Mapping the Maya The lost wonders of a jungle civilisation
The deeds of royal dynasties presiding over Maya city-states in northern Guatemala can still be followed on ornate inscriptions raised in their name. But just how large were their dominions? Recent survey work has revealed that the Maya were far more populous and sophisticated than previously suspected. tom Garrison told Matthew Symonds how follow-up fieldwork is revolutionising our knowledge of Maya state power.
The tropical rainforest shrouding northern Guatemala is a major part of the Maya’s mystique. At Tikal, pyramids puncture the tree canopy like mountain peaks through clouds, encouraging a sense of wonder that such a sprawling city could ever have been carved out of the jungle. This romantic setting invites visitors to imagine that they have stumbled across a mysterious lost civilisation, surrendered to nature. In reality, over six million people are still believed to speak at least one of the 24 surviving Mayan languages, while deciphering ancient carved stone glyphs has sketched the outlines of a regional history. As archaeological excavations at sites in the region continue to shed new light on Maya life, so too the true sophistication of these societies is emerging ever more clearly from the shadows of their rainforest home. Even so, recent survey has demonstrated with stunning clarity just how well the encroaching jungle has kept the Maya’s secrets.
In 2016, the PACUNAM Foundation in Guatemala funded an ambitious programme of aerial reconnaissance, which can stake a claim to being the most extensive use of LiDAR in support of archaeological investigation anywhere in the world. LiDAR, or ‘Light Detection And Ranging’, is a sophisticated prospecting tool, which uses aircraft-mounted lasers to strip away objects obscuring the ground surface to