Last week we interviewed Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans on the 2015 Cambodian lidar survey of remote temple sites scattered across the country. In this fascinating video he describes the game-changing work and reveals the exciting findings that have rocked the archaeology world and rewritten history.
Archaeologist Dr Damian Evans on the 2015 Cambodian Lidar Survey of Remote Temple Sites
We recently interviewed Cambodia-based archaeologist Dr Damian Evans on the 2015 Cambodian Lidar survey of more far-flung temple cities scattered across northern Cambodia. After we couldn’t secure permission in time to shoot the video out at the temples at Angkor Archaeological Park, and meet our deadline, we interviewed Damian Evans at bustling Wat Enkosei in Siem Reap instead.
We originally shot the interview to accompany our Guardian story. But just a small fraction of the footage, images and graphics we gave the Guardian were used in their video on the new discoveries. Rather than see the archaeologist’s fascinating explanations end up on the cutting room floor, we thought we’d share the out-takes here.
We interviewed Damian Evans in the leafy grounds of the Buddhist monastery and pagoda of Wat Enkosei in Siem Reap, home to a school, cemetery, and the ruins of the 10th century Hindu temple, Prasat Preah Enkosei.
Built by a high-ranking Brahmin dignitary, married to the daughter of King Rajendravarman II, who ruled from 944-968, Prasat Preah Enkosei was constructed around the same time as Banteay Srei. Only two sandstone sanctuaries remain at the site.
Boasting similarly intricate carvings to those that decorate pretty Banteay Srei, Prasat Preah Enkosei’s central sanctuary lintel depicts the creation myth from Hindu cosmology of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
This epic story also appears in bas-reliefs on the walls at Angkor Wat. In the lintel and pediment at Preah Enkosei, Vishnu can be seen holding the churning pole, as Shiva rides Nandi the bull, and Brahma sits on a throne.
As we paused the interview with Damian to wait for devout old ladies to light incense in the darkened central sanctuary and motorbikes to pass, my eyes wandered to the handsome structures. They were a constant reminder of how exquisite the architecture and art of the Angkor empire was.
For many, the 2015 Cambodian Lidar survey undertaken to collect the data that revealed the exciting archaeology discoveries is difficult to grasp. And in the media’s efforts to simplify something complex, the meaning sometimes gets lost. If you’re still struggling to understand how the technology works, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
In the interview Damian explains how Lidar works, he describes the 2015 Cambodian Lidar survey, and the first 2012 Lidar survey that his team undertook in Cambodia, which we reported on in 2013, and he talks about the size and scope of those groundbreaking campaigns.
Damian also explains succinctly what the most significant findings of both the 2012 and 2015 Cambodian Lidar surveys have been, which some of our colleagues in the media have also been confused about.
Atlas Obscura reported that the 2015 Cambodian Lidar survey provided “the first clear evidence that Angkor was densely populated”. It didn’t. That’s what the 2012 Lidar survey did, which we reported on after a peer-reviewed report was released on those findings in mid-2013. In 2015, the helicopter didn’t fly over Angkor Wat. That was in 2012. You can read more about that in our stories in The Guardian, CNN and National Geographic Traveller.
The Daily Mail seems to think that these are completely new archaeological sites that are being discovered for the first time. They’re not. The 2015 Cambodian lidar survey covered remote temple sites that were already known.
What the 2015 data revealed was that some of these sites were even more monumental, more highly urbanised and more sophisticated than archaeologists had previously thought. There might be little more than a crumbling tower or the rubble of the ruins of a temple, but the Lidar revealed that there are massive cities beneath the forest floor surrounding them, the remains of which aren’t visible to the untrained eye.
The New York Times seems to think that these previously undocumented cities are “surrounding Angkor Wat”. They’re not. The 2015 Lidar survey covered more far-flung sites. Sambor Prei Kuk is 170kms from Angkor Wat. Preah Khan of Kompong Svay is around 100kms from Angkor. Banteay Chhmar is 161kms north of Siem Reap near the Thai border.
Mahendraparvata atop Mount Kulen is the closest site, some 60kms away from Angkor. The site of Longvek is 305kms south and Oudong some 295kms south, much closer to Phnom Penh than Siem Reap or Angkor Wat.
Terence created a nice clean map that shows exactly where the sites are in relation to Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park, which you’ll see in the Guardian video.
Click through to this follow-up post to learn how and why we recommend you visit these more remote Cambodian archaeological sites.
Note that when you do, you probably won’t be able to identify the remains of the colossal urban settlements from the mounds of dirt you might see on the ground, unless you’re visiting with an archaeologist who happens to have some Lidar imagery at hand. Most of the buildings would have been made of perishable materials, such as wood and bamboo, which long ago disintegrated.
However, you’ll still be able to explore the temple sites that would have been at the core of the ‘downtown’ centres of these massive agricultural urban cities. And knowing what you now know of their size, sophistication and greatness should help make your experience even more enriching and more special.
Also see our post on how to the get most out of archaeological sites with lots of tips from Dr Damian Evans.
And please don’t hesitate to leave any questions you might have in the comments below. If we can’t answer them we’ll ask Dr Damian Evans to respond.