Research: Angkor Was Largest Ancient City

By Molly Ball

the cambodia daily

siem reap – Stretching over more than 1,000 square km and inhabited by as many as 1 million people, the medieval civilization of Angkor was by far the largest city of the pre-modern era, new evidence appears to show.

“We believe [Angkor] was…not only the largest collection of religious monuments but the single largest, most extensive pre-industrial urban complex on Earth,” Roland Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney, said last week. “And the remains are still there.”

Fletcher and Christophe Pot­tier, of the French Institute of East Asian Studies, have put together data from archaeological excavations with radar images taken from space.

The findings, however, result not just from new photos and digs, but from a change in perspective—“a way of seeing—a recognition of the class of low-density cities,” as Fletcher and Pottier write in their article “The Gos­samer City,” published in the new double issue of the UN Edu­cational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s quarterly Museum International devoted to Angkor.

“Cities of this kind are the current, dominant industrial urban form. Recognizing such cities helps to override the traditional Western assumption that urban settlements are necessarily compact and densely inhabited,” the article states.

“Angkor was essentially like Los Angeles—a giant, low-density city,” Fletcher said in an interview. “It’s the pre-industrial equivalent of the [US’] East Coast megalopolis that stretches from Washington to Boston.”

The radar images—the first was taken in 1994 from the US space shuttle “Endeavor”—led researchers to suspect a much larger Angkor settlement than anyone had previously thought. They revealed a number of stark straight lines, invisible from the ground—the roads and canals that organized Angkor.

Pottier’s digs seem to confirm this idea. In surveying over 600 square km, the southern half of the apparent complex, Pottier found about one settlement per square kilometer. His finds included household objects, structural ruins and human remains, all pointing to a vast network of organized human settlements.

These findings contravene the previous conception, which held that the walled city of Angkor Thom constituted the “city” of Angkor, which was surrounded only by isolated, disorganized rural farms.

“It’s common in research that you only find what you’re looking for. When you look for monuments, you get monuments. If you look for a walled city like Angkor Thom, of course that is what you find,” Pottier said.

A new trend in archaeology emphasizes small-scale excavations that illuminate how ordinary people lived over “treasure hunting” for extraordinary monuments and artifacts, Pottier said.

“We knew they had kilns, because we saw the ceramics, but we never excavated for them,” he said, referring to the recent discovery of enormous ancient pottery-firing ovens. “We knew there must be houses, but no one excavated for them.

“I started working on an area that was supposed to be well-known, and I found twice as many settlement sites as were previously known,” he added.

The next-largest pre-modern settlement was Tikal, in the Yucatan peninsula of present-day Mexico, which was only 150 to 300 square km and had the same low-density structure.

“Basically, there are two ways to organize a city,” Fletcher said. “It can be very compact and dense and bring its resources from outside, or it can be spread out over the resource base.”

With its complex, phenomenally sophisticated irrigation network, Angkor was able to spread its people out along roads and canals, thereby avoiding the high cost of food transport to a central area, Fletcher said.

Pottier, who is now expanding his digs to the northern half of the settlement, cautions that theories come and go with the mind-set of the age, while the ancient past remains a mystery.

“Maybe in 10 years or 50 years, people will have a different perspective, different tools of investigation, and they will laugh at us,” he said.


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