth observations have helped the team survey an uncharted region around San Bartolo, Guatemala. They discovered a correlation between the color and reflectivity of the vegetation seen in the images --- their "signature," which is captured by instruments measuring light in the visible and near-infrared spectrums --- and the location of known archaeological sites.

A high-resolution, false-color image taken by the commercial Earth-observation satellite IKONOS shows a Guatemalan "bajo," or a broad, lowland area that is often partially submerged during the rainy season. The yellowish areas, which denote discolorations of the dense forest canopy, also pinpoint ancient Maya building sites, as identified by researchers at NASA and the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Dr. Tom Sever and Daniel Irwin of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Dr. William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire are using high-resolution NASA satellite imagery to identify Maya settlements from space. The research, primarily conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and the University of New Hampshire, is made possible by a partnership between NASA and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. (Space Imaging Inc.)

In 2004, the team ground-tested the data. Hiking deep into the jungle to locations guided by the satellite images, they uncovered a series of Maya settlements exactly where the technology had predicted they would be found. Integrating cutting-edge remote sensing technology as a vital research tool enabled the scientists to expand their study of the jungle.

The cause of the floral discoloration discerned in the imagery quickly became clear to the team. The Maya built their cities and towns with excavated limestone and lime plasters. As these structures crumbled, the lack of moisture and nutritional elements inside the ruins kept some plant species at bay, while others were discolored or killed off altogether as disintegrating plaster changed the chemical content of the soil around each structure.

"Over the centuries, the changes became dramatic," Saturno said. "This pattern of small details, impossible to see from the forest floor or low-altitude planes, turned out to be a virtual roadmap to ancient Maya sites when seen from space."

In a side-by-side comparison, space-based images captured by two commercial Earth-observation satellites --- the Landsat TM, left, and the IKONOS --- focus on the ancient ruins of Tikal, a Maya city deep in the Guatemalan rainforest. The Landsat imaging system has a nominal resolution of 30 meters, while the IKONOS can capture a nominal resolution as close as 1 meter, a scale at which individual pyramids, pathways and small structures become apparent. Both use false-color imaging --- depicting subjects in colors that differ from human perception --- to help NASA and university scientists study patterns of jungle growth and floral discoloration that is enabling discovery of Maya ruins lost for more than 1,000 years. Ever-improving optics, imaging and satellite technologies play a key role in enabling scientists to conduct increasingly sophisticated Earth science activities around the world. (Landsat image: NASA; IKONOS image: Space Imaging Inc.)

Under a NASA Space Act Agreement with the University of New Hampshire, the science team will visit Guatemala annually through 2009, with the support of the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History and the Department of Pre-Hispanic Monuments. The team will verify their research and continue refining their remote sensing tools to more easily lead explorers to other ancient ruins and conduct Earth science research in the region.

"Studies such as these do more than fulfill our curiosity about the past," Sever said. "They help us prepare for our own future."

NASA scientist Daniel Irwin, left, and archaeologist Dr. William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, explore a trench below an ancient Maya pyramid in Guatemala. Irwin and his partner, NASA archaeologist Dr. Tom Sever, both of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are teaming with Saturno to help pinpoint the site of additional Maya ruins --- many of them lost beneath the dense Central American jungle for more than 1,000 years. They're using NASA high-resolution satellite imagery to identify variations in plant life that indicate ancient building sites. The research, primarily conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and the University of New Hampshire, is made possible by a partnership between NASA and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. (NASA/T. Sever)

Scientists believe the Maya fell prey to a number of cataclysmic environmental problems, including deforestation and drought, that led to their downfall, Irwin said. "The world continues to battle the devastating effects of drought today, from the arid plains of Africa to the southern United States," he said. "The more we know about the plight of the Maya, the better our chances of avoiding something similar."

Another aspect of the research involved using climate models to determine the effects of Maya-driven deforestation on ancient Mesoamerican climate. The goal of this effort was to determine whether deforestation can lead to droughts and if the activities of the ancient Maya drove the environmental changes that undermined their civilization.

Deep in the Guatemalan jungle, NASA archaeologist Dr. Tom Sever, right, and Rob Griffin, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University in College Park, Pennsylvania, study a crumbled "stele," a stone pyramid used by the Maya to record information or display ornately carved art. Sever and Griffin found the stele --- and other Maya ruins hidden for more than 1,000 years --- during an expedition that relied on NASA remote-sensing technologies to pinpoint sites of ancient settlements. Sever and fellow researcher Daniel Irwin, both of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, teamed with archaeologist Dr. William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, to demonstrate how high-resolution satellite imaging can reveal variations in plant life indicative of ancient building sites. The research, primarily conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and the University of New Hampshire, is made possible by a partnership between NASA and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. (NASA/T. Sever)

Extending benefits of remote-sensing technologies is part of NASA’s Earth-Sun System Division. NASA is conducting a long-term research effort to learn how natural and human-induced changes affect the global environment, and to provide critical benefits to society today.

Sever and Irwin conduct research at National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, a joint science venture between NASA’s Marshall Center, Alabama universities, industry and federal agencies. For more information about its work, visit http://www.nsstc.org/.

NASA archaeologist Dr. Tom Sever explores the Guatemalan jungle, which hides the ruins of one of the world's oldest and most mysterious civilizations --- the Maya. Sever and his partners, archaeologist Dr. William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and researcher Daniel Irwin of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, are using advanced imaging technology developed for the space program to uncover the ruins. High-resolution satellite imaging, which detects variations in the color of plant life around the ruins, has enabled the researchers to pinpoint the sites of several Maya settlements from space --- before taking a single step into the jungle. The research, primarily conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and the University of New Hampshire, is made possible by a partnership between NASA and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. (NASA/T. Sever)

 

Steve Roy is with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and Erika Mantz with the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire


 

Also in this section:
COPEG sterile screw worm fly plant nears completion
CR-AVE: verifying satellite imagery

The global threat of counterfeit medicines
Using invertebrates to measure rivers' health
Bio-database work underway at City of Knowledge
Archaeologists use NASA satellites to find ancient Mayan site


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