Matthew Cardona is a master’s student in geospatial services at the Northeastern University. In 2014, Cardona visited his father’s childhood home in Guatemala, where the walls were lined with boxes and buckets filled with recently unearthed Mayan artefacts. He saw intricate pottery and obsidian masks and knives, which were being packed up and moved off site. In 2018, he could investigate the origin of these artefacts as part of a class on remote sensing for archaeology. Looking through satellite images on his laptop, he noticed unusual shapes in the landscape, which he believed to be undiscovered Mayan ruins near his extended family’s farm in southeastern Guatemala.
According to Cardona these hills didn’t look natural. They looked like they were put there by somebody. When he presented his preliminary findings to the class, his professor was skeptical. He recruited two other graduate students in geospatial services, Rebecca Greber and Elizabeth Krueger, to join Cardona for an independent study focusing on Mayan archaeology. The group pulled data and images from Google Earth Engine, an online repository of satellite and other remote-sensing data going back to the 1970s, to search the area for signs of ancient Mayan sites. Some of those signs were hidden in plain sight. By overlaying maps in elevation with satellite imagery, the group created 3D maps of the landscape, and looked for hills that seemed too regular to occur naturally. Those features could be the remains of Mayan pyramids or other architecture.
For other evidence, they covered the soil of the area scanned its crops. If there’s suddenly a really weird pattern in the middle of a field that doesn’t connect with any of the farming activities, it can indicate there might be some kind of structure in the near surface. They found eight “features of interest” that matched up with well-known aspects of Mayan architecture. Cardona presented the findings at Draper Laboratory, where he works, and the group is in the process of publishing a paper in a journal that focuses on using remote sensing to study cultural heritage sites. They hope to be able to travel to Guatemala to confirm its findings in person, by conducting surveys using aerial drones or eventually excavating some of the sites.
Shahjadi Jemim Rahman