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"Lost" New England Revealed by High-Tech Archaeology

Locator-Map showing location of images in southeastern Connecticut.


Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published January 3, 2014

New England's woody hills and dales hide a secret—they weren't always forested. Instead, many were once covered with colonial roads and farmsteads.

This "lost" New England of the colonial era has started to emerge, thanks to archaeologists piercing the forests with the latest in high-tech scanners, called light detection and ranging (LiDAR). In the images above, LiDAR reveals farm walls, roads and homesteads hidden within Connecticut's Pachaug State Forest. Dating to the 18th Century, the farmsteads were abandoned in the 1950's.

The airborne technology bounces laser light pulses off the ground to generate precise pictures of surface features. A quiet revolution in archaeology has resulted from LiDAR's advent, with scholars making new discoveries by using the technology to look at Maya cities, Stonehenge's plains, and Renaissance palaces, among other places. (See also: "Pictures: Massive Maya City Revealed by Lasers.")

To find out more, National Geographic spoke with Katharine Johnson of the University of Connecticut, co-author of a Journal of Archaeological Science study, about her research, which used LiDAR to reveal "numerous archaeological sites" in three areas of Connecticut and Massachusetts—the landscape made famous by some of North America's earliest European settlers.

What made you want to look for a "lost" New England?

I grew up in Rhode Island, and as a kid playing in the woods we all knew there were these stone walls and building foundations that were abandoned. They had a mystical, historical quality to them.

I've done a lot of applied archaeology in the region and knew there were a lot of sites that don't appear in historical records. With LiDAR becoming available through a [U.S. Department of Agriculture] survey in New England, it seemed worth looking.

How did parts of New England become "lost" anyway?

A great deal of New England is now forested, and a lot of people don't know it wasn't always that way. There was a lot of subsistence farming across New England, but with industrialization and people heading west to farm, people abandoned these homesteads and the forests started covering everything.

What's so great about LiDAR?

Similar to seeing Maya pyramids emerging from the forest, we can see sites that we couldn't any other way. I literally walk into the woods with GPS coordinates from LiDAR and find a foundation I would never have imagined was there.

Before, we only had ten-foot [three-meter] resolution with LiDAR, but we are able to show now with 1-meter [3.2-foot] resolution that we can detect walls, roads, and other features. We can actually see them under the trees.

What are the limitations?

Native Americans didn't leave behind walls and foundations in New England. LiDAR can't tell us as much directly about their era. We can look for sites where they may have left a mark on the landscape.

One other thing we are demonstrating is that this works well with historical records. You can show that boundaries we are still living with today actually date to the 1700s in some towns and places. (Also see: "Manhattan 1609 vs. 2009: Natural Wonder to Urban Jungle.")

How much potential do you see in LiDAR?

It's amazing trying to compare the difference with the things we found. Walk out to the middle of part of a forest and you would have no idea this was once a cornfield.

With LiDAR we can actually do area surveys that show comprehensively what was once there, not just what has turned up randomly over time. A lot of people don't realize that there has been a lost cultural frontier in New England that we are only discovering now.

Can you imagine a Maya archaeologist looking at your LiDAR readings and speculating on the "collapse" of New England's civilization?

Well, it wasn't such a dramatic collapse. But it certainly would be near and dear to an honest understanding of the population change in New England from 1770 to 1930. (Read about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)

We certainly understand it a lot better than the Maya, but it is remarkable that in northeastern Connecticut we can see some old roads in the woods that were once whole neighborhoods [and are now] just abandoned.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

Detlef Rothe
Detlef Rothe

In the forest areas of Germany (for example: Sauerland as a part of Westphalia or the Black Forest - in the german language: Schwarzwald) are landscape features as sunken roads, stone and earth walls, artificial plains and so on which have not been examined because of the difficult status of the wood. There have been strong storms in the years behind us, so walking through the forest will be very dangerous - laser/LiDAR scanning would be a senseful method to have a look at the sites. Unfortunely only less places has been examined using laser altimetry - I hope that there will be more use and more results in future which give us an idea how - for example - roman places like Arbalo and Caput Juliae in the Germania Libera (Magna) looked like when they were in use. Also the place of the "clades Variana" (9 past Chr.) has still to be explored, and the battlefield at Kalkriese might have a clearer look after using scanning (perhaps the vallum can be followed between Chasuvarian and Angrivarian "territory").

Stephen Pool
Stephen Pool

I used to work as a Land Surveyor in Rhode Island (1986-1989) and in the course of our routine surveys--usually for developers reclaiming "undeveloped" tracts of land for new construction--we always encountered remants of stone walls, Virginia rail fences and rusted strands of barbed wire in old, broad oaks. These earlier remants often became the property lines of later land divisions and the "evidence" we sought in tracing a parcel's boundaries. Apart from the LIDAR readings, it might prove beneficial to contact several local Land Surveyors in various regions to learn the anecdotal information and gather field reports of what is found in the course of daily surveys.

Frank Jenkins
Frank Jenkins

A walk in an urban park in the NW part of Seattle a while back showed this very thing once....under a dense 90 foot Cedar and Alder tree forest a quarter mile in from the Puget Sound - was once the old Piper family farmstead and orchards...we came across an old stone staircase in the middle of the woods, a broken beer stein handle and rising up ghost-like on the hillside to west, the ancient moss encrusted trunks of a cherry orchard, long since died away and now covered by the canopy of the silent deep forest. It was fun to imagine the vistas from the old porch of the long gone house, of rolling sun drenched hillsides with cherry blossom filled trees and the twinkling sea beyond, a hundred or more years covered with forest again...

