Engineering Discovery

Posted Thursday, April 5, 2018 at 11:03 AM

"Engineers not only shape the future, they unlock mysteries of the past."

Engineering Discovery

PostedThursday, April 5, 2018 at 11:56 AM

Kate Gramling
Kate Gramling
Engineering Discovery

Earlier this year, scientists announced the startling discovery of an unknown, ancient ‘megalopolis’ under the jungles of Guatemala. The revelation of this vast network of cities completely changes scientific thinking about the size and culture of the Mayan empire, which reached its peak around 1200 years ago. 

This discovery was made possible by a technology known as LiDAR, which is shorthand for “Light Detection And Ranging”. Originally developed in the 1960’s, engineers have been working with scientists and other professionals to develop dozens of applications for LiDAR.

In archeology, LiDAR is used to map ground features hidden under forest canopies and to identify large features impossible to see in a ground survey. The high-resolution digital models produced from LiDAR data can even reveal small features buried below level, grassy fields. This makes it easier for scientists to plan excavations, which are often still necessary to develop a complete understanding of the site.

Sometimes, however, LiDAR surveys have revealed information that forces archeologists revaluate what they know. The survey in Guatemala, for example, revealed over 60,000 man-made structures including elevated highways, complex irrigations systems, and numerous defensive features like ramparts and forts. The scale of the discovery made it clear that traditionally accepted estimates for the size of the Mayan civilization were wrong.

Find out more about the “Maya Megalopolis” in this article from National Geographic.

A similar shift in what we know about an ancient culture took place in 2013, when a LiDAR survey around Angkor Wat in Cambodia revealed the ancient city surrounding the temples covered over 380 square miles! The engineered waterworks alone would have made the city the most advanced in the medieval world.

These kinds of discoveries are possible when engineers and scientists work together. A lot of cutting edge science now involves advanced technologies: sophisticated scanners, autonomous or remote-controlled machines, computer models and advanced computing systems, powerful photographic and analytical tools… 

Engineers — professional problem-solvers and masters of making and improving technology — are often important members of scientific teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how engineering has shaped and continues to shape the process of scientific discovery.


What other technologies have engineers adapted for use in archaeology?


Photo courtesy of PhilippN: Site of Calakmul, Mexico; found on Wikipedia

Filed Under Special fields and Interdisciplinary Computer Electrical Industrial Computers Environment Machines