Research May Alter Accepted History of Angkor’s End

Research released on Monday in the Journal of Archaeological Science may lead to whole chapters of Cambodia’s history being rewritten.

The results of the most extensive airborne laser-scanning campaign ever conducted on an archaeological project show that the city of Angkor may not have been abandoned in the 15th century due to a Siamese attack and occupation, as previously believed.


A man inspects lidar equipment mounted on the right skid of a helicopter in 2015 (Francisco Goncalves)
A man inspects lidar equipment mounted on the right skid of a helicopter in 2015 (Francisco Goncalves)

Khmer kings may have relocated in the course of political upheavals, but ground surface scans do not show thousands of people following them, writes Australian archaeologist Damian Evans in the article.

“It now seems plausible that an illusion of premodern mobility and urban disjuncture has been created by episodes of fusion and fission of authority among different royal houses…and may not, in fact, have involved the physical ‘movement’ of anything much at all, let alone radical demographic shifts, or entire cities being carved ex nihilo from the wilderness,” he writes.

A research fellow at the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) based in Siem Reap City, Mr. Evans conducted the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI) in March and April 2015. Flying over 1,910 square km of Cambodia, he collected data with remote-sensing technology—known as Lidar—that penetrates forests and vegetation, gathering information about the soil’s surface and enabling archaeologists to find out whether land in a given area was ever disturbed by human activity.

The information collected will take years to analyze. But already, it has provided information that may force researchers to reassess the idea that the Angkorian empire collapsed in the early 15th century.

“In spite of the dubious nature of the evidence for the sacking of Angkor, and regardless of evidence for the continued vitality of Angkor and Cambodia in the post-Angkorian period…the period between the late 13th to early 15th centuries is now associated with the kind of dramatic demographic decline at Angkor implied by the word ‘collapse,’” Mr. Evans writes.

The Angkor-era Banteay Top temple (Damian Evans)

If this were the case, the landscape would reflect the sudden movement of hundreds of thousands of people away from Angkor and toward post-Angkorian capitals; but so far, there is no evidence of such massive migration, he said.

These preliminary findings are quite exciting, historian David Chandler wrote in an email on Sunday night.

“The people who built and worshipped in the temples have joined the temples to give us a complex, intriguing picture of Angkor as an inhabited site instead of as a mysterious monumental space,” he wrote.

This offers a vision of the population—estimated at about 1 million people—actually using and managing waterworks and roads, even after their kings had left, added Mr. Chandler, one of the foremost historians on Cambodia.

The CALI project was supported by Cambodia’s government and a long list of international organizations and universities involved in archaeological research in the country. This was the second Lidar campaign—the first one, in 2012, was also led by Mr. Evans.

It now will take years to analyze the data and conduct field research based on the findings, Mr. Evans wrote in an email on Sunday night.

“We know very well today that humans are profoundly altering the surface of the planet and strongly influencing global systems such as climate and so on; I think perhaps what we hadn’t realized before was the extent that this also took place in the distant past, although of course on a more limited and localised scale, but with equally challenging consequences for societies in antiquity,” he said.

“It’s a very exciting time to be an archaeologist, and perhaps the most exciting time in the history of aviation to be an aerial archaeologist.”

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