Over the weekend, the temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk became Southeast Asia’s newest World Heritage site and Cambodia’s third after Angkor and Preah Vihear. It was known in the 6-7th centuries as Ishanapura, the capital of the Chenla empire.
The mysterious ‘foreigners’ carved into the temples of Sambor Prei Kuk
The southernmost is the home to the puzzle.
Facing the main temple, Prasat Yeah Poun, is a derelict construction called Kda Ouk. Its architrave – the beam above the columns – bears the carvings of 12 men. Each is different – some with strong, chiselled features, and others more delicate – but they have notable characteristics in common, including moustaches, long curly hair, big eyes, thick eyebrows and pointy noses.
The unique features of these men do not fit with the statues and engravings at the rest of the temples – nor, researchers say, with the physical appearance of Cambodian people. This has led to speculation that they are the portraits of foreigners. But who were these outsiders and why, in the seventh century, would they have been important enough to the Khmer people to have been literally put on a pedestal?
A new paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science has been grabbing the headlines in the last few days: the first insights from the Lidar acquisition of Angkor. It is the most extensive use of Lidar in an archaeological context to date, which brings to greater clarity the urban sprawl of Phnom Kulen, Banteay Chhmar, the Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, Sambor Prei Kuk, Longvek and Oudong. Combined with the earlier acquisition of the core Angkor area in 2012, the Lidar data has uncovered a tremendous amount of information about settlement patterns in these areas.
The data gathered presents a big-picture view of several themes of interest: population flows, urban centres, water management and collapse, and provides starting points for many of these future lines of inquiry. To be sure, the patterns in landscape and features uncovered by the Lidar is spectacular, but many of these features will need to be ‘ground-truthed’ and investigated in real life. (Alison has a good commentary about the potentials and limitations of the Lidar data). All in all, a very exciting start to what is surely a new phase of archaeological understanding of Angkor, and hopefully one with repercussions to the rest of the region as well!
Early Khmer societies developed extensive settlement complexes that were largely made of non-durable materials. These fragile urban areas perished many centuries ago, and thus a century and a half of scholarly research has focussed on the more durable components of Khmer culture, in particular the famous temples and the texts and works of art that are normally found within them. In recent years however there has been a considerable effort to broaden the perspective beyond conventional approaches to Khmer history and archaeology. Remarkable advances have been made in the domain of remote sensing and archaeological mapping, including the application of advanced geospatial techniques such as airborne laser scanning within studies of heritage landscapes at Angkor and beyond. This article describes the most recent applications of the technology in Cambodia, including the results of a newly-completed campaign of airborne laser scanning in 2015—the most extensive acquisition ever undertaken by an archaeological project—and underscores the importance of using these methods as part of a problem-oriented research program that speaks to broader issues within history and archaeology.
Archaeologists in Cambodia have found multiple, previously undocumented medieval cities not far from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat, the Guardian can reveal, in groundbreaking discoveries that promise to upend key assumptions about south-east Asia’s history.
The Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans, whose findings will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science on Monday, will announce that cutting-edge airborne laser scanning technology has revealed multiple cities between 900 and 1,400 years old beneath the tropical forest floor, some of which rival the size of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Community tourism – that’s what the German Development Organisation has been helping residents at Sambor Prei Kuk to do, by building up and training a community-based tourism infrastructure. Hopefully, community-based archaeological ventures will follow as well. Check out a related post in this week’s Wednesday Rojak coming out later today.