Ancient Secrets


Before the looting frenzy of the late 1980s that would end a decade later with armed and uniformed soldiers trucking away the last movable statues, a vast treasure trove was stored away in this remote Angkorian site.

Villagers still recall finding gold rings and bracelets just by digging a few centimeters below surface at the complex in Sangkum Thmei district’s Roanakse commune.

Archaeologist Mitch Hendrickson on a field trip at the Preah Khan of Kompong Svay temple in Preah Vihear province last month. (Enric Catala)
Archaeologist Mitch Hendrickson on a field trip at the Preah Khan of Kompong Svay temple in Preah Vihear province last month. (Enric Catala)

But why this once affluent site was left to fade into jungle overgrowth centuries ago still remains a mystery. Prak Sonnara, director of heritage at the Ministry of Culture, calls it “one of the most enigmatic provincial centers of the Khmer Empire.”

It was also gigantic, noted Canadian archaeologist Mitch Hendrickson. “An interesting temple because it has multiple phases and it just tends to grow outward and outward and outward to the fourth enclosure walls which are earth and not stone,” he said.

“You look at the area that that encloses: It’s roughly 22 square kilometers. Just to put that in perspective, Angkor Thom is 12 square kilometers,” he said, referring to the walled city in the Angkor Archaeological Park.

The complex of Preah Khan—the largest single-temple compound erected during the Angkorian empire—was built over several centuries, from the late 10th century through the late 12th century, Mr. Hendrickson said. “So [kings] Suryavarman I, Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII all have a footprint here. And kings in between seemed to have had some sort of modifications here and there.”

A team of archaeologists record data of an iron scoria sample at the temple complex. (Enric Catala)

Since his first visit to Preah Khan of Kompong Svay—called simply “Bakan” by locals—in 2007, Mr. Hendrickson has been fascinated by the site, eventually compelling him to enroll colleagues from Cambodia and several other countries to join him and attempt to get to the bottom of some of the more perplexing aspects of the temple’s mysterious history.

During his doctoral research on the Angkorian road network, Mr. Hendrickson found that two kings had paid a great deal of attention to the 100-km road connecting Preah Khan to the empire’s capital of Angkor in today’s Siem Reap province. Rest-house temples had been built on one side of the road by Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and on the other side by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th to early 13th centuries. “There’s no other [Angkorian] road that has that kind of imperial interest, shall we say,” he said.

The reason may be that Preah Khan is 27 km from Phnom Dek, Cambodia’s richest source of iron ore. “The argument that I’m putting forth for my entire project is the Khmer empire was unable to reach the feats that they did without increasing iron production,” said Mr. Hendrickson, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A damaged section of Preah Khan. (Enric Catala)

To build temples at Angkor, they needed iron tools and probably thousands of metal braces to put in-between stones; and to feed this expanding empire, they also needed agricultural tools, he said. “And you can’t conquer all the different neighboring groups without good sources of weapons.”

“So it is possible that this place was a major economic player in not the production but the iron exchange mechanism: This would be the outpost that is facilitating iron to move in,” he said.

“This truly was an industrial city, a site genuinely mostly industrial,” said French archaeologist and epigraphist Dominique Soutif, who heads the Siem Reap City office of the French research institution Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient. “Important production and extensive production means a large city, and a big city involves a big temple.”

Maintaining an industrial workforce would have required feeding, housing and caring for a large population, meaning that people of various trades and professions would have worked in the area, he said.

A section of the Preah Khan at sunrise. (Enric Catala)

“The expanding city,” he said, “benefited from the economic and industrial dynamism and so did the temple.” This seems to have continued even into the 16th century, well after kings had abandoned Angkor and relocated Cambodia’s capital, he said.

A great deal of work still needs to be done, however, to turn these hypotheses into historical facts, added Mr. Soutif, who has been conducting excavations on site with Mr. Hendrickson. Their latest was in January, and their team was made up of researchers from the University of Sydney and Cambodian archaeologists, including Phon Kaseka, head of the archaeology department at the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

Another aspect of the research being undertaken at Preah Khan is to study the transition from Mahayana Buddhism, which was practiced at Angkor, to Theravada Buddhism, which was adopted afterward and continues to be the country’s predominant tradition, Mr. Kaseka said. “This site is a place where Buddhist religious practice changed,” he said. Among the research subjects are two towers believed to date from the two different phases of Buddhism.

Initial excavations and study have also suggested that the vast compound at Preah Khan was used for the production of metal objects and even stone sculptures. A “practice stone”—used by an artisan to try their hand at a design—was found at the site, Mr. Hendrickson said.

An archaeologist’s fieldwork notes. (Enric Catala)

This may have generated trade with other areas of the country and the region. “We have found pottery from every single part of the Khmer world,” Mr. Hendrickson said.

To find answers regarding iron smelting and forging, he called on a French research laboratory specializing in the study of metal. The Laboratoire Archéomatériaux et Prévision de l’Altération (LAPA) has developed groundbreaking technology to study metal objects found at archaeological sites.

In March, three LAPA researchers were assisted by Mr. Hendrickson, Mr. Kaseka and an archaeology team from the Ministry of Culture during a field trip to Phnom Dek and the Preah Khan.

This is the first time that these new technologies, developed for millennium-old monuments in Europe, have been used so extensively in Asia, archeometallurgist Philippe Dillmann said. “Determining the quantity of metal needed to build a temple [at Angkor] is something that really fascinates us.”

