A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
One highlight of the international conference on archaeological applications of remote sensing that was held in April at Boston University was a report by NASA archaeologist Tom Sever on his work in the Petén jungle of Guatemala, the heartland of the ancient Maya. Sever, who joined NASA in 1978 in hopes of combining his long-time love of astronomy and archaeology, has championed the role of aerial and satellite imagery in preserving the Guatemalan jungle and its ancient sites.
As Sever explained, the Petén ecosystem, covering nearly 14,000 square miles, includes more than 800 species of trees, 500 species of birds, large populations of mammals (to say nothing of poisonous snakes!), and some of the most important archaeological sites of the ancient Maya in Central America, such as Tikal and El Mirador, as well as many sites that have not yet been recorded or explored. Ongoing deforestation in the region results in the destruction of the archaeological sites; for example, the fires that clear land for settlers also destroy the stonework of the Maya buildings, and the opening of the jungle leads looters to the sites, which they plunder and sometimes completely destroy in their efforts to find antiquities to sell to collectors and dealers.
Sever and his research team have been using imagery from sensors on satellites and aircraft both to monitor the changes in the forest, and to identify potential archaeological features in the jungle, which they then verify on the ground, and record in annual field expeditions that began in 1988. One of the most interesting sites is La Corona, which was subsequently visited by Ian Graham and David Stuart of Harvard's Peabody Museum, who found hieroglyphic clues relating to Site Q, known from other Maya stelae. Sever told me that he estimates more than 100 archaeological sites or features are indicated in the imagery, many of which still need to be explored; the data, therefore, are being made available to other archaeologists working in the Petén.
James Wiseman, a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY, is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.