Maya Archaeology

In the dense jungle canopies of Central America and the Yucatan, much of what remains of the Maya civilization remains hidden from view. While important archaeological sites have been discovered and are now iconic tourist destinations, an understanding of how the Maya used the land – the extent of their settlements, the organization of towns and spheres of influences – is yet unknown. Currently, remote sensing technologies that can see through the thick canopy exist, but they are prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the convergence of aerial drones and light-weight advanced sensor packages such as LiDAR, have just now opened the door to creating the disruptive technology needed to explore the hidden secrets of the Maya. The goal of this project is to create the proof-of-concept realization of this drone technology for the jungle.


Guatemala The Guatemala project is a collaboration between several organizations, Jason Paterniti (GEOS), Tom Garrison (USC), Edwin Roman-Ramirez (UT Austin), Ryan Kastner, Albert Lin and Curt Schurgers (UCSD, E4E, QI, NatGeo).

The project started in 2014 with two expeditions to Guatemala. Albert, Ryan, Curt, Perry Naughton, Eric Lo, and Dominique Meyer, traveled to Guatemala in February to evaluate Quadcopters as a method of surveying jungle-bound archaeological sites. The second expedition, in May, focused on data gathering and survey techniques in several archeological sites, some of which contained Maya tombs. Curt and Ryan returned to Guatemala, and brought Dustin Richmond, David Dantas, and Sabrina Trinh. The latest deployment was in June 2016, when PhD student Quentin Gautier focused on evaluating mobile remote sensing devices to scan the archaeological excavations.

Leaders / Contact

Guatemala The Guatemala project has two areas: Aerial Surveys led by Eric and Dominique, and Archaeological Documentation led by Quentin, and previously by Dustin.

You can also join our Google Group to get involved.

Aerial Surveys

Archaeological Documentation

Scanning Masks in Maya Temples Most Maya ruins are hidden under dense jungle. As a consequence, many sites that are not popular tourist destinations, yet instrumental in understanding Maya culture, are seen by very few people. Items found during excavation are typically claimed for preservation in museums. Large exhibits such as temple structures, by virtue of being buildings, cannot be demonstrated to a wider audience. Our goal is to change how archaeological finds are shared by exploring digital methods for documentation and visualization.

The Archeological documentation project has two aims: lower the cost of digital documentation by experimenting with data collection methods, and expand distribution by creating visualizations. These methods include stereo-panoramic cameras, LiDAR, and experimental remote sensing systems based on the Microsoft Kinect camera or the Google Tango tablet. In prior expeditions to Guatemala, we brought a ground-based LiDAR system for high resolution scans of these large excavated temples. One method we are particularly excited about is Structure from Motion (SfM), a low cost technique for generating 3D models using photos from a traditional camera. This group is seeking highly motivated individuals to build data collection infrastructure for expeditions.

Below, is a fly-through video created from a composite point cloud generated from 50 LIDAR scans.

This video is of a point cloud generated by taking pictures of a stucco mask inside of an excavated temple on the site.


  • Goals:
    • Assist in the search for Maya archeological sites, particularly housing sites through the use of low-cost, foliage penetrating, Aerial LiDAR
    • Assist in the documentation of current excavations using new technologies and methods
    • Develop new technologies to expedite data gathering
  • Intro Projects:
    • Capture a 3D object using Structure from Motion and the demo software from the Agisoft website
    • Build (or design) a camera tripod from common materials (wood, pipes, etc). Emphasis on simplicity, stability and extensibility.
    • Capture data from a Kinect (CloudCompare is one program that can do this.)
    • Design a camera mount that can slide along a pipe
  • Long Term Projects:
    • Develop tools for Structure from Motion (Software projects and Design-Use-Build projects)
    • Develop tools for aerial LiDAR
    • Create a point cloud gathering system (using a Kinect or a Google Tango)

In the Press

Calit2 Newsroom: Capturing Ancient Maya Sites from Both a Rat’s and a ‘Bat’s Eye View’ (Credit Tiffany Fox)

International Business Times: Drones, Lasers Help Archaeologists Study Ancient Mayan Ruins Hidden In Guatemala Jungle

Phys Org: Capturing ancient Maya sites from both a rat’s and a ‘bat’s eye view’