Cambodia is one of the richest countries on earth when it comes to archaeology. But what makes Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park temples and other Angkor sites so special? We asked an archaeologist.
One of the best things about living in Siem Reap is that the UNESCO World Heritage listed Angkor Archaeological Park, home to stupendous Angkor Wat and other Angkor temples, is just down the road; a handful of other interesting archaeological sites are a short drive away; and there are many more atmospheric off-the-beaten-track temples scattered around the country, waiting to be explored.
We never tire of visiting the temples. I’m a sucker for an Angkor Wat sunrise, I don’t care how many people are watching it. I get more out of the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and the Bayon each time I see them, particularly as we’re researching Cambodia’s cuisine and culinary history – they reveal much about how people cooked and what they ate. And I love that sense of discovery of visiting new temples for the first time. It makes no difference that millions have trod before me.
Few things irk me more than to hear travellers in Siem Reap complain about being “templed-out” and how they’ve “seen enough piles of rocks for one day”. Scrambling archaeological ruins isn’t for everyone but a visit here for most people is a once-in-a-life experience, so why not make the most out of it?
I hate to say it, but if you’re bored after one day at the temples, it might say more about you than those majestic monuments that are remnants of one of Southeast Asia’s greatest civilizations. Worth considering.
So we could tell you what we love about the temples, what we think makes them special, and why we think they warrant more than a day’s scrambling. But we decided to consult an expert – as we do.
An Archaeologist’s Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park
Meet Dr Damian Evans, former director of the University of Sydney’s Robert Christie Research Centre, now with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient in Siem Reap. We first met Damian when we returned to Cambodia to live in Siem Reap in June 2013 and found ourselves working on stories for The Guardian, CNN, National Geographic Traveller, and Wanderlust, on the release of a report describing the archaeological discoveries that had been confirmed by the images and data collected from a 2012 aerial survey using hi-tech Lidar technology.
The lead archaeologist and architect of the project, Damian is not the Indiana Jones stereotype that comes to mind for most people who think of archaeologists as people who spend their days hacking through jungles with machetes. Damian, whom I’ve seen wearing black more than khaki, admits to spending more time at his desk than on digs, never having stepped in a trench, and loving the tech aspect of his work.
Here’s an archaeologist’s guide to Angkor Archaeological Park and the other Angkor sites and what makes them special, what that hi-tech survey revealed, what’s left to discover, and what gets archaeologists excited. My hope is that it also gets you excited about visiting Angkor and inspires you to stay a little longer and get out and off the beaten track and explore more.
Q. What do you do as an archaeologist working at Angkor Archaeological Park and other Angkor-era sites in Cambodia?
A. For more than a century almost all of the work that’s been done on Angkor-period sites has been narrowly focused on a handful of areas, namely temples, inscriptions, and artwork. In part, this is because these are the most durable and most easily accessible components of material culture here. The stuff of everyday life, on the other hand, was by and large made of non-durable material like wood and thatch and has rotted away over the centuries.
As a result of this, the interpretations of architects, epigraphers, scholars of religion, and art historians have become the dominant narrative in studies of the Khmer past. Reading a standard history of the medieval Khmer is a bit like reading a very old-fashioned history of medieval Europe: epic tales of great men (and they are almost always men) and their god(s), of momentous battles, sieges, sackings, and this kind of thing.
Without meaning to downplay the incredible importance of the work that’s been completed, the historical reality of course is infinitely more interesting, and like many other archaeologists who’ve come to work in Cambodia in the last couple of decades, my objective is to try and fill in some of the missing pieces as best I can using the various approaches and techniques of archaeology.
Q. What makes the Angkor Archaeological Park and other Angkor sites so special for an archaeologist?
A. In many ways what was achieved here is unique and in some cases pretty much unparalleled in all of human history, at least before the industrial revolution. From my point of view it’s the scope and scale of the accomplishments that are amazing — not just in terms of temple building, but also in terms of the total re-engineering of the landscape, and in particular the system of water management.
Archaeologically speaking, Cambodia would have to be one of the richest countries on earth, and yet historical circumstances have created a situation where, until quite recently, modern archaeology had all but passed the country by.
