23 February 2006

NASA, University Scientists Uncover Lost Maya Ruins from Space
Science team will refine remote sensing tools to find other ancient sites

Washington -- NASA and university scientists are using space- and aircraft-based remote-sensing technology to uncover Mayan ruins in Guatemala using the chemical signature of the civilization’s ancient building materials, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center announced February 15.

A chemical signature refers to the unique collection of chemicals that makes up a specific substance. Like a fingerprint, a chemical signature differentiates one material from another.

Remains of the ancient Maya culture, mysteriously destroyed at the height of its reign in the ninth century, have been hidden in the rain forests of Central America for more than 1,000 years.

NASA archaeologist Tom Sever and scientist Dan Irwin, both from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, are teaming with William Saturno, an archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire, to find the ruins of the ancient culture.

Under a NASA Space Act Agreement with the University of New Hampshire, a science team will visit Guatemala every year through 2009, with the support of the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History and the Department of Pre-Hispanic Monuments.

The team will verify its research and continue refining their remote sensing tools to help lead explorers to other ancient ruins and conduct Earth science research in the region.

“From the air, everything but the tops of very few surviving pyramids are hidden by the tree canopy,” said Sever, a pioneer in the use of aerospace remote sensing for archaeology.

“On the ground,” he added, “the 60- to 100-foot [18- to 30.5-meter] trees and dense undergrowth can obscure objects as close as 10 feet [3 meters] away. Explorers can stumble right through an ancient city that once housed thousands and never even realize it.”

Sever has explored the capacity of remote sensing technology and the science of collecting information about the Earth’s surface using aerial or space-based photography to serve archeology.

He and Irwin gave Saturno high-resolution commercial satellite images of the rain forest, and collected data from NASA’s Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar, an instrument flown aboard a high-altitude weather plane that can penetrate clouds, snow and forest canopies.

The resulting Earth observations have helped the team survey an uncharted region around San Bartolo, Guatemala. They discovered a link between the color and reflectivity of the vegetation in the images -- their signature -- and the location of known archaeological sites.

The Mayan civilization once extended to parts of what is now Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and most of Guatemala and Belize.

From the third century to the ninth century, Maya civilization produced temples and pyramids, highly accurate calendars, mathematics and hieroglyphic writing and a complex social and political order.

But mounting archeological evidence indicates that the once vast Mayan civilization, with 10 million citizens throughout Mesoamerica a thousand years ago, might have collapsed due to colossal environmental problems.

"The Maya had totally destroyed their forests," Irwin explains. "That deforestation and local climatic conditions, we believe, led to such a severe drought that ... the entire Maya culture disappeared in just a few years."

The more we know about the plight of the Maya, he added, “the better our chances of avoiding something similar.”

Another aspect of the research involved using climate models to determine the effects of Maya-driven deforestation on ancient Mesoamerican climate.

The goal was to determine whether deforestation can lead to droughts and if the activities of the ancient Maya drove the environmental changes that undermined their civilization.

Extending benefits of remote-sensing technologies is part of NASA’s Earth-Sun System Division. NASA is conducting a long-term research effort to learn how natural and human-induced changes affect the global environment, and to provide critical benefits to society today.

Sever and Irwin conduct research at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Alabama, a cooperative science venture between NASA’s Marshall Center, Alabama universities, industry and federal agencies.

Additional information is available National Space Science and Technology Center Web site.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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