Ancient cities hidden under thick jungle found in Cambodia

The ruins of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay covered with forest, in Siem Reap province. PHOTO: AFP / FRANCISO GONCALVES / CAMBODIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL LIDAR INITIATIVE

PHNOM PENH • Unprecedented new details of medieval cities hidden under jungle in Cambodia near Angkor Wat have been revealed using lasers, archaeologists said yesterday, shedding new light on the civilisation behind the world's largest religious complex.

While the research has been going on for several years, the new findings uncover the sheer scale of the Khmer Empire's urban sprawl and temple complexes to be significantly bigger than previously thought.

The research, drawing on airborne laser scanning technology known as lidar, will be unveiled in full at the Royal Geographic Society in London today by Australian archaeologist Damian Evans.

"We always imagined that their great cities surrounded the monuments in antiquity," Mr Evans told AFP. "But now we can see them with incredible precision and detail, in some places for the very first time, but in most places where we already had a vague idea that cities must be there."

Angkor Wat, a Unesco World Heritage site seen as among the most important in South-east Asia, is considered one of the ancient wonders of the world.

It was constructed from the early to mid-1100s by King Suryavarman II at the height of the Khmer Empire's political and military power and was among the largest pre-industrial cities in the world. But scholars had long believed there was far more to the empire than just the Angkor complex.

Laser scanning revealed the ruins of a huge city around Preah Khan of Kompong Svay under dense forest growth.
Laser scanning revealed the ruins of a huge city around Preah Khan of Kompong Svay under dense forest growth. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Research conducted by Mr Evans and others in 2012 confirmed the existence of Mahendraparvata, an ancient temple city near Angkor Wat.

But it was only when the results of a larger survey in 2015 were analysed that the sheer scale of the new settlements became apparent.

To create the maps, archaeologists mounted a special laser under a helicopter which scans the area and is able to see through obstructions like trees and vegetation.

Much of the cities surrounding the famed stone temples of the Khmer Empire was made of wood and thatch which has long rotted away. Mr Evans said: "The lidar quite suddenly revealed an entire cityscape there with astonishing complexity. It turned out we'd been walking and flying right over the top of this stuff for 10 years and not even noticing it because of the vegetation."

Among the new scans already published are a detailed map of a huge city complex surrounding the stone temple known as Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, a series of iron smelting sites dating back to the Angkor era and new information on the complex system of waterways that kept the region running.

Mr Evans said that even in a less built up region near Mahendraparvata, the scans showed "a huge number of new temples, ancient dams, ponds, quarries and other evidence of Angkor-era expansion into these ranges".

Angkor is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and remains Cambodia's top tourist attraction.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline Ancient cities hidden under thick jungle found in Cambodia. Subscribe