Over the course of the 10-day field trip, the team conducted 900 preliminary analyses on as many samples, said Stephanie Leroy, also an archeometallurgist.

A roof tile discovered last month, which archaeologists believe indicates that elite lived in the temple compound. (Enric Catala)

Further analysis is being conducted at their laboratory in France to answer questions such as whether smelting methods evolved over the centuries and whether metal braces used for temples at Angkor came from iron smelted at Phnom Dek or were fashioned at Preah Khan, she added. Already, physicochemical analysis has revealed that the iron at Preah Khan was actually steel that is, iron of the highest quality.

This marks the first time that iron used for the construction of Angkorian monuments has been analyzed, Mr. Hendrickson noted. Determining the origin of that iron should help draw a picture of industrial and trade systems during the empire, he said. Despite decades of intensive research into temples built during Angkor, hardly anything is known about daily life during the period.

And at Preah Khan, the mysteries go even deeper. Since there was no quarry for sandstone nearby, researchers have no idea where they found the stones to build the temple’s 800-meter long wall, which is 3.5 meter high, let alone the other structures in the vast compound.

An archaeologist collects iron scoria sample. (Enric Catala)

“We’re talking of 4-meter square blocks that weigh between five and 10 tons,” said Christian Fischer, a geologist with the Cotsen Institute of Archeology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The sandstone at the monument comes from the geological level known as “terrain rouge” stratum, and there is no obvious source of it in the region. In view of the weight and amount of sandstone needed to build at Preah Khan, the Khmer would have looked for the closest source, Mr. Fischer said. He believes that the stones came from the bottom of the 3-kilometer-long water reservoir, or baray, connected to the compound, with workers removing the sandstone blocks as they dug. “The problem is that we have no proof at this point,” he said. Drilling would tell, he added.

And these are only some of the secrets of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay that the researchers hope to uncover or confirm. Traces of paint found at the site may indicate that the whole monument’s structures were covered with paint and metal sheets.

“The site was of incredible wealth, that’s for sure,” Mr. Fischer said. “When you pick an excavation zone, do two or three trenches of a few meters square, then dig maybe a meter and find Chinese coins, it’s rather extraordinary.” These coins from the 10th and 11th centuries were found during the excavation in January, indicating foreign trade or visitors—or both—500 or 600 years ago.

Archaeologists collect iron scoria samples last month. (Enric Catala)

So even in spite of the looting, artifacts can still be found. Walking the vast compound, Mr. Hendrickson said he found 900 looting pits, and then stopped counting. For the excavation this year, he turned to Lidar—a remote-sensing laser technology—to identify an excavation area that had not previously been looted.

“Until the late 1980s, the temple was really beautiful,” recalled Chea Vanna, chief of the temple’s guards. “Then locals and outsiders came to dig for gold….Sometimes they saw gold next to a temple’s building and they just kept digging underneath. That’s one of the main reasons that led to the destabilizing of temple structures.”

In the late 1990s, looting got out of control. Men in military uniforms trucked out statues in return for money from Thai businesspeople, Mr. Vanna added. The trade was curbed when the Ministry of Culture hired guards to protect the site in 2000 and completely stopped in the mid-2000s following local education campaigns by authorities and NGOs, he said.

Today, the most pressing problem for the 24 guards is illegal logging, as some of the grand trees on the site are precious wood, he said. Guarding the vast site is no simple matter: Over the centuries, it was invaded by the jungle, covering the ground in a green carpet as trees grew through structures and surrounded the compound, making for a site as beautiful and eerie as it is difficult to protect.

A section of the temple pillaged by looters. (Enric Catala)

To help the situation, the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the site, has increased the number of guards, said Veth Vannak, senior technical officer in the ministry’s Department of Archeology. “The ministry is planning to register the trees into the state inventory so we will have a record,” he added. “This site has tourism potential with its beautiful natural setting.”

Krouch Bundol, chief of Roanakse commune, remembers different problems in the 1990s, when locals lived in fear of fighting between the Cambodian military and Khmer Rouge soldiers who were still holding out in the region. Now, he said, the focus was on convincing people that preserving the site and its natural splendor would pay off.

“One of the most important messages we have spread among local villagers is that people can make money from the temple and so they should join in with the authorities to protect the temple and trees around and inside the compound,” he said.

The temple is set in the countryside, about 4 hours from Siem Reap City in a commune with eight villages that are home to about 400 families in all. The site currently attracts maybe 10 tourists a day in high season, villagers say. Although there is a restaurant for tourists and a couple of guesthouses also offering meals, visitors tend to only stay for the day.

A visitor explores the temple complex. (Enric Catala)

But the future prospects for the temple are promising. Preah Khan of Kompong Svay—named to differentiate it from the Preah Khan monument of Angkor, as it used to be in Kompong Svay district—is on the Unesco’s tentative list of the World Heritage sites.

“The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has made the preservation of this least known great Angkorian monument a priority,” said Mr. Sonnara, the director of heritage.

Mr. Hendrickson’s hope is that archeology students from the Royal University of Fine Arts will join in and select this temple for their thesis, and that the site can become a study ground for both Cambodian and international students.

“There’s so much to dig there and such an opportunity to train the next generation.”

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