Cambodia: Behind the discovery of a new Khmer city

Cambodia: Behind the discovery of a new Khmer city

A jungle-clad royal city, once the subject of local legend and with links to Angkor Wat, was recently identified to much excitement in Cambodia. Stéphane de Greef tells us about his part in mapping the ruins. The LiDAR imagery (scanning technology) that they acquired in April 2012 helped them realize that the temples they already knew about were part of a much larger urban network, a grid of main and secondary roads linking temples, dikes, reservoirs, channels and human settlements.

The city is part of a massive urban complex that links the famous temples of Angkor Wat with other, lesser known sites, such as Beng Mealea.

What exactly has been found?

The main site we discovered is the ancient royal capital of Mahendraparvata, sprawling over dozens of square kilometres. It is one of the first cities of the Angkor period but, until last year, all that remained of the city were isolated ruins in the jungle, and a fascinating legend of an ancient city no-one had ever seen.

There was a chance that Phnom Kulen, a mountain plateau 25 miles northeast of Siem Reap, was home to an important historical site, as indicated by ancient inscriptions and the presence of 30 small temples. But the evidence was lacking to actually connect these temples and confirm the hypothesis of a large archaeological site.

Cambodian people have been building rural villages over it, fishing in its channels and cultivating rice around its ruins for years. Unknowingly, they were living and farming in a rural setting at the exact same place where their ancestors, more than a thousand years ago, were living in a large urban environment.

previously known sites on the Kulen mountain include the 10th-Century stone elephant of Srah Damrey, a large monolith statue located in the forest; and the 10-12th Century 1000 Lingas river carvings.

There are no real roads to get to the middle of the Phnom Kulen plateau, so they can only accessed by dirt bike. There are also many minefields around as the plateau was occupied by Khmer Rouge soldiers for 30 years and was the site of many fierce battles between them and the Cambodian Army.How can you reach the city ruins?

Who lived there?

More research need to be conducted to answer this question with certainty, but as of now, the most likely answer is that this city, and the temples built around it, date back to the 9th Century and the reign of Jayavarman II.

This royal capital city is often cited as the birthplace of the Angkorian era. But these were the early years of the empire, and we realize we have still a lot to learn about their origin and culture. The discovery is therefore of tremendous value as it provides a missing piece of very large proportions in the reconstruction of the past.

How are the excavations going?

Excavations started in early 2013, during the dry season, and the results are still being assessed. More campaigns will be conducted year after year, considering the extent of the site.

The ‘treasures’ that archaeologists may find are not what one would expect in terms of gold, jewels and precious statues. They are, however, invaluable in terms of history and culture, helping us understand how the people lived at the time, which gods they worshipped, how the city was built, and why it was abandoned.

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