LiDAR and the Archaeology Revolution

Filed in GIS Data by on January 14, 2014
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There is no doubt that remote sensing technology has created a dramatic shift in the past few years concerning how scientists and researchers gather and analyze information about the Earth. Remote sensing, the use of satellites or aircraft to gather data about objects from a distance, has an almost infinite number of applications. This kind of technology has been used to monitor the environment, map the ocean, explore the Polar Regions, and much more. Now, a form of remote sensing technology called LiDAR is being used to lead a revolution in archaeology transforming how scientists understand human activity of the past.

Changes in how archaeologists study the past are being brought about by advances in LiDAR technology. LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a method of remote sensing that uses light to measure varying distances to the Earth. This light is in the form of a pulsated laser, and these pulses can be used to produce exact data about the characteristics of Earth’s surface. LiDAR instruments are made up mainly of a laser, a special GPS receiver, and a scanner typically attached to an airplane or helicopter for use over a wide area.

One of the places that LiDAR is having a significant impact in is the archaeological study of New England. Today, New England is heavily forested, which makes it extremely difficult for archaeologists to get a better understanding of how the region looked in colonial times. During the 1700s, New England was covered with roads, farm walls, and homesteads, but after they were largely abandoned in the 1950s, the forests grew back. Through the use of LiDAR, however, archaeologists are now able to uncover more of this ‘lost’ New England of subsistence farming, something many people have no idea existed.

One of the principal researchers in this archaeology revolution of New England is Katharine Johnson from the University of Connecticut. Her research using LiDAR revealed a large amount of archaeological finds in both Connecticut and Massachusetts, areas that were critical for the earliest European settlers of North America. Johnson discovered sites that weren’t in any historical records, and with GPS coordinates from LiDAR, she says that she can walk into the woods and find building foundations or stone walls that no one imagined would be there. This shift in archaeology has been benefited by improvements in LiDAR technology with 1-meter (3.2 foot) resolutions now available.

LiDAR reveals the underlying history of a landscape.  Image from Kate Johnson.

LiDAR reveals the underlying history of a landscape. Image from Kate Johnson.

Beyond New England, the application of LiDAR in archaeology has been included other areas of the world. LiDAR has been used to help researchers uncover ancient Maya buildings, roads, and other features of this civilization and even create a three-dimensional map of a Maya settlement in Belize. LiDAR has also been employed in order to get high-resolution models of Renaissance palaces, like the Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence Italy. In England, LiDAR is being used to discover new sites in the plains of Stonehenge.

Overall, the future of LiDAR in archaeology is bright. Scientists and researchers are just now discovering what this technology can do to better our understanding of past civilizations once thought as lost. On the other hand, there are limits to its application. For example, LiDAR cannot tell archaeologists much about Native Americans in the U.S. because they didn’t leave behind permanent structures. For those civilizations that did, though, LiDAR is becoming a significant research tool for archaeologists around the globe.

References

Johnson, Katharine More Information on, and William B. Ouimet. “Rediscovering the Lost Archaeological Landscape of Southern New England Using Airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).” Journal of Archaeological Science 43 (2014): 9-20. Retrieved 10 Jan. 2014: <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440313004342>.

Vergano, Dan. “”Lost” New England Revealed by High-Tech Archaeology.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 03 Jan. 2014. Retrieved 14 Jan. 2014 <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/01/140103-new-england-archaeology-lidar-science>.

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