Australia's raiders of the lost wat

Unsurprisingly, the Canberra Times focuses more on the Australian archaeologists who worked on this project, however the map was a collaborative effort between Australian, French and Cambodian archaeologists.

14 Aug 2007 (The Canberra Times) – Unsurprisingly, the Canberra Times focuses more on the Australian archaeologists who worked on this project, however the map was a collaborative effort between Australian, French and Cambodian archaeologists.

REVEALED: Australia’s raiders of the lost wat

Australian archaeologists using complex radar and satellite technology to map the medieval city of Angkor have discovered more than 70 new temples scattered across a vast area of farmland and forests in north-west Cambodia.

University of Sydney archaeologist Damian Evans said, “It’s huge. We’ve mapped a massive settlement stretching well beyond the main temples of the World Heritage tourist area in Siem Reap.

“We’ve found the city was roughly five times bigger than previously thought.”


The newly discovered ruins of the ancient Khmer empire metropolis sprawl across 1000sqkm “about 20km in every direction” outside the United Nations listed World Heritage site at Siem Reap, where the world’s biggest single religious monument, the Buddhist temple of Angkor Wat, was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.

Mr Evans said some of the newly mapped archaeological sites offered only subtle traces of the ancient Khmer civilisation, such as piles of brick rubble, occupation mounds, evidence of excavated ponds and scatterings of ceramic shards. But other sites had well-preserved temple door frames, statue pedestals, remnants of carvings and more substantial architectural remnants.

The University of Sydney research team used satellite images and ground-based radar provided by United States space agency NASA to detect and map the new sites.

“The radar can sense differences in plant growth and moisture content that result from topographical variations of less than a metre. We have identified over a thousand new man-made ponds and at least 74 long-lost temples, by correlating the radar data with on-the-ground sampling,” Mr Evans said.

But this astonishing discovery, which can be used to develop a conservation plan to protect Angkor’s ancient archaeological landscape, is the result of meticulous attention to fine-scale detail.

Mr Evans, who is deputy director of the University of Sydney’s Greater Angkor Project, has spent seven years working with colleagues in Australia, Cambodia and France to combine information from hand-drawn maps of Angkor, ground surveys, aerial photography and NASA satellite images.

He has integrated all existing mapping data of the city and archaeological inventories into a massive digital database, listing tens of thousands of individual features of the ancient city over an area of almost 3000sqkm.

The team’s research and photographs of the new discoveries will be published this week by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Mr Evans said, “This is the first time a complete, detailed and comprehensive map of Angkor has been presented.”

The new discoveries show Angkor was a vast populous network of agricultural and urban settlements, stretching well beyond Siem Reap and the well-known temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

Overgrown by vegetation and obscured by low-lying cloud in some areas, the rambling network of temple and city ruins is linked by a single hydraulic irrigation system that provided Angkor’s citizens with a stable water supply, despite the region’s unpredictable monsoon season.

The irrigation system was initially thought to be mainly decorative and ceremonial, but new evidence suggests it may have been used to irrigate vast areas of rice paddies.

Mr Evans said there were signs the sprawling city of Angkor “engineered its own downfall” by disrupting the local environment by continous expansion into the surrounding forests and “exposing the water management system to increased sedimentation and erratic water flows”.

This caused a radical re-engineering of the landscape, and increased reliance on a massive and delicately balanced network of infrastructure.

“Yes, you definitely could say urban sprawl and land clearing were factors in the city’s decline and it’s much the same story more than a thousand years later. As the city expanded, more and more forests were cut down, and that large-scale environmental destruction caused significant environmental problems.”

Angkor was a thriving metropolis between the 9th and 14th centuries, ruled by a succession of warrior kinds until about 1431 AD, when an invading Thai army sacked the Khmer capital, causing the population to migrate southwards toward Phnom Penh.

The city was abandoned in the 15th century, and its network of temples was neglected and overgrown by rainforest until the late 19th century when French archaeologists began working to restore and protect the ancient buildings. Described as “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome” by the American Geographical Society in 1878. The site was literally under fire during the Cambodian civil war when the Government was toppled by the Khmer Rouge communist regime led by dictator Pol Pot, and evidence of mortar fire can be seen on the facade of some temples in the World Heritage precinct.

The restored temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom now attract more than two million of tourists to Cambodia each year, posing additional conservation problems for Cambodian and UN authorities, who fear the ruins are at risk from people clambering over the temple ruins.

The University of Sydney’s Greater Angkor Project is a collaborative research project between French, Cambodian and Australian researchers, with more than 50 academics, archaeologists and volunteers actively involved in field research. Mr Evans said, “We have a lot of research projects in the region, looking at a whole range of things, including how the expansion of the city destroyed the local environment. With these new discoveries we can trace the impact of the city’s expansion on local rivers and forests. We can see where rivers were made to change their course due to switching mechanisms for irrigation channels.”

The project is chiefly funded by the Australian Research Council, and will continue until 2010.

But the project draws on a diverse range of skills including computer game technology to shed light on the ancient Khmer civilisation.

Monash University graphic designer and computer software systems expert Tom Chandler is also a member of the Greater Angkor Project team. He’s used multi-media techniques, including 3-D modelling and animation techniques used in computer game technology, to bring the ancient city to life.

Mr Chandler has produced a series of short animations and digital models recreating ancient battles, ceremonial court processions with elephants and other colourful scenes from daily life in Angkor.


Pick up a book about Angkor today:
Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
Khmer Civilization and Angkor by D. L. Snellgrove
Ancient Angkor (River Book Guides) by C. Jaques
Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places) by M. D. Coe
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
Art & Architecture of Cambodia (World of Art) by H. I. Jessup

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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.

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