Angkor Wat archaeological excavations provide new clues to the decline of its civilization


Famous from Cambodia Angkor Wat temple is one of greatest religious monuments, visited by more than 2 million tourists every year.

It was built at the beginning of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, one of the most famous kings of Angkorian civilization which lasted from around the 9th to the 15th century. The structure is so strongly associated with Cambodian identity even today that it appears on the nation’s flag.

Image of Angkor Wat in 1880 by Louis Delaporte.
Louis Delaporte / Wikimedia Commons

For many years historians have placed the collapse of Angkor’s civilization in 1431, when The capital of Angkor was sacked by the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and abandoned. The idea of ​​abandoning the Angkorian capital also played a role in the Colonial interpretation of Angkor in the 19th century like a civilization forgotten by the Cambodians and left to rot in the jungle. Many tourists still come to Angkor Wat with a romanticized and outdated notion of a deserted ruin emerging from the mysterious jungle.

But scholars have long maintained against this interpretation, and archaeological evidence sheds even more light on the decline of Angkorian civilization. The process was much longer and more complex than previously imagined; The Angkor collapse can best be described as a transformation.

Looking at the events associated with that particular temple, archaeologists like me are able to see a microcosm of some of the larger regional transformations that have taken place in Angkor.

What has become of the Angkor civilization?

Researchers believe that the Angkor civilization was established in the year 802. Its heart and capital were on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake in Northwest Cambodia. The Angkorian state was founded and developed over a period of favorable climate with abundant precipitation. In its heyday, Angkorian rulers could have controlled much of mainland Southeast Asia.

Angkor civilization was in full swing in the early 1100s when construction began on the site of the Angkor Wat temple. Built as a recreation of the Hindu universe, its most striking features are the five sandstone towers that rise above the four temple enclosures, representing the peaks of Mont 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, many changes were taking place. the last great stone temple in Angkor was built in 1295, and the last Sanskrit inscription dates from the same year. The last inscription in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, appeared a few decades later in 1327. The building of stone temples and the writing of inscriptions are elite activities – the latter cases in the Angkorian capital occurred during the regional adoption of Theravada Buddhism which replaced Hinduism.

This religious change disrupted pre-existing Hindu power structures. The emphasis has shifted from state-sponsored stone temples and royal bureaucracy to communal Buddhist pagodas, built of wood. At the same time, maritime trade with China was increasing. The relocation of the capital further south, near the modern capital of Phnom Penh, allowed leaders to take advantage of these economic opportunities.

Paleoclimate research has highlighted region-wide environmental changes that were occurring at the time too. A series of decades-long droughts, interspersed with strong monsoons, disrupted Angkor’s water management network intended to collect and distribute water.

A study of the moat around the fortified city wall of Angkor Thom suggest that the city’s elite had already left by the 14th century, nearly 100 years before Ayutthaya’s supposed sack of the capital.

The author’s team, excavating the occupation mounds surrounding the Angkor Wat temple. Although this area is now covered with dense trees, in the past there would have been houses on these mounds.
Alison carter, CC BY-ND

Excavations in the grounds of the Angkor Wat temple

My colleagues and I, in collaboration with the government APSARA Authority who oversees the Angkor Archaeological Park, began digging in the grounds of the Angkor Wat temple in 2010.

Instead of focusing on the temple itself, we looked at the the occupation mounds surrounding the temple. In the past, people would have built 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 inside their enclosures.

Over the course of three seasons in the field, my colleagues and I excavated these mounds, discovering remains of ceramic landfills, hearths and scraps of burnt food, post holes and flat stones that may have been part of it. a ground or a path.

Archaeologists excavated a mound of a house inside Angkor Wat in 2015.
Alison carter, CC BY-ND

It is not yet known who lived on these mounds, as we have not yet found any artifacts that give clues to the occupations of the inhabitants. The inscriptions describe the thousands of people necessary for the temples to continue to function, 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 others. workers.

During our excavations, we collected burnt organic remains, mainly pieces of charcoal associated with different layers or with elements such as hearths. Using radiocarbon dating, we identified dates for 16 pieces of charcoal. We used these dates to build a finer timeline of when people used the temple compound space – providing a more nuanced idea of ​​when Angkor Wat was occupied.

A dumping ground for ceramics and food remains in an occupation mound. Archaeologists are removing burnt pieces of organic remains with features like this to date when particular activities have taken place.
Alison carter, CC BY-ND

Radiocarbon dates tell a different story

Our dates show that the landscape around Angkor Wat may have been originally inhabited in the 11th century, before the temple was built in the early 12th century. Next, the landscape of the Angkor Wat temple precinct, including the mound-pond grid system, was landscaped. People then inhabited the mounds.

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

However, the Angkor Wat temple itself has never been abandoned. And the landscape surrounding the temple appears to be reoccupied in the late 14th or early 15th century, during the period when Angkor was said to have been sacked and abandoned by Ayutthaya, and used until the 17th or 18th century.

Angkor Wat as a microcosm of civilization

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

It seems to have undergone transformations at the same time as Angkorian society at large was also reorganizing itself. Significantly, however, Angkor Wat has never been abandoned. What can be abandoned is the tired cliché of foreign explorers “discovering” lost towns in the jungle.

While it seems clear that the city has experienced a demographic shift, some key parts of the landscape have not been deserted. People returned to Angkor Wat and its surrounding precincts during the period when historical records say the city was under attack and abandoned.

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

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