Mapping the Past With LiDAR, But What is LiDAR?

In the modern world, technology often forms a core part of archeological work. LiDAR technology is one such development that is used across the archeological sphere to help map ancient landscapes and discover the secrets of the past.

LiDAR has been used for everything from looking for legendary lost cities hidden deep in the jungle to exploring sprawling ancient settlements in the cold landscape of Scotland, to uncovering unknown secrets at famous sites such as Stonehenge. 

While LiDAR is used in the archeological and historical  fields, this fascinating technology has also been implemented to improve agricultural practices. LiDAR even has application across the universe, with the technology used to help missions as far away as Mars. 

So, just what is LiDAR and how is it being used to uncover the past and help map out of the future? 


What is LiDAR? 

LiDAR, an acronym standing for light detection and ranging, is a a way of measuring distance and ranges using light and laser imaging.

This method is implemented by targeting an area or object with a laser, the time it takes for the laser to then bounce back off the object or area is then measured in order for the overall range, shape and/or distance to be worked out.

Lidar screenshot of medieval ridge and furrow
Lidar screenshot of medieval ridge and furrow

LiDAR scans can either operate on a fixed point or scan in various directions. When scanning is conducted in multiple directions it is sometimes referred to as ‘3D laser scanning.’

Read More: 6000 Years of Rich Archaeology Revealed by Historic England

LiDAR has a multitude of uses and is implemented across a wide variety of industries and fields. One of the most common uses for LiDAR technology is in th creation of high resolution maps.

The technology can be used to make comprehensive and detailed maps of areas of the Earth’s surface, and has even been used to create maps of the ocean floor. The technology has also been used in the navigational systems of autonomous cars and even in space vessels used above the surface of Mars. 

From Agriculture to Archaeology 

The wide application for LiDAR technology means it has been used in everything from agricultural practices to archaeological surveys.

In agriculture, topographical data gained from the implementation of LiDAR, can help to reveal the best places for the planting of crops to maximise yield, alongside helping to determine information such as the most economical and effective placement for fertilisers and other costly products. 

Plant and crop monitoring and determining what areas of vineyards and croplands need pruning or harvesting can be assisted with LiDAR technology on large agricultural institutions.

Lidar scan of Celtic Field Systems in Dorset
Lidar scan of Celtic Field Systems in Dorset

The monitoring of insect species has even been conducted with the assistance of LiDAR technology.

Read More: Iron Age Trackways That You Can Still Walk Today

In the archaeological fields, LiDAR has innumerable applications. One of the most common implementations of LiDAR technology in archaeology is the creation of detailed maps and models of archaeological sites.

This is particularly valuable for areas of interest that may be difficult to access or have an obstructed aerial view due to things like heavy foliage cover. 

Deserted medieval village picked up beautifully with LiDAR on a mobile phone
Deserted medieval village picked up beautifully with LiDAR on a mobile phone

LiDAR is also particularly valuable in an archaeological setting as it can give an overview of large ground level features that may not be immediately obvious or distinguishable from the natural land formation when at ground level.

However, the use of LiDAR can go even further than just mapping archaeological features at the ground level.

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

LiDAR scans, particularly when incorporating infrared features, can even be used to detect forms buried underneath fields and other flat vegetated surfaces.

New Insights into Well Known Monuments With LiDAR

LiDAR scans haven’t just been used to discover new archaeological features but have also been used to give new insights into some of the best known ancient monuments in Britain.

LiDAR technology has been used to scan the Stonehenge site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably one of the most famous ancient sites in the British Isles.

While throughout history Stonehenge has been extensively studied, the use of LiDAR technology revealed more of the ancient monument’s secrets.

LiDAR has opened up a whole new world of study of Stonehenge

 Using LiDAR alongside other scanning and detection tools, remarkable discoveries, such as the remains of an ancient timber structure thought to have been used for burials and rituals, dating back to 6,000 years ago, was found.

The use of these new technologies at the Stonehenge site also revealed evidence of sixty stone pillars across an area reaching 1.5 kilometres.

Read More: A Graveyard of our Ancestors – 4000 Years Old

Many experts believe that as LiDAR technology becomes more widely used, Stonehenge will not be the only ancient wonder that is found to have more secrets to reveal. 

Scanning an Ancient World 

As well as large discoveries at ancient monument sites, LiDAR scans can help to give insights into the everyday lives of people across Britain’s history.

LiDAR has implications for analysing the changing nature of historic towns and settlements and for determining agricultural practices and the continuity and evolution of agriculture across history.

As many of the remnants of such archaeological structures and practices are easily mistakable for the natural rises and falls of the landscape, the capabilities of LiDAR to model large areas so that these landmarks can be better distinguished is particularly valuable.

Scan of a World War One training camp
Lidar scanning allows a deeper survey of what lies beneath the surface revealing the remains of a World War One training camp

Areas across southern England that have been centres for human settlements throughout British history have been marked as places of particular interest for implementing the use of LiDAR technology. 

Implementing LiDAR technology to uncover and analyse the human history of Britain has already yielded some fascinating results, and not only at the Stonehenge site. The level of artefacts and areas of historic significance that LiDAR can reveal is truly impressive.

Read More: Menhirs Date From the Neolithic, But What are They?

In 2019, a team scanning the small island of Arran located in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland reported finding close to one thousand previously unknown sites of historic significance.

