Friday, June 28, 2013

Cambodia's vast lost city: world's greatest pre-industrial site unearthed

A ground-breaking archaeological discovery in Cambodia has revealed a colossal 700-year old urban landscape connecting ancient cities and temples to Angkor Wat.

It's 7am at Angkor Wat and there's not a tourist in sight. It's blissfully quiet, the first clear June morning after two days of torrential rains. The only souls around are a small group of Buddhist pilgrims, lighting incense at the rear of the spectacular Khmer temple. The bleary-eyed early-risers, who woke in darkness to board tour buses to Angkor archaeological park for sunrise photo ops, have already trundled back to their breakfast buffets.
I'm not here for sightseeing, however, I'm heading further into the forest surrounding the stupendous temple complex with Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans to meet the archaeologists from Cambodia, the Philippines and the USA, who are working on new excavationsThe release this month by the US National Academy of Sciences of a report on the results of a high-tech survey of Khmer Empire sites, undertaken in April 2012, has rocked the archaeological world and captured travellers' imaginations.
Pre Rup temple at Angkor, Cambodia
A monumental, sophisticated, densely populated urban landscape, which dates back more than 700 years, has been identified. It includes and connects Angkor cities such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon, with the rarely visited medieval city ruins of Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, over 100km away.
Evans was one of the report authors and the lead archaeologist and director of the project, which only became known outside local and archaeological circles with the release of the report this month.
As we make our way through dense vegetation, he explains how eight key archaeological groups, including the Cambodian government's Apsara Authority, which manages archaeological sites, collaborated on the project. It began with the survey using an airborne laser scanning instrument called Lidar, strapped to a helicopter, to search for ruins and other structures (the size of the area covered by the helicopter doing the survey was 320 sq km). Developed in the 1990s, it's only recently that the technology has matured to the level where it can penetrate dense vegetation and provide extremely detailed models of the forest floor.
"For archaeologists, these lumps and bumps that we see in the forest, each has a meaning," Evans explains, pointing out gentle mounds. "These are all the traces of the civilisation of the city associated with Angkor Wat, made of wood and thatch, that has disappeared. It's these contours that remain inscribed into the forest landscape we study."
Smoke wafts from the fires lit to keep mosquitoes at bay. Dotted between the mounds are several rectangular holes in the ground where Dr Miriam Stark from the University of Hawaii and her team are at work.
"We're really interested in understanding residence patterns, where and how people lived and who they were," Stark explains excitedly, showing me X-ray-like images of the area we're in. "Before, it took more than three intensive weeks of [preparation] before we knew where to dig. Now, with Lidar, it's as if you just peel a layer off and it's there!" With clipboards and pens in hand, the team records a wealth of discoveries, such as shards of Ming Dynasty ceramics... read more: