Lidar is Magic: Part 2 – Cool new finds

In case you missed it: Lidar is Magic: Part 1 , in which we learned that LIDAR is pretty great, but just one in a suite of tools used by archaeologists. And also, there are no lost cities.


Lidar image of Pre-Angkorian towers of Sambor Prei Kuk among the trees. Courtesy McElhanney via the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI).

The press coverage on the Cambodian Archaeology Lidar Initiative (CALI) has died down a bit now. While many  news outlets focused on the (false) lost city narrative, there were quite a few interesting discoveries presented in Damian Evans’ Lidar paper that I think are worth discussing in more detail. I present some of my favorite findings below in no particular order.  Continue reading

Lidar is Magic: Part 1

[UPDATE: Please check the comments for Damian Evans’ friendly critiques of my comments]

I first visited Angkor in 2005 as a tourist (following a couple months of survey in southern Cambodia).  If you’ve visited Angkor perhaps you, like me, stared out from your tuk-tuk as you breezed pass the thick trees in Angkor Thom and wondered “I wonder what is going on in there?” You might also have recognized that at its height, Angkor and its many temples would not be the vacant ceremonial center that it appears today, but a bustling city and so you might have also wondered “Where were all these people living?”

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Our 2015 excavation of a house mound within the Angkor Wat temple enclosure.

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How the sausage gets made

I’ve had several people contact me with an interest in doing archaeological research in Cambodia and questions about becoming an archaeologist.  Although I’ve discussed this a bit in this post, I realized that not a lot of people know what it’s like to be an archaeologist.  So, I thought I’d take some time to detail my experiences and explain what it is I actually do. Your regularly scheduled news and insights into Cambodian archaeology will return after this post.


Working with Royal University of Fine Arts students in Cambodia

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Harihara and the early rulers of Cambodia

The return and reunification of the head of a Harihara statue has been in the news as of late. The head was taken to France from the southern Cambodian hilltop temple site of Phnom Da in the 19th century by the French scholar Etienne Aymonier. Phnom Da is just outside the walled city of Angkor Borei, home to the earliest dated Khmer inscription and a central place in what some (including me) might argue was an early state-level society in Southeast Asia.

These statues, although perhaps perceived as primarily art objects now, were intimately tied to the power and status of early rulers. Art Historian Paul Lavy has suggested that the Harihara statues specifically played an important role in the strategies of emerging rulers seeking to expand their power.


The head of the Harihara from Phnom Da, recently returned and reunited with his body in Cambodia (via).

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Fully funded PhD Scholarship in Southeast Asian archaeology at University of Wollongong

Fully funded PhD opportunities are rare, and one in Southeast Asian archaeology is a unicorn.  I pass on an announcement for a PhD opportunity at the University of Wollongong with my colleague, Dr. Ben Marwick.


Applications are invited for a fully funded PhD position in archaeology, within the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS), University of Wollongong (UOW). The successful candidate will join a multi-disciplinary project that is seeking to generate new data related to the Late Pleistocene colonisation of Asia and Australasia by modern humans (Homo sapiens) and other archaic hominins present in the region at this time. This forms part of the ARC Australian Future Fellowship project led by Dr Ben Marwick, The archaeology of Thailand and Myanmar: A Strategic Region for Understanding Modern Human Colonization and Interactions Across our Region. This project is linked to Prof Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts’ ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship Out of Asia: unique insights into human evolution and interactions using frontier technologies in archaeological science. To address substantial questions concerning early modern human colonisation and adaptation in mainland Southeast Asia, we are developing a number of innovative archaeological- science techniques, and are assembling a research group with strengths in artefact analysis, geochronology, geoarchaeology, and archaeological chemistry.

The PhD candidate will study stone artefact assemblages to engage with major global and regional archaeological questions relating to the timing and nature of human activity during the Late Pleistocene in Southeast Asia and the wider region. The position will involve overseas fieldwork in Myanmar and an intensive, laboratory-based analytical research program. The candidate will be expected to help develop and apply novel techniques for analysing stone artefacts, and conduct an experimental program.

The candidate will receive a tax-free stipend of AUD 25,849 per year (indexed annually), for three and a half years. Research funding opportunities are available, with candidates encouraged to apply for the various university-wide schemes available at UOW and CAS. For more details, see

What do we know about Angkorian society?

Things have been busy these past few months with lots of developments and exciting new changes to come.  Since June I’ve been directing an excavation project looking at a house mound within the Angkor Wat enclosure.  This project is part of the Greater Angkor Project research program, a collaboration between the APSARA Authority and the University of Sydney. I’ll follow-up with a longer post on this work later, but in the meantime you can read a short article on this work in The Phnom Penh Post here.

I have also been tweeting regular updates on the excavation and you can follow along at @alisonincambo.

The Phnom Penh Post article describes this project as one of the first to focus on the common people and in a way, this is true. This is the first research-driven project focused on excavating a house mound and understanding the lives of the people who lived there (non-elite members of society) through the material remains of activities within and around a house.  This is a branch of archaeology known as household archaeology.  However, there have been several research projects recently that have expanded our understanding of Angkorian habitation and Angkorian society more generally.

A photo of our excavation trenches within the Angkor Wat enclosure.

A photo of our excavation trenches within the Angkor Wat enclosure.

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The real problem with taking naked photos at Angkor

Apparently there has been yet another incident of tourists taking nude photos at Angkor. The first was a photo of an “Asian female” that was posted on Facebook. The second involved a group of Frenchman who were deported. The third got two American sisters kicked out of Cambodia. And most recently a German tourist’s nudes were discovered on Facebook, after the fact.*

One might be amazed that there are still quiet corners of the Angkor park, which are not crawling with hordes of tourists, where one can disrobe undisturbed. At certain sites, if you play your cards right, you can often find yourself alone with only your thoughts.**

The Cambodian government and the APSARA Authority are understandably upset, noting that this is disrespectful to Cambodian culture, and their sense of morality and virtue.

I think the other problem with these photos is the underlying assumption by these tourists that Angkor is some kind of amusement park and not a living heritage site that is important to many Cambodians. These tourists are only using the temples as a backdrop to their “cool” photos. They show a willful ignorance of the cultural context of the temples, of Cambodia’s ancient and modern history, and the sacredness of these sites to the Cambodian population today.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is a place of great pride for Cambodian people. Relatively recently, insults to the memory of Angkor have caused death and destruction of property. Many Cambodians who live in Cambodia, including many students studying archaeology in Phnom Penh, have never been to see Angkor, but are proud of this part of their heritage and consider it to be an important part of their national identity. Taking nude photos is like taking a photo of someone flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, or taking nude photos at the 9/11 Memorial, or Notre Dame Cathedral.

To take nude photos at Angkor means that you do not understand or care to learn about the history and culture of Cambodia, or choose to ignore this for your own amusement. It is disrespectful, but I do not think that any of the tourists meant any disrespect. I think they thought they were being cute, or artsy, or funny and they took those photos because their foreign identities and financial means gave them a certain amount of (perceived) impunity.

It is a special kind of privilege to be able to visit Cambodia and not give a crap about the place you’re visiting.

Please don’t be that person.

*Before that were these classy folks riding naked on a motorbike.

**The website of the German tourist shows one nude photo taken at the Bayon (although all the photos are mislabeled as being at Angkor Wat, because see above re: not caring). I have no idea how that photo was taken without being seen by anyone.