Modern technology reveals old secrets about the great, white Maya road

Did a powerful queen of Cobá, one of the greatest cities of the ancient Maya world, build the longest Maya road to invade a smaller, isolated neighbor and gain a foothold against the emerging Chichén Itzá empire?
The question has long intrigued Traci Ardren, archaeologist and University of Miami professor of anthropology. Now, she and fellow scholars may be a step closer to an answer, after conducting the first lidar study of the 100-kilometer stone highway that connected the ancient cities of Cobá and Yaxuná on the Yucatan Peninsula 13 centuries ago.
Once used mainly by meteorologists to study clouds, lidar — short for “light detection and ranging” — technology is revolutionizing archaeology by enabling archaeologists to detect, measure, and map structures hidden beneath dense vegetation that, in some cases, has grown for centuries, engulfing entire cities. Often deployed from low-flying aircraft, lidar instruments fire rapid pulses of laser light at a surface, and then measure the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back. The differences in the times and wavelengths of the bounce are then used to create digital 3D maps of hidden surface structures.
The lidar study, which Ardren and fellow researchers with the Proyecto de Interaccion del Centro de Yucatan (PIPCY) conducted in 2014 and 2017 of Sacbe 1 — or White Road 1, as the white plaster-coated thoroughfare was called — may shed light on the intentions of Lady K’awiil Ajaw, the warrior queen who Ardren believes commissioned its construction at the turn of the 7th century.
In an analysis of the lidar study, recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers identified more than 8,000 tree-shrouded structures of varying sizes along the sacbe — with enough total volume to fill approximately 2,900 Olympic swimming pools. The study also confirmed that the road, which measures about 26 feet …
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