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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 Enough already with this outdated trope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?

The Mekong Interaction Sphere

It’s been while since I’ve posted on this blog, but figured I’d revive it briefly to share some recent news.

In May, my colleagues and I published an article in Science Advances estimating the population of Angkor over time. My co-author, Sarah Klassen, and I wrote about how we did this for The Conversation and I also posted a video in Khmer explaining our work.

A second co-authored article was just published in Asian Perspectives** that examines in more detail the stone and glass beads from the site of Angkor Borei in southern Cambodia. I’m going to use this blog post to talk about this research in a bit more detail.

Image of monochromatic glass beads of may colors with a 5cm scale bar.
Glass beads from Angkor Borei, Cambodia

Long time readers will know that studying the stone and glass beads of “Iron Age” or “Early Historic” (approx. 500 BCE – 500 CE) Southeast Asia is my first love and the focus of my dissertation research. This publication represents a long overdue report on a bead collection I studied for my dissertation, updated with some new information and research.

Much of the paper details how the stone and glass beads have strong ties to South Asia and represent how Angkor Borei was connected to these international trade networks. However, the part I personally find more interesting is the way beads are being exchanged within Southeast Asia.

Angkor Borei was believed to have been an inland capital of the civilization the Chinese called Funan, a precursor to the later Angkor kingdom. Much of what we know about Angkor Borei comes from the work of the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project led by Dr. Miriam Stark.

In an earlier publication** I detailed two different exchange networks in mainland Southeast Asia, based on the different types of glass and stone beads that were circulated.

Map of sites with significant quantities of potash glass beads and Type 1 agate and carnelian beads. From Carter 2015.
Map of sites with high alumina mineral soda glass beads and Type 2 agate and carnelian beads. From Carter 2015.

At Angkor Borei, we see many carnelian and agate beads that I call “Type 2” – generally beads made in simpler shapes and with lower quality stone or production methods. To me, many of these beads seem like they are being mass produced and contrast with the “Type 1” beads. Type 1 beads are made in more complex shapes (like faceted bicones) and sometimes nicer quality stone. They seem to have taken more time and skill and are not as common.

Angkor Borei also has a lot of high alumina mineral soda glass beads, like those pictured above. This is a bead type that becomes pretty widespread during the early first millennium CE and seems to be produced in India or Sri Lanka. This is different from another type glass bead made from potash glass that we tend to see at earlier and/or more coastal sites.

In this new publication, we mention that we think this particular network of Type 2 agate/carnelian beads and high-alumina mineral soda glass beads represents longstanding connections between sites in the Mekong Delta, like Angkor Borei, and sites further inland that have similar bead assemblages. In this publication we call this network the Mekong Interaction Sphere.

The dotted oval in this map represents the area of Mekong Interaction Sphere. From Carter et al. 2021.

In addition to beads, Shawn Fehrenbach and Miriam Stark have identified some similarities in earthenware ceramic production that also links these regions. The image below is from their recent publication. The orange slipped wares seems like a more localized tradition. Fine buffwares are seen are shared in the Meking Interaction Sphere as well as other coastal sites, and reduced wares also unite sites in the Mekong Interaction Sphere.

Image from Stark, M. T. and Fehrenbach, S. (2019). Earthenware Ceramic Technologies of Angkor Borei, Cambodia. Udaya, Journal of Khmer Studies 19: 109-135.

This great article by Eileen Lustig, Damian Evans, and Ngaire Richards also shows longstanding connections between the Mekong Delta regions and these regions farther inland during the mid-late first millennium CE. You can see how inscriptions (and by proxy the presence of elite rulers/power) are concentrated in the Mekong Delta and then start moving inland over time. By the 11th century CE, the majority of inscriptions are around Siem Reap/Angkor (unsurprising), but the Mekong Delta remains relevant even after Funan’s power seemingly declined.

Image from Lustig, E., Evans, D. and Richards, N. (2007). Words across Space and Time: An Analysis of Lexical Items in Khmer Inscriptions, Sixth-Fourteenth Centuries Ce. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 38: 1-26.

