In a single year, assistant professor Thomas Garrison and an international team of scholars uncovered over 60,000 structures from northern Guatemala’s thick jungles—without laying a hand on its trees.

Instead, they used LiDAR, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser, to sift millennia-old architecture from the equally ancient vegetation blanketing Guatemala’s sprawling canopies. Using 3D imaging software, previously unknown pyramids, palaces, defense systems, and agricultural methods can now be seen.

“You have an idea that there’s some little stuff on the hills,” says Tom, commenting on the near-impossible task of excavating forests as dense as northern Guatemala’s without harming the environment, “but the LiDAR lets you see it in its totality.”

Even with an understanding of LiDAR’s potential in current and future archeological endeavors, Tom still finds himself surprised by the invaluable discoveries the technology reveals. 

“Frankly, LiDAR is turning our discipline on its head.”

Indeed, this survey, a collaboration between archaeologists from the U.S., Europe and Guatemala, and the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan philanthropic and cultural heritage preservation organization, produced the single largest data set of its kind. This achievement not only landed Tom a spot on National Geographic’s documentary, “Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake King," but also has him looking eagerly toward his next large-scale survey of ancient Mesoamerican life using LiDAR.