These ancient sites ranged in age from Neolithic times to discoveries of medieval farms. 

Similar to in Scotland, scans covering an area of just over 300 square kilometres north of Chichester uncovered what is likely a road dating all the way to the time of Roman Britain. A discovery that it is thought would not have been made without the use of LiDAR. 

Thousands of Years of History at Tap O’Noth 

Another ancient structure that owes many of its more recent rediscoveries and analysis to LiDAR technology is Tap O’Noth. The historic hill fort found just south of Huntley in Aberdeenshire has yielded fascinating archaeological finds, including an axe head thought to have been created between 2000 BC – 800 BC.

Scan of Tap O'Noth 
Tap O’Noth LiDAR results

As well as the axe head, bronze reign rings dating all the way back to the first to third century AD have also been uncovered.

However, perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Scotland’s Tap O’Noth hillfort is its impressive size. The overall structure, including its accompanying ancient settlement, stretches over an area of seven hectares.

Read More: The Mass Viking Burial Pit on the South Dorset Ridgeway

While artefacts such as the ancient axehead have been found at the site, suggesting a settlement at Tap O’Noth in the early days of British civilisation, the hillfort structures themselves are thought to have been built at Tap O’Noth between the third and sixth centuries AD. 

Part of uncovering the large size of Tap O’Noth was down to analysis and mapping with LiDAR technology.

Through utilising this technology it was discovered that Tap O’Noth was larger than previously believed, incorporating a settlement that contained as many as 800 huts and may have had a population of as many as 4,000 people. 

Read More: The Largest Pre-Historic Hillforts you Should Visit

With partly Pictish roots, Tap O’Noth represents a new opportunity for the application of LiDAR to uncover other monuments and sites linked to the Picts, a group that extensive archeological evidence of can be notoriously difficult to uncover.

By finding new ancient monuments, structures, and objects through the use of technology, a better overall picture can be built as to what the lives of ancient people, such as the Picts, may have looked like. 

Forts, Ancient Civilizations and the City of the Monkey God 

It isn’t just in Britain that LiDAR has been used to discover the secrets of the past. In Canada, LiDAR helped to reveal features of a fort that was involved in sieges in the 1700s, features that were unable to be noticed either from examination at ground level or with aerial photography. 

Scan of a lost city of up to 60,000 buildings, buried for centuries beneath the Guatemalan jungle.
Archaeologists unveiled an incredible discovery – a lost city of up to 60,000 buildings, buried for centuries beneath the Guatemalan jungle.

In 2012, LiDAR was integral in mapping and discovering ancient cities and roadways built by the Mayans. This included the discovery of in excess of 60,000 ancient man made structures.

Read More: A Trip Along Watling Street, The Longest Roman Road in Britain 

Meanwhile, in Honduras, LiDAR technology was used in the search for the legendary City of the Monkey God; the efforts to find the legendary city did result in discovering evidence of some man-made structures in the region. 

LiDAR A Whole New Era of Discovery 

The application of technology and systems such as LiDAR creates endless opportunities for better exploring the past. The use of LiDAR has already been a part of fascinating discoveries, from new structures at Stonehenge to evidence of extensive settlements at Scotland’s Tap O’Noth.

Which Website to Use?

You can check out and to explore the world of LiDAR

LiDAR has been used around the world to gain insights into the lives of people and the rise and fall of civilisations throughout history. LiDAR offers a way to discover the remnants of the past that can’t be distinguished using ground level or aerial investigations.

Read More: Crop Marks, Natures’ History Trail

From helping to explore the distant lands of Mars to finding the secrets of the past, LiDAR offers an incredible way to create the world of tomorrow and uncover the world of yesterday. 

Scan of Oakley Down Barrow Bronze Age Cemetery.
Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery. The cemetery is book ended by, top left of the scan of Neolithic Long Barrow, and the Roman road that is as straight as a gun barrel, right of the image.

The use of  LiDAR technology has vast applications and helps to open up a whole new world of discovery.

Here are ten ways to use LiDAR in research:

  1. Environmental Conservation: can be used to monitor and map ecosystems, track changes in forest cover, assess deforestation, and monitor wildlife habitats.
  2. Archaeology: helps discover hidden archaeological features such as ancient ruins, burial sites, and lost cities by creating detailed digital elevation models.
  3. Geological Studies: Researchers can use the tech to study geological formations, map fault lines, and monitor landslides, as well as to assess the impact of earthquakes.
  4. Flood Modeling: data can be used to create accurate floodplain models, predict flood risk, and plan flood mitigation strategies.
  5. Urban Planning: aids in urban planning by creating 3D city models, assessing building heights, monitoring urban growth, and planning infrastructure development.
  6. Agriculture: helps optimize agriculture by assessing crop health, measuring vegetation density, and monitoring soil erosion.
  7. Forestry: Foresters use it to estimate timber volume, plan forest management, assess tree health, and monitor invasive species.
  8. Meteorology and Climate Studies: used in atmospheric research to measure cloud heights, track wind patterns, and study aerosol concentrations.
  9. Topographic Mapping: creates highly accurate topographic maps, aiding in land-use planning, engineering design, and resource management.
  10. Transportation Planning: data assists in transportation research by analyzing road conditions, mapping traffic flow, and planning public transportation routes.

These applications highlight the versatility and importance of this technology in advancing scientific research and understanding our environment.