Seeing control of trade in the archaeological record is difficult without written documents. However, given Angkor Borei’s location close to the coast and its power as an early urban center, I strongly suspect that many of the stone and glass beads in Cambodia and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia originated from this location. I hypothesize that these beads are one of the material indicators demonstrating connections between people in the Mekong Delta and those farther inland. The distribution of beads is an early marker of this Mekong Interaction Sphere; connectivity that continued for hundreds of years until the Angkor period. Further work will be needed to determine if it extends back in time even farther.

**If you don’t have access to this article through your institution or another venue and would like to read it please email me at alisonincambodia at gmail dot com.

Indefinite hibernation

As is painfully obvious, this blog has been infrequently updated for the past several years and will likely be infrequently updated for the foreseeable future.  Still, I periodically receive word that older posts on here are helpful/informative, so I will let it continue to persist as a relic of a different stage of my life.

However, I have been keeping busy.  I maintain an “Alison in Cambodia” facebook page where I regularly post about archaeology news related to Cambodia. This is perhaps the best way to keep up with me and goings-on in Cambodian archaeology.

I also tweet semi-regularly and periodically post on Instagram.

In 2017, I joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon as an Assistant Professor and this is where most of my time and energy go. For academic/professional information on me and my work you can check the following:

I am currently PI and co-Director of the Pteah Project investigating Angkorian residential spaces in Battambang province. You can see our project website for some information on our current research! Our upcoming 2020 field season is taking volunteers through the Earthwatch Institute.

I also recently  wrote about our earlier collaborative research at Angkor Wat in The Conversation.

I look forward to hearing form readers of this blog, so please feel free to contact me at


In the field!

In a few days  I’ll be starting our new fieldwork project in Battambang.  I more regularly update on the Alison in Cambodia Facebook page and also post updates and photos on Twitter and Instagram.  You can follow along with our progress there!


We’ll be undertaking research near Prasat Basaet, near Battambang


Cambodian resources on archaeology [UPDATED]

[Update: Already getting suggestions on my Alison in Cambodia Facebook page– new additions are listed below]

A recent study found that Facebook was the main source of news for tech-savvy Cambodians.  I’ve also found there to be an increasing number of Facebook pages by Cambodians that frequently post about Cambodian archaeology – including new developments and news stories that are not always covered in the English-language sources.

As a partner to my informal list of archaeological projects in Cambodia (which will be updated soon), I thought I’d also start a list of some of these resources for those who are interested.  I will note that many are written in Khmer.  (If you don’t read Khmer, Google Translate is doing a better job lately).

The APSARA Authority’s Facebook page.  A great resource and very frequently updated about all manner of APSARA Authority activities.

National Authority for Sambor Prei Kuk Facebook page.  Sure to be filled with new developments as this site has recently received UNESCO World Heritage status.

Kerdomnel Khmer Group Facebook page. This page is run by Cambodian archaeologist Chen Chanratana and frequently posts about Cambodian archaeology. A few years ago, they published a couple issues of a  magazine on Cambodian archaeology.

Angkor Sharing Club Facebook Page.  I recently started following this page, which frequently posts and shares posts from other sources on Cambodian archaeology, culture and heritage.

Khmer Youth of the Mekong Delta Facebook Page. This page is not archaeology-focused, but does frequently post about archaeology and culture heritage, especially things related to southern Cambodia.

Saved Team of Cambodian Culture Heritage Facebook Page. This is run by my friend/colleague Tep Sokha and especially focuses on his work related to conservation of Cambodian (archaeological) ceramics.

ខ្យងKhcang Blog. This new blog is run by my friend/colleague Piphal Heng. He has just started, but publishing in Khmer and English. So far, he’s spent some time discussing the name “Sambor Prei Kuk.”

គំនូរក្បាច់បូរាណខ្មែរ និងគំនូរបូរាណខ្មែរ . This roughly translates as Ancient Khmer Ornaments and Drawings. Posts frequently on Khmer decorative arts.

Living with Heritage Project. Their Facebook page description says  “founded by An Raksmey in 2013. We work on cultural research for heritage promotion.”

Have I missed anything? Please let me know in the comments!

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?”

2015-06-22 14.20.41

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

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.