Investigating Angkorian Stone Sculpture Workshops

When I was doing fieldwork in Cambodia back in February and March I was lucky enough to overlap with Dr. Martin Polkinghorne‘s excavations near the Royal Palace area in the heart of Angkor.  Martin was working on the second of his two fieldwork projects excavating Angkorian  stone sculpture workshops. Angkorian sculpture has been in the news a lot lately and as a result I think these objects have be come decontextualized.  When viewed solely as art pieces it is easy to forget that they were made by skilled craftsmen for a specific purpose.  Martin’s excavations are so exciting because his research is allowing for us to finally understand how stone sculpture fit within the broader picture of Angkorian society.

An unfinished sculpture base, with a tree growing through it, from the workshops near the Royal Palace area in Angkor Thom. Photo by Alison Carter.

The first of Martin’s excavations was near the Bakong in Rolous, the first capital of the Angkor Empire, located just southeast of the later center of Angkor Thom. (There was a short article in the Phnom Penh Post, that has been reposted here). Although I was not in Cambodia for his first excavations at Rolous, Martin was kind enough to share some photos with me to post here.

This picture shows Trench 1, in the background you can see the modénature, or decorative elements, of 9th century workshop building. Photo by Martin Polkinghorne.

Here workers are examining an unfinished sculpture of a yoni. Photo by Martin Polkinghorne.

Another view of the 20m section of Trench 1, including a 9th century building for the sculpture workshop. Photo by Martin Polkinghorne.

This photo shows a section of Trench 5, which was close to the 3rd enclosure moat around the Bakong. Note the thick sandstone chip production debitage from stone carving. Photo by Martin Polkinghorne.

The stone sculpture workshop near the Royal Palace area of Angkor Thom dates to a later period than the workshop at the Bakong.  However, it is notable that both workshops are located so close to these centers of power.  Archaeologists often interpret these types of workshops as belonging “attached craft specialists,” meaning that that some aspect of the production of these objects  (raw material to finished products) was controlled by the state or a ruler.  The objects they produced, in this case stone sculpture that likely was then displayed in state sponsored temples, were not openly available to the broader public. I have a friend who lives near a sculpture workshop in Phnom Penh and he notes that the noise and debris are extremely annoying.  Perhaps it is not surprising then that these workshops were located near, but likely at a respectful distance from the actual palaces.

In the workshops near the Royal Palace, Martin and his team also found large piles of stone debitage from sculpture production.

Stone debitage from the sculpture workshop near the Royal Palace, Angkor Thom. Photo by Alison Carter.

They also found evidence for some metal production in this area.  As well as a large stone well (?) whose function is still mysterious.

A stone well (?) from the sculpture workshop excavations near the Royal Palace in Angkor Thom. Photo by Alison Carter.

This extremely deep trench also indicates that the Angkorian people dramatically altered the landscape in this area.

A deep trench shows the stratigraphy of the area around the sculpture workshop. Photo by Alison Carter.

The scale of some of the sculptures being created is quite impressive.  At the Angkor Conservation office they have some unfinished sculptures that are immense.

Unfinished sculptures from the Phnom Dei workshop held in the Angkor Conservation Office in Siem Reap. Photo by Alison Carter.

I’m looking forward to hearing more about Martin’s work in the future.  If you’re in the Midwest, he’ll be giving a lecture about his research at UW-Madison in October.


Replica sculpture at Ankgor

Replica Angkor Wat