Max Dawg
Max Dawg

A reader over at Archaeology Magazine already commented on the somewhat paradoxical exposition of LiDAR and New England indigenous archaeology in this interview (visit project descriptions on anthropology department homepages across the United States for more details), so I'll address only her statements on historical records. Archival maps and published base maps, at least in the paper and presentation, seem almost more crucial to her conclusions than the LiDAR images of foundations and fragmentary walls.  I'm also puzzled by her statements regarding subsistence farming in (late colonial?) MA and CT. Oh well, go LiDAR, go!

Paula Gremour
Paula Gremour

Coming from R.I., I found this exciting 

1  I also used to wander in the woods and find strange walls and wells and things that didn't seem to 'belong' in the woods....

dennis champney
dennis champney

It would be interesting to trace Knox's Trail. I remember as a child walking the ruts his cannons left in the ground in teh Berkshires of MA. 

Ricardo López-Torrijos
Ricardo López-Torrijos

This post points out an important way in which lidar is revolutionazing archaelogy: area surveys. Its ability to strip away the vegetation and reveal remains from the past is used not to get more details of a known site, as the "Maya City in 3-D" news post ( illustrated, but to do a fast survey of all possible sites in a large area. The article "Rosenswig, R.M. et al., 2013. Lidar mapping and surface survey of the Izapa state on the tropical piedmont of Chiapas, Mexico. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(3), pp.1493–1507" tells how this was done in the Soconusco area, between the Cahuacán and Suchiate Rivers off the Southern Mexico Pacific coast. The survey increased the number of archaelogical sites left by the Prehispanic kingdom of Izapa and its surrounding neighbors from a few dozen to many hundreds. Combined with on-site artifact collection and dating, it allowed the development of a timeline for the ebb and flow of the Soconusco city-states. Adding knowledge of the area's landscape changes in the last milleniums will bring next the possibility of understanding how political, economical and ecosystem events interplay to steer a people's history. Such new insights made possible by cross-disciplinary collaborations will be a rich trove of excitement for years to come!

David Anthony
David Anthony

Two decades ago, way up in Warren, NH, on the border of the White Mountain National Forest, I experienced exactly what is described in this article: The remains of several stone houses and roads deep in the woods.  It was amazing to see- the foundations of stone houses in a small meadow with what was certainly once a road but not a wide path in the woods.  

I even walked into one of the "houses" and could see the remains of what was certainly a stone fireplace.

I'm glad to learn of efforts to map out such lost New England history.

craig hill
craig hill

The dark green thickly wooded hill known as Hubbard Park just behind the Vermont state house in Montpelier was for over 150 years a pastureland for sheep. As the article states, few in New England are aware most of their land in states west of Maine were farm and pastureland. Now over 78% of the land in New Hampshire and 75% in Vermont are woods replete with stone walls.

Lynn Thornton
Lynn Thornton

Very interesting! As a Town Historian in Northern New York State, I deal with people who assume that the roads were always where they are now.  That sometimes makes it hard for them to realize that distances were different in the early 1800's - a mile is a mile, yes, but frequently the way they went was very different.  For example, it takes 6 miles to reach a rock quarry today that was three miles from a building site in 1820 because you must use today's roads, not the direct route the oxen would have used.

Loren Wilkinson
Loren Wilkinson

Fantastic! Mysteries abound all over the US. Keep up the good work. It's like an eye into our past. I'm excited and look forward to hearing more...

Evan C.
Evan C.

As someone who grew up in Western Massachusetts and played and hiked in the woods as a boy, this rang true for me. I can recall many seemingly random stone walls and old, stone building foundations in the woods that seemed to have no correlation to the property boundaries or roads of modern times. Vermont would be an excellent candidate for such a LiDAR survey since it was nearly completely deforested until the late 19th century when there was a massive effort to reforest. Surely, beneath all of the new trees must lie a network of farmsteads, logging roads and so forth. Much of it so remote that it has been truly lost.

Steve Shook
Steve Shook

Awesome Technology, I saw archaeologists in Egypt using this as well, there should be a lot of interesting discoveries in the future.

Jacquelyn Gill
Jacquelyn Gill

@Max Dawg What the LiDAR provides that the maps don't is evidence that the legacy of this land use is pervasive, centuries later. The ecological consequences of these land use legacies are yet to be fully understood.

Peter Plunkett
Peter Plunkett

@dennis champney Knox traveled through that area once with a train of artillery and it was in the winter, over frozen roads and rivers. It is not at all likely that there are any ruts that survived the first year of erosion or even the first spring thaw. Any ruts encountered in New England that survived until the modern era are the result of years of use by farm carts and carriages.

In the woods near my house, the post road that was discontinued in the 19th century can still be seen, but it took a lot of years of wagons going over it to leave ruts that lasted until today.

Makenzie Rogers
Makenzie Rogers

@Loren Wilkinson It really is an "eye into our past." Individuals stumbling upon these brick walls as well as other things spark their curiosity of what their intentions were in the past. I have never seen anything like this in any woods or forests, but it sure would be interesting to investigate if I did.

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