Temple mapping: Laser-guided discoveries helping Cambodian communities, as well as historians

While the temple complex of Angkor Wat is an ever-present on bucket-lists, attracting millions of visitors a year, unbeknownst to many, the Cambodian jungle masks the remains of a sprawling urban civilisation.

Thanks to new technology these hidden structures are now being revealed for the first time. Not only are these discoveries a huge step forward for archaeology, they also enable the development of new tourism strategies for Cambodia, in particular at sites on the periphery of the tourism hotspots, which spreads the economic benefits further afield.

Figure_1.jpgAs per the article in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Damian Evans / Journal of Archaeological Science

The Khmer Empire lasted from the 9th to 15th centuries and, at its peak, covered much of modern Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam. The Khmer were unrivalled builders, with huge focus on infrastructure; including extensive road and, canal networks and irrigation systems. While religious sites such as Angkor were stone constructions, their urban networks, including royal palaces, were built of non-durable materials such as wood and thatch. The sheer scale of these networks involved re-engineering of the landscape, perhaps unparalleled in the pre-industrial world. While the traces of these ‘agro-urban’ landscapes remained unseen by historians and archaeologists for many years, new technology – in particular lidar (a portmanteau of light and radar), but also remote sensing and excavation – is revealing a holistic picture of the Khmer civilisation and the extent of its civilisational prowess.

The most recent application of this technology, a 2015 aerial lidar survey of the key archaeological sites of the region, was the most extensive piece of research ever undertaken. Contrary to popular belief, lidar does not penetrate the jungle canopy and ground. Instead a vast volume of laser pulses emitted from the aircraft mounted device find gaps in the jungle canopy and hit the ground. The aggregated picture acquired via millions of these laser bursts reveals the topography of the site, including traces of man-made structures and archaeological remains. The 2015 study has shed new light on sites such as quarries, geometric urban designs, canal and reservoir systems, which are giving archaeologists and historians new insight into the socio-economic landscape of the Khmer empire.

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The Angkor-period temple of Banteay Top, within the Banteay Chhmar acquisition block. Lidar revealed details of a large earthen enclosure and additional temple sites and occupation areas in the vicinity of this large stone temple. Photo:Damian Evans

One of the sites covered by the 2015 survey was Banteay Chhmar – a military centre of the 12th and 13th centuries located to the northwest of the Khmer imperial region.  Since 1992 it has been among Cambodia’s top-listed sites for nomination to UNESCO’s World Heritage List and since 2008 Global Heritage Fund UK has been working with local Cambodian authorities to help to produce a master plan and restore this site. Consumed by the jungle forest, most of the settlement is in ruins brought about by both plant growth and human intervention. But a key element of the project steps beyond the ruins, seeking to engage and empower the local community who are trained by GHF UK and its partners in conservation techniques, and employed by a locally run Community Based Tourism programme which focuses on providing hospitality and guiding to the ever-booming number of visitors to the region.

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As per the article in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Damian Evans / Journal of Archaeological Science

These new discoveries not only provide the first comprehensive overview of these great urban spaces, delivering important new insights into the evolution of Khmer agriculture, cities, and landscapes, they also enable organisations like GHF UK to identify the areas and structures in need of urgent conservation. And in turn develop new strategies to help communities in Cambodia (and indeed the world) to benefit – culturally, socially and economically – from the majestic remains of this once great civilisation.

The 2015 lidar survey was undertaken by Dr Damian Evans, Research Fellow at the EFEO and Principal Investigator of the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative, with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) and APSARA.    

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