Tag Archives: Archaeology

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 Enough already with this outdated trope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.

More on refugees at Angkor Wat

One of the most popular recent posts on this blog was “The people who lived at Angkor Wat,” and people seemed especially struck by the image of refugees at Angkor Wat in 1970. I had asked if anyone knew more about refugees staying at Angkor Wat during the war and I was glad to hear from a reader, Teddy, who told me about “Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey” by Ronnie Yimsut. 



In this memoir of the Khmer Rouge period, Ronnie Yimsut describes being told to go to Angkor Wat by Vietcong soldiers, who said there would be food and safety if his family sheltered there.  Ronnie recounts that the Vietcong were sending many families to Angkor Wat, and when they arrived the road into the temple was crowded, so they crossed the moat. 

It was sunset when Norane carried me into the outer walls of the Angkor Wat. We were both exhausted. We were hungry, but there was no sign of the promised stockpiles of food. The Khmer Rouge had tricked us. Oh, how I hated them. Would we ever get to go home? Where was home anyway? We couldn’t stay in our bullet-riddled house. 


The communist guerrillas were very efficient and effective con men. They had massed us into the temple ruins to serve as human shields (p. 34).

Ronnie Yimsut describes spending 7 weeks starving in the Angkor Wat temple before he and his family left for the nearby village of Domdek. 

Angkor Wat may have been an important place of refuge for people at many points during the past. A colleague of mine, David Brotherson, wrote his honor’s thesis on the possible re-use of Angkor Wat as a fortification during the post-Angkorian period.

I’m interested in hearing from more people with any thoughts on this topic or other memoirs that might cover Angkor and the Khmer Rouge period. Leave a comment below or feel free to contact me.


Angkor: Then and Now

The last stop on the Paul and Alison tour of fun was Siem Reap and Angkor Archaeological Park.  In Siem Reap we stayed at my favorite guest house – Two Dragons.  This was Paul’s first time visiting Angkor but my second (my first visit was in 2005).  In order to keep things a bit more interesting I thought I’d share some photos from my first visit and most recent to show how things have changed in just a few short years.  I also wanted to share some photos from the rehabilitation work being done at some of the temples in the park.  Check them out when you click Keep reading!

The happy couple at Ta Prohm

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Phnom Kulen Redux

I’ve already blogged about my trip to Phnom Kulen back in March but I recently wrote another article about it for TouchStone and wanted to post the text here. It includes more details from the project director JB about the Phnom Kulen Archaeological Project.

In other news readers in Cambodia can check out my “Insider’s Guide to the Royal Palace” in the most current issue of TouchStone magazine, available at bars and restaurants around Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. There are lot of other interesting articles in the issue including some about ancient Angkorian rice fields, and contemporary artists in Cambodia, definitely worth checking out!

Read more about Phnom Kulen after jump:

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Angkor Borei and Fun with Google Earth

2005 was my first trip to Cambodia and I came as a volunteer with the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project (LOMAP) with Dr. Miriam Stark at the University of Hawai’i. This trip had a major impact on my academic career trajectory. I had just finished my first year of graduate school and was almost 100% sure I was ready to focus my research in Southeast Asia, but wasn’t quite sure what to expect having never been here. I spent an amazing summer based in the city of Angkor Borei in Takeo Province doing survey with LOMAP, and by the end became quite sure that I was ready to focus my research here. I’ve spent the time since learning Khmer, taking my quals, finishing classes, writing my dissertation proposal, teaching, applying and receiving funding and now finally here doing PhD research.

Angkor Borei is a large site in the Mekong Delta region of Cambodia, not far from the Vietnamese border. It is believed to have been one of the capitals of a pre-Angkorian kingdom the Chinese called Funan. It was linked by a sophisticated canal system with a similar site in Vietnam called Oc Eo. Oc Eo was excavated in the 1940s by an archaeologist named Louis Malleret with the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO). Angkor Borei was known to the French and mapped by them but archaeological research did not begin in earnest until the 1990s with LOMAP. Prior to this project most of the evidence about this site and the kingdom of Funan were known from Chinese historical documents and the brief excavations undertaken by Malleret. There are still more questions than answers but it does appear that this site was inhabited as early as a few centuries BC (2nd or 3rd C) continuously through the Angkorian period (9th-15th century AD). [The LOMAP project and Miriam Stark’s webpage (linked above) have links to PDFs on articles about Angkor Borei and the LOMAP project.]

My PhD research includes materials from Angkor Borei and it is definitely one of the most important archaeological sites in Cambodia. Recently while checking out Google Earth I noticed that higher resolution images had been posted of this area and I couldn’t resist sharing them along with a very brief background and some photos from my trip in 2005. Read on below.

Above: Angkor Borei Town

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Phnom Kulen

Finally back home in Phnom Penh after being gone for so long. I really loved spending time in the countryside but it’s nice to be back and stop living out of a suitcase. I have one last post about my time away about a short trip I took to visit Phnom Kulen, a mountain site not far from Siem Reap that is well-known for its Angkorian period pottery kilns. I was lucky enough to join some folks from a Center for Khmer Studies workshop who came up for a field trip and we got to visit the excavation and conservation project run by the French archaeologist known as JB (for Americans reading that is pronounced Gee Bey). JB is wrapping up the first year of a 3-year project excavating and doing conservation on some of the many brick temple sites located on Phnom Kulen mountain. One amazing side note: his project is privately funded entirely from donations from rich business people in England. Attention rich business people: I am currently accepting applications for the position of benefactor! I mentioned below my lack of jungle experience in Cambodia but a trip to Kulen mountain changed all that. More after the jump.


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Salt Production at Ban Non Wat

Last year when I was working on the excavations at Ban Non Wat in Thailand, the squares I was working in had a lot of very very deep holes. There were so many of them we were kind of baffled about what they were used for. One suggestion was that they were used for salt production as this is a fairly common practice in this region today. While I was at Ban Non Wat this year, we were fortunate enough to see a local village woman making salt. One of the Thai archaeologists asked her about the process and she said this was only her 4th or 5th time making salt, as each time she had done it she produced enough salt to last her 10-15 years. This was a technique she had learned from her mother (although it is not exclusively done by women). I documented the process in photos below.

Salt production

This is the area where she was doing he salt production. On the very right-hand side you can see the very edge of a big pile of soil she was extracting salt from. The large contraption on the left is a new technique for making salt she was trying out. The traditional method for extracting salt is in the center.

Salty Water

This is a small hole she had dug where she put the salty soil and some water together to make a nice salinated mixture.


This is a funky angle but to the left is the corner of the same little pit above. Next to it she dug a deep hole where she put a ceramic jar. She dug a small hole between the two areas and stuck a bamboo tube between them that acts as a conduit for the salty water to drip from the small pit into the jug.


The salty water from the small jug above is then placed into these larger ceramic jars where it is stored until just the right moment.


This is the new contraption the woman was trying out to filter out the salt into the salt water solution. She’d never tried it before but it does the same thing without all that hole-digging.


Here’s another view of the operation a few days later. The storage tanks are on the right, the big mound of salty soil in the middle, and on the left is a little rectangular pan on a fire.


A closer view of the pan. After a few days in the jugs she has now moved the salinated water to this pan and is boiling off the water to get the salt.


The final product after the boiling process-salt! Looks kinda like couscous.