Angkor was never a “lost city”

Angkor was never abandoned or forgotten. Enough already with this outdated trope

Archaeology in the popular imagination is often associated with the lone explorer hacking through the jungle, glistening with sweat, and emerging into a clearing to discover the ruins of a lost ancient city.

Image of a Lego Indiana Jones in the grass.
An explorer discovering a lost city? (Image from Rob Young).

Angkor is perhaps one of the most commonly cited examples of a “lost city” “discovered” by French explorers (and then discovered again and again and again). Why do I use scare quotes here? Because Angkor was never lost (and ahem, stop saying the French discovered Angkor).

This post is especially for TV and film documentary producers, travel bloggers, journalists, and headline writers. I will briefly explain 1) why saying or a city or civilization was lost is problematic and 2) why Angkor was never lost or abandoned.

What’s wrong with calling something a lost city or civilization?

Many so-called lost cities were unknown only to Westerners, who “discovered” them in colonial contexts. In many such cases, including Angkor, these Western explorers were brought to the supposedly lost sites by local people. In this context then, these were not lost places at all, but they were not widely known in the West. To call a place lost then is to downplay local indigenous knowledge in favor of elevating Western awareness as the only knowledge that is valid. Going hand-in-hand with this is the colonial agenda. Colonial powers frequently framed these once great ancient cities as having been forgotten or abandoned in order to highlight how the contemporary population had somehow lost its greatness and needed the civilizing colonial power to guide them into the modern era. In North America, colonizers couldn’t fathom that ancestors of Native Americans built the mound sites they encountered across Eastern North America, arguing the ancestors of Native Americans had killed the once great (white) civilization that had built them, therefore justifying the killing and removal of Native peoples from their homelands.

People in the popular media I think like continuing to use this trope of the lost city because it conjures an exciting, romantic idea of the past and lets the viewer/reader imagine they are the explorer. However, continuing to use it perpetuates these colonial and white supremacist ideas that Western knowledge of a place is the only True Knowledge. National Geographic, while supporting some legitimate and important archaeological research, is a major perpetrator of the lost city myth. When you see a headline, tv show, or documentary that talks about a lost city, ask yourself the following questions:

Do you really want to use the myth of the lost city to perpetuate these untrue and harmful beliefs?

Angkor wasn’t lost, abandoned, or forgotten

Despite decades of archaeological and historical research that has disproven the idea that Angkor was a lost city, it continues to get brought up over and over again. [My colleagues and I have complained to multiple different TV and film producers and journalists about this and have been mostly blown off. We have no control over the final output of these projects. I recently declined to be part of a project that refused to acknowledge that Angkor wasn’t abandoned and in fact wanted to make the centerpiece of their program]. I outlined many of these points in an earlier post, but as that is now 7 years old perhaps it is time for an update.

  1. The city of Angkor did not fall in a violent sacking by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431 CE. This was popularly depicted in an old National Geographic article (below) and frequently cited in popular books about Angkor. The date is based on historic chronicles but the archaeological evidence suggests a different story. There is no material evidence for a violent downfall to Angkor; there is no dramatic burning of temples and residences, there is no evidence for destruction and pillaging. Even the 1431 date is being questioned as the date of Angkor’s demise.
National Geographic image of the downfall of Angkor by Maurice Fievet.
Image of the sacking of Angkor by Maurice Fiévet from National Geographic. We now know this narrative of the fall of Angkor is false. More images by Fiévet here.

2. Angkor instead seems to have undergone a gradual collapse or depopulation. Part of this seems related to a series of monsoons and droughts in the 15th century that stressed Angkor’s intricate water management system. However, recent evidence of a decline in land-use suggests that elites were leaving the walled precinct of Angkor Thom as early as the 14th century. The demographic decline of Angkor seems to have been gradual, taking perhaps a century or more. Aside from environmental concerns, there were also pull factors that drew elites out of the Angkor area. Yes, tensions with rival kingdoms like Ayutthaya may have been a concern; there is some evidence around Angkor for modifications associated with defense (see here and here). But there was also the appeal of increasing maritime trade with China and better access to such networks further south where the Post-Angkorian capitals were located. My colleague Martin Polkinghorne has written more about this here.

