14 Aug 2007 (News in Science) – Still more Angkor stories buzzing in the news, and I expect to be posting a few more similar stories today. This story focuses on the fall of Angkor and the failed water management system thesis.
Angkor engineered its own demise
An international team of archaeologists has used radar technology to confirm the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat was surrounded by the pre-industrial world’s most extensive urban sprawl.
In today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that NASA radar technology has helped reveal an ancient city, hidden beneath tropical vegetation.
The city has an area of almost 1000 square kilometres and is linked by a tightly integrated network of roads and water channels.
The study provides the “definitive map” of the Greater Angkor region, the researchers say.
And they say it helps support theories proposed by French archaeologist Bernard-Philippe Groslier in the 1950s, who suggested the area was more than a ceremonial site and that its water network was used to support a large population.
Lead author Damian Evans, of the University of Sydney’s Archaeological Computing Laboratory, says the study also supports Groslier’s theory that Angkor collapsed because of overexploitation of the land and a breakdown of the water network.
The mapping shows Angkor was “not simply a succession of spatially distinct ceremonial centres, [but] a low-density urban complex like the Classic Maya cities of the Yucatan Peninsula” in Central America, Evans writes.
“[But there is] no site in the Maya world that approaches Angkor in terms of extent”, with the next largest pre-industrial city, Tikal, in Guatemala, enclosing just 150 square kilometres.
Evans says the city was serviced by an extensive and sophisticated water system with a single hydraulic system linking the entire network.
The reliance on this network could explain the collapse of Angkor as the land was degraded “radically enough to cause them problems”, Evans says.
“It is an engineered landscape that hasn’t been matched anywhere else in the pre-industrial world.”
Angkor was the centre of the vast Khmer empire that controlled much of southeast Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries, before falling to the Thais in 1431.
The World Heritage-listed Angkor Archaeological Park is about 300 kilometres northwest of the modern Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, with the world’s largest religious structure, Angkor Wat, at its heart.
Evans says the study has major implications for Angkor’s management as a cultural resource as the remains of the urban complex extend far beyond the designated 400 square kilometre World Heritage zone that surrounds the central temples.
It also highlights the need to use similar mapping methods on other temple complexes in the tropical world.
“Many of these, like Angkor and the Maya temples, may also lie at the centre of previously undetected low-density urban settlements that are often obscured by vegetation or modern settlements,” he says.
Evans says the key sites to examine in southeast Asia include Pagan in Burma, Anuradhapura and Pollonuruwa in Sri Lanka, Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia, Sukhothai in Thailand Sambor Prei Kuk and Koh Ker in Cambodia and My Son in Vietnam.
The Angkor map is the result of 15 years’ work by scientists from Australia, France and Cambodia.
It uncovers 74 new temples and more than 1000 new artificial ponds by correlating radar data with on-the-ground sampling.
The use of NASA technology and aerial photography from an ultralight plane helped the team survey areas that were inaccessible due to land mines, a legacy of the 1970s Cambodian war and Khmer Rouge regime.
The radar uncovers occupation sites by detecting differences in surface moisture and plant growth and species that are caused by topographical variations due to the presence of architectural remains.
Books about Angkor:
– Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
– Khmer Civilization and Angkor by D. L. Snellgrove
– Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places) by M. D. Coe
– The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham