Faces from Angkor Wat still around today?

The Independent’s story about Kent Davis’ ongoing work to analyse the apsara/devata features on Angkor Wat. Having determined at least 8 facial types from the apsaras/devatas from the walls of Angkor Wat, is it possible to see if these facial features still survive among the locals at Angkor?

AngkorWat carvings, Angkor, Cambodia (3)
photo credit: ScubaBeer


The 12th-century facebook of Angkor Wat

The Independent, 06 September 2010

Amid the splendour of the 12th-century temple at Angkor Wat, they stand and stare like silent sentinels, sensuous rather than erotic, carved with elegance and care. But exactly who are these 1,786 mysterious women and why, more than a century after Cambodia’s famed Hindu temple was rediscovered byWestern archaeologists, did it take the efforts of an amateur researcher from Florida to push experts into trying to resolve the puzzle?

After turning for help to computer experts from the University of Michigan, a team was able to conduct facial mapping experiments on digital photographs of the women, or devatas. The team, whose findings were presented last month at the International Conference on Pattern Recognition, an academic convocation in Istanbul, concluded that there were at least eight different facial types, perhaps reflecting a variety of ethnicities in the Khmer kingdom.

The results are to be examined further by archaeologists and more computer mapping is planned. But for all the effort that went into the mapping, the results of which were published in DatAsia magazine, many questions about the women remain unanswered.


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

2 thoughts on “Faces from Angkor Wat still around today?”

  1. “Once we define facial types more thoroughly, an incredibly exciting prospect appears. If these images are portraits of actual people, it’s logical to assume that they had children within this region, and that creates the possibility of using facial pattern recognition on people living in this area to see if facial shapes and types seen at Angkor still live here. We could actually find the descendants of some of the sacred women in the temple.”

    Every archaeologist, linguist and historian who knows anything about Cambodia will tell you that contemporary Khmers are the direct descendants of the people who built Angkor Wat, and that the facial features in Angkorian art bear a very strong similarity to some ‘typical’ facial features of contemporary Khmer. Every Cambodian knows all this too, and I’m not sure they’d see the point of a white guy doing a study based on facial/cranial measurements to prove it (hello 19th Century!).

    So, taking that as a given:

    Can we identify differences BETWEEN ethnic groups from facial characteristics in these images? If the stats could prove that any one of the 8 or so ‘subtypes’ were absolutely beyond the range of the (considerable) natural variability to be found within the faces of ethnically Khmer people (I highly doubt it), then that might be interesting. On the other hand, it might just mean that this subset of images was made by one artist/workshop who liked to use some artistic license, or who preferred to stylise some aspects of Khmer facial features, or who preferred a ‘foreign’ look, or that these images were based loosely on one individual Khmer model with highly atypical features, or any number of other possibilities. We can’t ever know the answer to any of these issues, so it seems a bit pointless to even be asking the question.

    Can we identify particular subtypes or ‘group characteristics’ WITHIN the Khmer ethnic group using these data? If what Mr Davis is getting at is that he intends to find the specific descendants of specific women/groups of women who are (supposedly) represented in the carvings, as the quote above suggests, here we approach the realm of pure fantasy. Given the natural variability in facial characteristics within an ethnic group, a community or even a family unit, especially over time, the idea that you’d be able to identify a group of ‘descendants’ of a particular woman/group of women over 30 or 40 generations, from these characteristics alone, is incredibly far-fetched. Any physical anthropologist will tell you about a dozen reasons why this is a really, really bad idea.

    Quantitative analyses of objects of art have been delivering valuable research results in archaeology for decades, and the study of the devata at Angkor Wat obviously has the potential to make some kind of contribution to that considerable body of work. It’s a shame that the true value of Mr. Davis’ research always seems to get lost amongst all the grandstanding, the hyperbole, and the stuff that’s just plain wacky. Everyone knows that the Independent has form on craptastic coverage of research on Southeast Asian archaeology (infamously, their hilarious puff piece on “Indiana” Sharrock from a few months back) so maybe it’s best not to take what they write too seriously. But as a counterweight to this kind of Facebook fluff, wouldn’t it be good to finally see some of these results appearing in an independent, peer-reviewed, scholarly publication…?

  2. Why do people with the strongest opinions always post their brilliance anonymously? (-: I would think they would LOVE to get credit for being so smart…unless they are entirely insecure about their opinions.

    “Yada” brings up some excellent points…the best one being at the end stating that “craptastic coverage” may not be the best way to get news about research. The original study is available for download, along with a better (but not perfect) news article here
    http://www.devata.org/2010/08/the-women-of-angkor-wat/

    Speaking to a couple of the issues above.

    “Every Cambodian knows all this too, and I’m not sure they’d see the point of a white guy doing a study based on facial/cranial measurements to prove it (hello 19th Century!).”

    Your comment shows that you know absolutely nothing about the capabilities of facial pattern recognition. Or the study. Please read more.

    “Can we identify particular subtypes or ‘group characteristics’ WITHIN the Khmer ethnic group using these data?”

    You are kind of catching on. In fact, one of the most exciting parts of this study was when I asked Cambodians to differentiate the faces. They had very clear opinions of different types…things too subtle for “white guys” like me to see (despite having worked in SEA for 20 years).

    However, you comment above actually reveals a huge error in your perception of this study. Who says these women are “WITHIN the Khmer ethnic group”…other than you Yada? Again, I DO wish you would share your name with the world so we can give you proper credit for your opinions.

    150 years after Angkor Wat, Zhou Daguan wrote of “foreign women” in the temples. Angkor was a crossroads, a pilgrimage point and the capitol of a large empire. What types of women are enshrined in their largest temples? And why?

    One of my theories is that the varieties of women may represent the extent of the empire and/or the most powerful religious or political or economic influences.

    Yada, you raise a lot of good points, but they are half-formed and you’re going off on my work based on an article meant to entertain the general public. Feel free to contact me to discuss any of this data…otherwise you’re just adding a bunch of….yada yada.

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