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Drone Helps Archaeologists Discover Tomb Containing 72 Ancient Skeletons in Canary Islands

BY Zacc Dukowitz
5 March 2020

A drone recently helped archaeologists make a huge discovery on the island of Gran Canaria, one of the biggest and most populated of the islands that make up the Canaries.

In a cave located seven meters (23 feet) off the ground in the Valley of Guayadequeon archaeologists found the mummified remains of 72 members of the pre-Hispanic Guanche civilization (the name of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canaries).

Given the high concentration of remains found, it appears that the cave served as a burial place for the Guanche.

The archaeologists who made the discovery were part of an amateur archaeology group called “El Legado” (The Legacy), who were on vacation on the island. It is very unlikely they would have found these remains without the use of a drone, since accessing the cave was difficult and required climbing gear.

We were flying a drone and we took some pictures of the cave. It is in a very difficult place to access and you need to climb a cliff to reach the site. People thought the photos were fake because of all the bones there.

– Ayose Himar Gonzalez, Amateur Archaeologist and Co-Founder of El Legado

The cave was discovered in June but its existence has been kept a secret from the public until now, including from authorities in the Canaries, to protect it from looters and vandals.

The remains that El Legado found include the bones of 62 adults and 10 newborns. The discovery has been confirmed by Spanish archaeologist Veronica Alberto and Spanish culture councilor Javier Velasco, who have established that the cave dates back to between the 8th and 10th centuries.

The Guanche people followed the same ritual process to prepare each of the 72 bodies found for burial, which included the use of burial shrouds traditionally made of animal skin or vegetable fibres.

Although Gran Canaria contains over 1,200 archaeological sites, this drone-supported discovery is definitely one of the top finds.

There are many burial caves in Gran Canaria, but not many like this one.

– Veronica Alberto, Archaeologist

Archaeology and Drones

While the amateur archaeologists who found the ancient tomb in the Canaries were using their drone as a tool to collect remote visual data, one of the most common ways drones are used in archaeology these days is with a LiDAR sensor attached to it.

In fact, drones equipped with LiDAR sensors are so revolutionary to archaeological work that some in the field have called them a quantum leap for archaeology.

What Is LiDAR?

Depending on who you ask, LiDAR is an acronym for Light Detection And Ranging or Light Imaging, Detection, And Ranging. Either way, it’s a word that refers to using both light and radar for imaging.

[Related reading: LiDAR for Drones: The Groundbreaking Technology that’s Changing the Way We See the World]

LiDAR works by sending a pulsed laser light to the object being surveyed and measuring differences in the amount of time it takes for the laser to return. The process is similar to how sonar works by bouncing sound waves off an object to indicate the distance to different points on it.

Once LiDAR data is collected, it can then be used to make digital 3D-representations of the object or area being surveyed.

How Archaeologists Use Drones Equipped with LiDAR

Because LiDAR can penetrate obstacles on the surface of land, like foliage and dirt, it can be used to create an image of things that can’t be seen with the naked eye. This means that a LiDAR sensor attached to a drone can help archaeologists capture data that might reveal an ancient temple concealed by jungle forest, or a structure buried just beneath the earth.

As you can imagine, the ability to “see” below obstacles from the air is incredibly useful to archaeologists, and represents an even better method for surveying an area than walking it on foot, looking for possible sites with the naked eye.

And LiDAR is useful to archaeologists not just to help them discover new sites, but also to help them better understand existing ones. Because LiDAR can provide details about a site without actually touching it, LiDAR can be a powerful way for archaeologists to better understand an area without having to do any digging or taking other more invasive actions and potentially harming the ruins they’re studying.

Archaeological Sites Discovered by Drones

Here are some of the archaeological discoveries made in the last few years using drones (both equipped with LiDAR and without).

Angkor Wat (Cambodia)

In Angkor Wat, archaeologists used LiDAR to discover a city hidden underneath the famous ruin site—watch this short video from the Smithsonian to see how it was done:

How LIDAR Scans Reveal Angkor's Hidden City

El Mirador (Guatemala)

In Guatemala, archaeologists used LiDAR to survey a 430-mile area of jungle in the El Mirador basin and discovered several remnants of Mayan civilization, such as huge roads and vast networks of temples.

The discoveries in El Mirador were so significant that they have led researchers to rethink their opinions about the development of Mayan culture, since they indicated a high level of cultural and technical sophistication at a much more ancient time than current archeological theories had posited.


Henge Near Newgrange Tomb (Ireland)

Thanks to drought and the use of a drone to get an aerial view, a new henge (a prehistoric circular monument made of stone or wood) was discovered in Newgrange, Ireland near the site of a 5,000 year-old tomb.

Michael MacDonagh, Chief Archaeologist for Ireland’s National Monuments Service, described the discovery as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.

Giant Late Neolithic henge discovered near Newgrange - aerial footage

Sand Canyon Pueblo (United States)

A LiDAR-equipped drone helped surveyors and archaeologists gather data that led to the discovery of new 750-year-old structures in the Sand Canyon Pueblo, an area known for having the highest density of archaeological sites in the U.S.

Among the new structures discovered were several ancient kivas covered in earth.

Mapping Sand Canyon Pueblo with the Routescene UAV LiDAR Solution

Excited about the ways that drones with LiDAR can help archaeologists make new discoveries? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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