In the last couple of decades that situation has begun to be remedied, in part at first by international teams, but increasingly by the burgeoning Cambodian archaeological community, with leading scholars positioned at places like the APSARA National Authority, the Royal Academy, and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. All in all it’s a very exciting time and place for an archaeologist to be in, and I feel very privileged to be allowed to work here.
Q. Is this why you decided to focus your work as an archaeologist in Cambodia?
A. Actually I’m not sure I really ever consciously made that decision, or even really the decision to become an archaeologist. I began an Arts degree at the University of Sydney with a view to ending up in law school, got kind of side-tracked, and now I find myself here nearly twenty years later with a PhD in archaeology (and still minus a law degree).
To this day I’ve never picked up a trowel or seen the inside of a trench, and what attracted me back in the 1990s – and still does today – was the unique convergence of exciting new technologies; new theoretical approaches to understanding the social and environmental context of the temples; the rich archaeological possibilities that have emerged in post-conflict Cambodia; and being part of a growing body of Cambodian and international scholars who are interested in pursuing some of those possibilities.
Q. Tell us about the Lidar survey you initiated using the airborne technology to chart Angkor Archaeological Park and other Angkor sites, such as those at Phnom Kulen and Koh Ker a few years ago.
A. The discoveries made using Lidar for the most part consisted of confirming things that we kind of knew already or at least strongly suspected. In some rare cases we were taken completely by surprise by what we saw unfolding on the screen in front of us when the data was delivered.
The real value of the technology is the ability to see these traces of early civilizations, traced into the surface of the landscape with near-perfect clarity, to achieve in a few hours of flying what would have taken decades of machete-work on the ground, and to arrive at consistent and comprehensive datasets at landscape scale that allow us to reach conclusions with relative certainty.
The Lidar data also provides such precision and clarity that we’re able to undertake much more sophisticated analyses than we were able to before, and provide the spatial intelligence that we need to target our limited ground resources much more effectively than we have in the past.
Q. Is there anything left to be discovered at Angkor Archaeological Park and other archaeological sites in Cambodia?
A. Sure. There is an immense archive of human activity spanning thousands of years that remains beneath the ground in this region, although that is true of many places in the world. One of the things that makes Cambodia so special is that this stuff is not only beneath the ground, but is also observable directly on the surface, which allows us to ‘read’ the landscape as a kind of archive of interactions between humans and their environment spanning several millennia – if we know how.
Until recently vegetation cover has obscured a lot of that, but technologies like Lidar (and unfortunately other processes like widespread deforestation) have unlocked a lot of the potential for this kind of research. There are many thousands of temples and other archaeological sites across Cambodia, and new ones are being documented on a regular basis all the time.
In terms of the surface archaeology, however, we are in a race against time to document it all – it is only a matter of time before processes like urban expansion, mechanized agriculture, and so on, erase these traces, as has already happened to a large extent in neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Thailand.
Q. As an archaeologist, what most excites you when you visit the temples at Angkor Archaeological Park and or other Angkor era sites around the country?
A. For me it’s not really the temples or anything like that. It’s the sense of being able to shine some light into the unknown. Angkor is among the signal achievements of human history, and yet there is a tremendous amount that we don’t know about the temples – or more specifically, about the ‘big picture’ questions about what happened around them.
The exciting thing for me is really the sense of discovery involved in beginning to answer some of those questions. This is different from the sense of discovery that’s portrayed in the media, of course, where the narrative is almost all about archaeologists using cutting-edge laser technologies and hacking through the jungle Indiana Jones style with their hired guns to find things that are supposedly “lost”, as in this cringe-worthy piece from the National Geographic a couple of days ago.
There is a bit of that, of course, and (considering 95% of my time is spent in my office writing emails etc) it can occasionally be fun, but it is not the reason why we do what we do, and is far from the most exciting aspect of the work, even if it’s the part that really captures the public’s imagination.
Read part two here: an archaeologist’s advice on how to get the most out of a visit to the Angkor archaeological sites.
Pictured above, Dr Damian Evans at digs just within the walls of Angkor Wat.
You can find Damian Evans on Twitter at @archaeoangkor