3. Although some sites in the sprawling city of Angkor do seem to have been abandoned, archaeological work shows continued habitation in many parts of the city. For example, excavations in the Royal Palace area of Angkor Thom show that people were still living there in the 14th and 15th centuries, growing and eating different crops and making consecration deposits. Other scholars have noted 15th century occupation of Angkor that is manifested in the presence of numerous Buddha statues in the Ayutthayan style, but made from a local stone. This suggests the presence of Ayutthayan artisans in the capital (although not one associated with violence and pillaging). Other work has dated modifications to the Baphuon temple dating to the early 15th century. Exciting new work by my colleague David Brotherson has also identified widespread habitation across the Greater Angkor region during the Post-Angkor period as evidenced by ceramics. In short, while there was a shift in the socio-political center and Angkor saw a dramatic population decline, it was not completely abandoned.

4. The temple of Angkor Wat is a key example of the importance of this place to the Khmer and within the region more broadly. Excavations by my colleagues and I in the occupation mounds at Angkor Wat demonstrate that while there may have been a break in the use of these features, there was reoccupation or reuse of these features by the late 14th or early 15th centuries. Inscriptions from the 16th century describe how King Ang Chan commissioned the completion of bas-reliefs on the northeastern gallery of Angkor Wat, which had been left unfinished in the 12th century.  King Ang Chan may have also been involved with the hidden paintings that were recently identified at Angkor Wat. The first westerner to visit Angkor Wat was apparently a Portuguese Capuchin friar named Antonio da Magdalena in 1586.  (A brief description of his account, as told to Diogo do Couto, can be read in Dagens 1995: 133-5). Several members of the Khmer royal family returned to Angkor Wat in the mid-late 16th century, leaving several inscriptions around Angkor Wat and transforming the central sanctuary from Vaishnavite to Buddhist. Angkor Wat was also an important spiritual and pilgrimage center for people across Southeast and East Asia. In fact, the first plan of Angkor Wat was drawn by a Japanese pilgrim sometime in the early 17th century, and was copied later in 1715. In the early 18th century CE, a Cambodian “court dignitary” built a large stupa in honor of his wife and sons just outside the eastern gallery of Angkor Wat. Both the stupa and a large inscription written in Khmer verse describing the construction of this stupa, can still be seen today.

So, no, Angkor Wat was specifically not abandoned or forgotten and not home to a lost city.

In my earlier post, I mentioned the work of Penny Edwards and her book, Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945, which mentions that the Khmer monks and others that the French interviewed had a “non-linear historical perspective,” which caused the French to think that the Khmer people had no memory of their past and who constructed the temple of Angkor Wat (Edwards 2007: 25).  She says that:

“Khmers living in the vicinity of the temple [Angkor Wat] did not identify with Angkor as a monument of Khmer nationhood or a lodestone of national pride, but rather as a religious site connected in popular belief-systems with celebrated monarchs and mythical figures.”

This supposed lack of knowledge about the glorious Angkorian past was one way the French used the lost city trope to justify their dominance in the region.

I’ve been told by various sources that people won’t find archaeology interesting without employing the narrative of a lost city. I think this underestimates the intelligence of the public and is also lazy storytelling. There is an intrinsic mystery to the scientific process, which starts with an unanswered question and works towards building evidence to support or refute possible interpretations. The decline of Angkor had many components and reflects the complexity of the transformation of a civilization. Of course, the Khmer people did not disappear and subsequent kingdoms were aware of where they came from. The nature of power and authority shifted, with some of the old ways being left behind. Continuing to describe Angkor as a lost and abandoned city denies this history and material evidence to the contrary. It puts forth the idea that the only valid knowledge and scholarship on a place is one conducted by Westerners and one that justified Western dominance over the the indigenous population. In the 21st century, is this really the story we want to tell?

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