Last week we interviewed Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans about the 2015 Cambodian lidar survey of remote temple sites scattered across the country. In this fascinating video he describes the gamechanging research 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

Last week we interviewed Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans on the 2015 Cambodian Lidar Survey of remote temple cities scattered across northern Cambodia.  After we couldn’t secure permission in time to shoot video out at the temples at Angkor Archaeological Park, we interviewed Damian at Wat Enkosei in Siem Reap instead. The videos were shot to accompany our Guardian story.

Jump straight into the video here or scroll down to read on first.

We interviewed Dr 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 in between interviews with Dr Damian Evans to wait for devout old ladies to light incense in the darkened central sanctuary and motorbikes to pass by, my eyes wandered to the handsome structures. They were a constant reminder of how old, how culturally rich, and how exquisite the architecture and art of the Angkor empire were.

Just a tiny fraction of the interview clips that we gave the Guardian were used in the video on the new discoveries that they produced to accompany our story. Rather than see Damian’s fascinating explanations end up on the cutting room floor, we thought we’d share the ‘out-takes’ here.

For many, the 2015 Cambodian lidar survey that was undertaken to collect the data that revealed the exciting discoveries is difficult to grasp. Reading some of the news stories this week (many of which disappointingly copied our own without adequate attribution), I’ve been surprised at how little writers seem to understand the subject. And in their efforts to simplify something complex for a reader whose comprehension skills they must doubt, the meaning of concepts has been lost.

In the interview above we ask Damian to begin by explaining how lidar works, as well as to describe the 2015 Cambodian lidar survey, and the first lidar survey that his team undertook in Cambodia in 2012, along with the size and scope of those groundbreaking campaigns. He does that very simply so if you’re also struggling to understand how this incredible technology works, do watch the video if you haven’t yet.

Another thing that we asked Damian to do, which he does exceedingly well in these interviews, is to explain succinctly what the most significant findings of both the 2015 Cambodian lidar survey and the 2012 Cambodian lidar have been. Again, it’s something that reporters who have covered this story in recent days have often failed to do, because they’ve failed to understand the discoveries themselves.

Atlas Obscura reports 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 at all. I think I did a pretty decent job of explaining those surveys and discoveries in The Guardian, on CNN and in National Geographic Traveller at the time.

The Daily Mail seems to think that these are completely new 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 and can be visited. (See the link below to my next post on how you can explore those.) What the 2015 data revealed was that several of these sites were more monumental, more highly urbanised and more sophisticated than they had thought. Whereas there might be little more than temple ruins at a site, the reality is that there were massive cities surrounding them, the remains of which probably 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. These are 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 sites, 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.

Terence has 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 video.

In this follow-up post you can learn how and why you should visit these remote Cambodian archaeological sites.

Note that 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). These 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 cities. And knowing what you now know of their size, sophistication and greatness should help make your experience even more special.

Before you go, see our post on How to the get most out of archaeological sites, with 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 Evans, a member of his team or another leading expert to respond.

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