Archaeologist Says Existence of Siem Reap Lost City Long Known

The lead archaeologist behind a project in Siem Reap studying medieval ruins around Kulen mountain on Sunday sought to clarify international media coverage proclaiming the “discovery” of a lost city in the area, as researchers have known about the existence of the centuries-old city for decades.

On Saturday, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a “World Exclusive” claiming that archaeologists had, “in a stunning discovery,” uncovered an ancient buried city known as Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen plateau, near Angkor Wat.

But Jean-Baptiste Chevance, who is director of the Archaeology and Development Foundation and the project’s lead archaeologist, said his team had actually used cutting-edge technology to unveil some of the site’s buried secrets.

“The way they [the Sydney Morning Herald] put it together can make it feel very, very sensational,” said Mr. Chevance. “To be honest, it’s not totally new—the technology was new—but most of the monuments were well-known,” he said.

“It is an exaggeration to say a lost city has been found because if you’re working in Cambodia you know it’s been there since the 1900s.”

What was exciting about the project, Mr. Chevance said, was that by using Lidar technology—an airborne laser technology used in archaeology to help map features that may be indistinguishable on the ground and reveal micro-topography—his team could clearly see a whole urban network linking the temples.

“The main discovery is a whole network of roads and dykes that were linking monuments that were already known,” Mr. Chevance explained, adding that through Lidar technology the team did uncover about 30 more potential temples, most of them piles of bricks lying in the dense vegetation.

Mr. Chevance has been conducting excavations in the area since 2008. The Lidar technology was brought to Cambodia by the University of Sydney and is a very expensive process because it necessitates the use of a helicopter.

“They turned it into a very big story, but before that there’d been 10 years of work by [Mr. Che­vance],” added Stephane De Greef, the project’s lead cartographer.

However, Mr. De Greef noted, what the Lidar technology had brought to light was still “a massive game-changer” in that it had given archaeologists a much better idea of what lies beneath the mountain.

“We’re talking about a city that is more than 1,000 years old and is all underground. What you see at the site is what looks like termite hills. If you didn’t know, you might think it’s natural,” he said.

Mr. Chevance agreed: “It’s nice…to see all these canals and dykes linking the monuments we knew were there…. It’s very hard to see on the field but easy with Lidar technology.”

However, Damian Evans, director of the University of Sydney’s center in Cambodia and technical lead of the project, said the technology used had made some breakthrough discoveries.

“The point is what was there before was a series of small temples and what’s been discovered using the Lidar is the series of canals, roads etc. and they’ve found nearly 30 temples.”

However, he agreed with Mr. Chevance that the temples were not the main discovery as “hundreds of temples are discovered in Cambodia every year. The temples aren’t the main thing, that’s what the media have focused on.”

The important thing, Mr. Evans said, was that there had been debate for years as to whether there was really an actual city in the vicinity of Phnom Kulen—rather than just a handful of temples—and the Lidar mapping had finally solved the issue.

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