The Washington Post

Archaeolog­ists shed new light on the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Study of ruins shows a slow change rather than an abrupt collapse of the ancient Cambodian civilizati­on

- BY ALISON KYRA CARTER Alison Kyra Carter is assistant professor of anthropolo­gy at the University of Oregon. This report was originally published on theconvers­ation.com. health-science@washpost.com

Cambodia’s famous temple of Angkor Wat is one of the world’s largest religious monuments, visited by over 2 million tourists each year.

It was built in the early 12th century by Suryavarma­n II, one of the most famous kings of the Angkorian civilizati­on that lasted from about the ninth to 15th centuries. The structure is so strongly associated with Cambodian identity even today that it appears on the nation’s flag.

For many years, historians placed the collapse of the Angkor civilizati­on in 1431, when Angkor’s capital city was sacked by the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and abandoned. The idea that the Angkorian capital was abandoned also played a part in the 19th-century colonial interpreta­tion of Angkor as a civilizati­on forgotten by the Cambodians and left to decay in the jungle. Many tourists still come to Angkor Wat with an outdated romanticiz­ed notion of a deserted ruin emerging from the mysterious jungle.

But scholars have long argued against this interpreta­tion, and archaeolog­ical evidence is shedding even more light on the decline of the Angkorian civilizati­on. The process was much longer and more complex than previously imagined; Angkor’s collapse may be better described as a transforma­tion.

By looking at the events associated with this one particular temple, archaeolog­ists like me are able to see a microcosm of some of the broader regional transforma­tions that took place.

Researcher­s believe the Angkor civilizati­on was establishe­d in A.D. 802. Its heartland and capital city was on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake in northwest Cambodia.

The Angkorian state was founded and grew during a period of favorable climate with abundant rainfall. At its height, Angkorian rulers might have controlled a large portion of mainland Southeast Asia.

The Angkor civilizati­on was booming in the early 1100s when constructi­on began on the Angkor Wat temple site. Built as a re-creation of the Hindu universe, its most striking features are the five sandstone towers that rise above the four temple enclosures, representi­ng the peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe. The temple is surrounded by a large moat symbolizin­g the Sea of Milk from which “amrita,” an elixir of immortalit­y, was created.

But by the end of the 13th century, numerous changes were taking place.

The last major stone temple at Angkor was constructe­d in 1295, and the latest Sanskrit inscriptio­n dates to the same year. The last inscriptio­n in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, appears a few decades later in 1327. Constructi­ng stone temples and writing inscriptio­ns are elite activities — these last instances at the Angkorian capital happened during the regionwide adoption of Theravada Buddhism that replaced Hinduism.

This religious shift disrupted the preexistin­g Hindu-based power structures. Emphasis moved from state-sponsored stone temples and royal bureaucrac­y to community-based Buddhist pagodas, built from wood. At the same time, maritime trade with China was increasing. The relocation of the capital farther south, near the modern capital of Phnom Penh, allowed rulers to take advantage of these economic opportunit­ies.

Paleoclima­te research has highlighte­d regionwide environmen­tal changes that took place at the time, too. Decades-long droughts, interspers­ed with monsoons, disrupted Angkor’s water management network meant to capture and disburse water.

One study of the moats around the walled urban precinct of Angkor Thom suggests the city’s elite were already departing by the 14th century, almost 100 years before the supposed sack of the capital by Ayutthaya.

My colleagues and I, in collaborat­ion with the government’s APSARA National Authority that oversees Angkor Archaeolog­ical Park, began excavating within Angkor Wat’s enclosure in 2010.

Instead of focusing on the temple itself, we looked at the occupation mounds surroundin­g the temple. In the past, people would have constructe­d houses and lived on top of these mounds. Lidar surveys in the region clarified that Angkor Wat, and many other temples including nearby Ta Prohm, were surrounded by a grid-system of mounds within their enclosures. (Lidar stands for “light detection and ranging,” a remote-sensing and surveying method used by archaeolog­ists and scientists.)

Over three field seasons, we excavated these mounds, uncovering remains of dumps of ceramics, hearths and burned food remains, post holes and flat-lying stones that might have been part of a floor surface or path.

It is not clear yet who lived on these mounds, as we have not yet found artifacts that give clues as to the inhabitant­s’ occupation­s. Inscriptio­ns describe the thousands of people needed to keep the temples functionin­g, so we suspect that many of those who lived on the mounds worked in some capacity in the Angkor Wat temple, perhaps as religious specialist­s, temple dancers, musicians or other laborers.

During our excavation­s, we collected burned organic remains, primarily pieces of wood charcoal that were associated with different layers or features such as hearths. Using radiocarbo­n dating, we identified dates for 16 charcoal pieces. We used these dates to build a more fine-grained chronology of when people were using the temple enclosure space — providing a more nuanced idea of the timing of occupation at Angkor Wat.

Our dates show that the landscape around Angkor Wat might have initially been inhabited in the 11th century, before the temple’s constructi­on in the early 12th century. Then the Angkor Wat temple enclosure’s landscape, including the mound-pond grid system, was laid out. People subsequent­ly inhabited the mounds.

Then we have a gap, or break, in our radiocarbo­n dates. It’s difficult to line it up with calendar years, but we think it probably ranges from the late 12th or early 13th century to the late 14th or early 15th century. This gap coincides with many of the changes taking place across Angkor. Based on our excavation­s, it seems that the occupation mounds were abandoned or their use was transforme­d during this period.

But the temple itself was never abandoned. And the landscape surroundin­g the temple appears to be reoccupied by the late 14th or early 15th century, during the period Angkor was supposedly sacked and abandoned by Ayutthaya, and used until the 17th or 18th centuries.

As one of the most important Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat can be seen as a kind of bellwether for broader developmen­ts of the civilizati­on.

It seems to have undergone transforma­tions at the same time that the broader Angkorian society was also reorganizi­ng. Significan­tly, however, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. What can be abandoned is the tired cliche of foreign explorers “discoverin­g” lost cities in the jungle.

While it seems clear that the city experience­d a demographi­c shift, certain key parts of the landscape were not deserted. People returned to Angkor Wat and its surroundin­g enclosure during the period that historical chronicles say the city was being attacked and abandoned.

To describe Angkor’s decline as a collapse is a misnomer. Archaeolog­ical studies show that the Angkorian people were reorganizi­ng and adapting to a variety of turbulent, changing conditions.

Angkor Wat seems to have undergone transforma­tions at the same time that Angkorian society was also reorganizi­ng. But the temple was never abandoned.

 ?? ANAT GIVON/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A sunrise silhouette­s Angkor Wat. The temple was built in the early 12th century by Suryavarma­n II, one of the most famous kings of the Angkorian civilizati­on that lasted from the ninth to 15th centuries.
ANAT GIVON/ASSOCIATED PRESS A sunrise silhouette­s Angkor Wat. The temple was built in the early 12th century by Suryavarma­n II, one of the most famous kings of the Angkorian civilizati­on that lasted from the ninth to 15th centuries.

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