New Findings Might Reveal the People of Angkor Wat's "Last Stand"

Illustration for article titled New Findings Might Reveal the People of Angkor Wats Last Stand

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]


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The historical accounts of the fall of the Khmer Empire, of which Ankgor Wat was a very small part, puts the beginning of a rapid decline at a lost battle in 1431. That fits in very well with the disappearance of the Thule People (ca 1400), the abandonment of Vinland (1450), the collapse of the North Mayan empire (1450), and the intensification of the Little Ice Age (1430-1455). In other words: climate change, bitches! In the case of the Khmer, it is fascinating to ignore the temple complexes and pay attention to the enormous hydraulic engineering system that they put in place. Between the water storage, the rice paddies, and the fish tanks, it is conservatively estimated that this area could support 500,000 - 1,000,000 people at a time when London was perhaps 50,000 people. Like virtually every civilization in history, they grew out to fully utilize capacity and then when capacity was reduced by global cooling the whole thing fell apart. (See: “Oglalla Aquifer”).