Research Reveals New Insights on Angkor Empire

Archaeological research from Siem Reap province may soon have historians revisiting their assertions about the Angkorian monarchal lineage. The latest data, which relies on radiocarbon dating, suggest Angkor was a royal capital at least 200 years earlier than popularly believed, according to a paper being published this month in Aseanie Journal.

While the commonly agreed-upon origin of the Angkor Empire dates back to the beginning of the ninth century with the ascension of Jayavarman II, the new findings indicate there was royal occupation of the area a full two centuries earlier.

“It’s always been supposed that the eighth century was a complete mess and Jayavarman II came back and pulled it all together,” said Christophe Pottier, head of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Siem Reap. “It’s a nice story for children, but actually we can show that Jayavarman II did not create a number of the temples. They were already in place.”

According to Dan Penny, director of the Great Angkor Project at the University of Sydney, Dr Pottier’s research is part of a growing body that “ruptures the simplistic linear model of Khmer history, and renders the terms ‘pre-Angkorian’ and ‘Angkorian’ increasingly meaningless,” he wrote via e-mail.                                                “Fundamentally these data place Angkor not at the zenith of a linear historical trajectory—from Funan to Chenla to Angkor—but rather as part of a more complex political milieu in which Angkor was contemporary with other major Khmer polities,” he added.

Long considered structures of lesser importance, the pre-Ang­korian sites adjacent to Angkor Wat have been largely ignored by scholars of the empire, but 10 years of excavations by Dr Pot­tier’s team have uncovered a more complex picture of the older cities whose infrastructure—from the canals to the monuments—largely mirrored that of Angkor.

“The beginning of Angkor in fact goes much further beyond,” explained Dr Pottier. “Angkor was a place of power starting at the seventh century.”

Angkorian research tools have remained virtually static for the past century, typically relying on just two indicators: inscriptions and temples. But inscriptions are limited in number and their content can be misleading, some researchers maintain.

“This is one of the very few projects to really push the envelope, to move beyond texts and architecture towards a more holistic view of the archaeological re­cord,” said Damian Evans, an archaeologist based in Siem Reap, via e-mail.

“I would expect the transition from pre-Angkor to Angkorian periods to be completely rewritten by the work of this team in the course of the next few years, in the Siem Reap region, at least,” he added.

Still, Dr Pottier and others noted, despite its fairly widespread use, radiocarbon dating has its own attendant set of difficulties.

“You have to be extremely cautious with radiocarbon determinations,” explained archaeologist Charles Higham. “For example, if you use charcoal that comes from an old tree, then the date will

be older than the event under

consideration.”

In the case of the city of Hari­halaya centered over the temple of Bakong, its settlements so paralleled those of Angkor that their designer had to be the same, said Dr Pottier. But when the re­searchers radiocarbon dated the trace remnants of the occupations, they found them to pre-date Jayavarman II.

In addition to the similarities between the housing and monuments across the eras, the excavation revealed the location of the royal palace of Hariharalaya.

“It’s really difficult to speak of lineage at all. We don’t even have the name of these kings,” said Dr Pottier of those who predated the known Angkor lineage. “I don’t mean we can forget the other sites in Cambodia in order to follow the gradual development of kingship. But now we know we have to include Angkor itself.”

Bun Narith, director general of the Apsara Authority, commended the work but noted that the latest findings hardly suggest it’s time to rewrite the history books.

“There’s a lot of research and a lot of results, but we cannot say previous results are wrong and new ones are right. We just listen to everything, follow everything and maybe sometime in the future, when we have gathered a lot of research, we will meet with the Ministry of Education and reevaluate history,” he said. “But not now.”

(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng)

 

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