Scholars laud high-tech Khmer study

Thai mercenaries depicted in Angkor Wat. Later the Siamese would form their own kingdom and become a major rival of the Khmer Empire. Source: Wikimedia

A team of archaeologists in Cambodia have found several previously undocumented historic cities not far from the city of Angkor, in groundbreaking discoveries that promise to challenge assumptions about the region’s history.

Australian Dr Damian Evans argues in the Journal of Archaeological Science that aerial laser scanning has revealed many cities between 900 and 1,400 years old beneath the forest floor.

The airborne study of 1,900 sq km shows colossal, densely populated cities made up the world’s largest empire during the 12th century.

Evans said: “We have entire cities discovered beneath the forest that no one knew were there … this time we got the whole deal and it’s big, the size of Phnom Penh big.”

The survey uncovered complex water systems that were built hundreds of years before it was believed such technology existed. “Our coverage of the post-Angkorian capitals also provides some fascinating new insights on the ‘collapse’ of Angkor,” Evans said. “There’s an idea that somehow the Thais invaded and everyone fled down south – that didn’t happen, there are no cities that they fled to. It calls into question the whole notion of an Angkorian collapse.”

Angkor’s decline has long been debated.

Angkor was constructed from the 1100s at the height of the Khmer Empire as one of the largest pre-industrial cities. The empire was initially Hindu but it increasingly adopted Buddhism and both religions can be seen on display.

The lost cities were uncovered by firing lasers at the ground from a helicopter to produce a picture of the surface.

Phnom Kulen, the biggest finding, is home to the fabled city of Mahendraparvata, the size of Phnom Penh.

Dr Peter Sharrock of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies said the study provided “clear data for the first time of dense populations settled in and around all ancient Khmer temples”.

“This urban and rural landscape, linked by road and canal networks, now seems to have constituted the largest empire on earth in the 12th century,” he said.

Dr Mitch Hendrickson of the University of Illinois said: “There are so many fantastic new discoveries. We knew that Preah Khan of Kompong Svay was significant before … it’s the largest complex ever built during the Angkorian period at 22 sq km, it is connected to Angkor directly by a major road fitted with infrastructure, and likely played a role in facilitating iron supply to the capital.

“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,” he added.

Excavations are scheduled until 2019.

Dr Martin Polkinghorne of Adelaide’s Flinders University said: “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.”