Week 6 of SCRAP Online Reading Group = Ethics and Lidar!

Thank you to Adrian Chase and Dr. Sherman Horn III for joining in on our reading group this week, which focused on the ethical considerations surrounding Lidar data in Maya archaeology. Thank you also to our ‘regulars’ and ‘newcomers’ in North America and Belize for your enthusiastic attendance and participation in our 2-hour-long conversation. See below for a very brief summary of the article and our discussion questions, which served to direct our conversation (at times).


Chase, A., Chase, D., & Chase, A. (2020). Ethics, New Colonialism, and Lidar Data: A Decade of Lidar in Maya Archaeology. Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology X(X): 1-12. DOI: https:/doi.org/10.5334/jcaa.43

This week’s reading was chosen by Meaghan, due to its admirable attempt to outline many of the complex ethical issues we too have been tackling prior to, during, and following the collection of our newly acquired Lidar data for the Pearce area of the Cockscomb Basin (20 km2). The issues addressed include ethical considerations, such as openness/access to and sovereignty over data; stewardship and storage considerations; issues of illicit activities; concerns of and advantages (or disadvantages) to rights-holders, stakeholders, and interest groups (lumped together as ‘stakeholders’ in the article); the imposition of (primarily) North American views and their application to ‘local’ communities in other countries; and much more. The authors contextualize each of these within the use of Lidar in Maya archaeology, particularly highlighting case studies from the Caracol Project and the Belize Valley Consortium.

Possible Discussion Questions

  1. How has the use of Lidar impacted our vision and interpretations of the past in the Maya world, and the priorities/focus/opportunities of Maya archaeology and archaeologists in general? Does it truly represent a ‘paradigm shift’ (i.e. a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions)? Consider the following
    • Topics of study and issues of bottom-up, middle-out, and top-down approaches.
    • Those who participate in data acquisition and use.
    • Hierarchies of researchers, universities, sites, etc.
  2. Is there any way to use Lidar data to help turn/reform/engage looters and their knowledge (vs. just saying we cannot release it because they will do bad with it)? Consider crowdsourcing programs such as those that work to engage metal detectorists in the UK and farmers in Alberta.
  3. How do the rights (‘real’ or ‘perceived’) of Indigenous communities in Belize fit into this discussion—given that we work closely with Maya communities in Stann Creek—where issues of land claims/titles and economic development are particularly contentious (also related to question 4)? How does this relate to UNDRIP?
  4. Although the article rightfully addresses a potential new colonialism related to foreign researchers and other individual/group activities, what of the role of ‘old’ colonialism (e.g. the British government structure of Belize’s government [including the IA] and the under-representation of Indigenous peoples within these structures)? How does this type of data serve to prop up potential myths/nationalist agendas of the nation-state?
  5. How do we better navigate these issues as archaeologists given our potentially turbulent position as community-engaged researchers who are attempting to move toward more community-based archaeology, who are in direct face-to-face contact with multiple rights holders, stakeholders, and interest groups, while at the same time serving as representatives of the State, in that our research activities are permitted through the Government of Belize and most of our university/college affiliations and granting bodies represent colonial education/academic systems from abroad?