Lost cities of Cambodia rise from the past

Martin Polkinghorne Burma
Dr Martin Polkinghorne

Vast medieval cities long hidden beneath jungle terrain in Cambodia have been discovered by Australian archaeologists, changing perspectives on the country’s Angkor history.

The discovery of several previously undocumented cities – between 900 and 1400 years old – not far from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat, due to be published next week in the Journal of Archaeological Science, was made possible by high-tech airborne laser scanning (ALS) technology. Some of them appear to rival the size of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

Dr Damian Evans, who leads the Cambodian Archaeological LiDAR (light detection and ranging) Initiative with partners including Flinders University, says the results of the latest 2015 ALS surveys cast a different light on the history of the Southeast Asian country.

The large-scale aerial survey indicates that the colossal, densely populated cities would have constituted the largest empire on Earth at the time of its peak in the 12th century.

“We have entire cities discovered beneath the forest that no one knew were there – at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay and, it turns out, we uncovered only a part of Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen [in the smaller 2012 survey] … This time we got the whole deal and it’s big, the size of Phnom Penh big,” says Dr Evans, a visiting research fellow at Siem Reap’s École Française d’Extrême-Orient.

“The new results suggest that it may have been more important than many temples built in Angkor and that it had a decent-sized population supporting it.”

Dr Martin Polkinghorne, a research fellow at Flinders’ Department of Archaeology, is conducting a joint research project on the post-Angkorian capitals of Longvek and Oudong. He says his team will use the data during excavations scheduled until 2019 to understand the cities.

“The decline of Angkor is among the most significant events in the history of Southeast Asia, but we do not have a precise date for the event,” Dr Polkinghorne told The Guardian.

“By using LiDAR to guide excavations on the capitals of Cambodia that followed we can determine when the kings of Angkor moved south and clarify the end of Angkor.”

“Cambodia after Angkor is customarily understood in terms of loss, retreat and absence; a dark age,” he says.

“Yet, Cambodia was alive with activity after Angkor. Southeast Asia was the hub of international trade between East and West.

“Using the LiDAR at Longvek and Oudong in combination with conventional archaeology we will reveal the dark age as equally rich, complex and diverse.”

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