A new excavation on an iconic Cambodian temple reveals who worked there, how they lived, and how they may have been conquered.
The Temple at Angkor Wat is an icon, both within Cambodia and around the world. Even people who don’t know anything about it often recognize the image. Today, the temple is a Buddhist site, but when it was first built in the 1100s, it was a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. The temple remains a fascinating site to archaeologists because it bears the marks of an evolving country. Historians can link the cessation of bas-relief carvings to the death of a king. They can link damage to the elaborate surrounding canal and reservoir system to heavy monsoons. The temple and the nation changed together.
Recently, archaeologists from the University of Sydney took a closer look. They flew over the site and took images using LiDAR and ground-penetrating radar, and carefully excavated certain areas. Apparently Angkor Wat was not only a temple, it was a hub. The temple had once been surrounded by roads, ponds, and houses, where temple workers probably lived. It was an entire complex—for a while.
Close to the temple itself, the archaeologists found evidence of more construction. These were wooden, and they weren’t worker houses or decorative additions to the temple — they were fortifications. Some time between 1297 AD and 1630 AD, the temple added large wooden barriers. They were likely the last modifications to the temple, which roughly corresponds to the time period when people migrated from Angkor Wat to Phnom Penh, turning the temple into a beautiful backwater.
There has been much debate about what caused the population shift. Some people think it was a failure of the irrigation system around Angkor Wat. This discovery indicates that the reason might be darker than that. Perhaps the people around Angkor Wat made one last stand against an invading army, and lost.
Top Image: Chris
[Source: Angkor Wat: An Introduction]