Archaeology breakthrough: 1,300-year-old Mayan secret exposed by laser technology

The breakthrough was made in Coba, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, and could reveal secrets of how this civilisation was connected with smaller, isolated neighbours to gain a foothold against the emerging Chichen Itza empire. A team of experts at the University of Miami, led by Traci Ardren, conducted the first LIDAR study of a 62-mile stone road that connected the ancient cities of Coba and Yuxana 13 centuries ago. Deployed from low-flying aircraft, LIDAR fired rapid pulses of laser lights at the surface, and then measured the amount of time it took for each pulse to bounce back – the difference allowing them to create a 3D map of hidden features.

Conducted between 2014 and 2017, the results of their experiment was posted in the Journal of Archaeological Science last month, where they identified 8,000 tree-shrouded structures of varying sizes along the passageway.

The study also confirmed that the road, which measures about 26 feet across, is not a straight line, as has been assumed since the Thirties, when it was measured with tape and a compass.

Dr Ardren said on February 19: “LIDAR really allowed us to understand the road in much greater detail. 

“It helped us identify many new towns and cities along the road – new to us, but preexisting the road.

LIDAR really allowed us to understand the road in much greater detail

Traci Ardren

“We also now know the road is not straight, which suggests it was built to incorporate these preexisting settlements, and that has interesting geopolitical implications. 

“This road was not just connecting Coba and Yaxuna, it connected thousands of people who lived in the intermediary region.”

The team think the road was built by the stronghold in Coba in an attempt to fight off a power struggle with Chichen Itza in the eighth century.

Dr Ardren added: “I personally think the rise of Chichen Itza and its allies motivated the road.

“It was built just before 700, at the end of the Classic Period, when Coba is making a big push to expand. 

“It’s trying to hold on to its power, so with the rise of Chichen Itza, it needed a stronghold in the centre of the peninsula. 

“The road is one of the last-gasp efforts of Coba to maintain its power. 

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“And we believe it may have been one of the accomplishments of K’awiil Ajaw, who is documented as having conducted wars of territorial expansion.”

So far, the researchers have excavated a few areas at the edge of both Coba and Yaxuna, but they are planning a third dig this summer to understand more.

Dr Ardren says the road was as much an engineering marvel as the monumental pyramids the Maya erected across southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras.

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