As my previous posts have discussed, most of the press on the exciting new LiDAR data around Angkor have focused on the supposedly “lost city” on Phnom Kulen. However, the LiDAR data covered a huge area around Angkor, especially around the urban core, and what those results revealed are just as exciting. An article in this weekend’s Guardian newspaper mentions some of our fieldwork, headed by Dr. Miriam Stark. However, I was disappointed when an associated article with the headline Laser technology reveals lost city around Angkor Wat focused primarily on the work on Phnom Kulen (actually not anywhere near Angkor Wat). I’m completely biased, but I think the work we’re doing at Angkor Wat is important and exciting, so I thought it was time to discuss it a bit more here.
If you look at a Google Earth image of Angkor Wat, you’ll notice several things. First and foremost is the temple itself, which is inside a laterite wall and surrounded by a moat. Outside of the moat is more forest and the area inside the wall and next to the temple is also heavily forested.
This is where the magic of LiDAR comes in, as it is able to see through the trees into the microtopography of the landscape below. Here you can see the image of the trees peeled off and a series of features underneath, surrounding the temple.
Above: “An oblique view of Angkor Wat and its immediate environs. Top layer: Digital orthophoto mosaic, with elevation derived from the lidar digital surface model at 1 m resolution. Bottom layer: extruded lidar digital terrain model, with 0.5 m resolution and 2x vertical exaggeration. Red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals.”
There are several things that pop-out in this LiDAR data. First is that around the temple of Angkor Wat is a grid pattern of mounds and depressions AND that this grid system continues outside the moat. South of Angkor Wat is a series of square spirals, that are currently a bit of a mystery. (However Damian Evans has already warned us about over-thinking these features. My untested hypothesis leans towards something similar to a planned garden a la Versailles).
The grid system inside the walls and surrounding the temple of Angkor Wat is what the Greater Angkor Project, of which I am a member, is currently investigating. Our initial hypothesis is that these were occupation mounds and possibly ponds or low-lying areas, and remnants of a planned city inside the Angkor Wat enclosure. There also appear to be some possible roads running through this series of mounds and depressions. Excavations in 2010, confirmed that these mounds were used for habitation, however this was before the LiDAR data and our more complete understanding of the broader grid system. Our current excavations focus on the SE quadrant of the Angkor Wat enclosure, an area where the series of depressions (ponds?) and mounds is especially well preserved.
Our new series of excavations has produced continued evidence of habitation at Angkor Wat. We’re uncovering many fragments of earthenware vessels that were likely used in cooking as well as Angkorian glazed stoneware ceramics, and Chinese tradewares that date to the 12th century, which coincides with the construction of Angkor Wat.
Above: A scattering of ceramics on the surface of an excavation unit at Angkor Wat. These may be related to an occupation floor.
Below: A close-up of a Chinese tradeware vessel with a handle, in situ.
In a unit I’m supervising we’re finding lots of stone, especially sandstone, that was presumably being recycled from the construction of Angkor Wat. What this stone is being used for is still up for interpretation. Some pieces could be mixed with dirt for house fill. While other pieces, you can see in the image below, are arranged on a flat surface and these appear to present something akin to a living floor.
We even found a discarded piece of carved stone, that appears to have been recycled for house construction (below).
Our excavations are still ongoing and we’re hoping to return in future excavation seasons to do even more research here. As a result, there are still many questions we hope to address, such as:
-Who were the people who were living here? People who worked at Angkor Wat, like priests, dancers, stone carvers, or other people who supported the temple? Or were they regular city-dwellers with little to do with the day to day function of Angkor Wat?
-Were these elite residences or residences of people who were more common?
-Did people live here year-round or were these mounds only occupied during important festivals or rituals?
-What is the relationship between the occupation inside the wall and outside the wall?
-How long did people live here for-just during the Angkorian period or into the post-Angkorian?
Despite these ongoing questions, it is significant is the scale and organization of urban core of Angkor, including around the Angkor Wat temple. Again, this is not entirely new, as many researchers suspected and even saw evidence for a city around the temple of Angkor Wat.** However, this LiDAR data, paired with archaeological excavation, is giving us a new and more in-depth understanding of this civilization. Most research has focused on the temples and inscriptions of the very elite members of the Angkorian civilization and yet we know that thousands of regular people lived here and made the city work. This is the power of archaeological research, to give a voice to these parts of the past.
Stay tuned for more updates as our work progresses.
**Jacques and Freeman (2009: 46) mention this city, I think based on BP Groslier’s work, although I don’t have an original citation for this hypothesis and would appreciate any suggestions of where to look.
Thanks also to Damian Evans for the LiDAR image of Angkor Wat.