Academic journal article Antiquity

The Landscape of Angkor Wat Redefined

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Landscape of Angkor Wat Redefined

Article excerpt


Over the previous 20 years, successive remote-sensing projects have offered crucial new insights into the archaeological landscape of medieval Angkor. Angkor is increasingly understood both as a collection of religious monuments and walled enclosures, and as a sprawling, low-density settlement complex, connected to a more densely populated urban core by a vast network of infrastructure (Pottier 1999; Evans 2007; Evans et al. 2013b; Fletcher et al. 2015: 1396-97) (Figure 1). The problem is that Angkorian period residential structures were largely constructed of lightweight, non-durable organic materials, and the ephemeral housing rotted away many centuries ago (Fletcher & Pottier 2002). The aerial perspective afforded by remote sensing, however, has enabled identification of fundamental elements of those lived-in spaces--ponds, occupation mounds, earthen roadways and canals--traces of which remain inscribed into the landscape. Over the last two decades, systematic and comprehensive topographical surveys have been undertaken using a range of different platforms and sensors. This work has transformed archaeological maps of the Greater Angkor area from the basic, schematic renderings common until the 1990s (Figure 2), into the richly detailed depictions of the archaeological landscape that are now a familiar sight in publications on Angkor (Pottier 2006). This work has provided an empirical basis for moving beyond culturally specific 'sacred geographies', rethinking the nature of enclosures and twelfth-century AD temples, and working towards a more consistent and rigorous spatio-temporal analysis of urban morphology. Perhaps most importantly, it has laid the groundwork for a renewed focus on broader human-environment interactions in medieval urban landscapes across southern Asia and beyond (Fletcher 2012; Lieberman & Buckley 2012), and for comparisons with urban landscapes in other tropical forests; for example, the surveys of Caracol in Belize (Chase et al. 2011, 2014).

All of these maps of Angkor have, until now, suffered from one major shortcoming however: the lack of precision regarding archaeological topography obscured by dense vegetation cover. This has been a particularly vexing problem in the central monumental zone, in which the urban epicentre of medieval Angkor is now enshrouded by the protected forests of the Angkor Archaeological Park. In 2012, in an effort to remedy this situation, we initiated an airborne laser-scanning, or 'LiDAR', campaign with the Khmer Archaeology LiDAR Consortium over central Greater Angkor, which has allowed the virtual removal of vegetation cover and revealed the underlying spatial structure (Evans et al. 2013a, 2013b, 2015). The 2012 LiDAR data of Angkor Wat provide several remarkable and surprising new insights into the temple and its surroundings. The settlement pattern can be mapped with great precision and clarity, revealing, for the first time, the spatial layout of a twelfth-century AD Khmer temple enclosure (Figure 3). This, in turn, allows preliminary analyses of population distribution and density, and modelling of the spatial and chronological trajectory of landscape engineering in and around Angkor Wat. The results cast further doubt on the traditional view of Angkor as a succession of formally planned, neatly bounded 'temple cities', indicating that the conventional model of urbanism in terms of compact and delimited rectilinear spaces is no longer compatible with the archaeological evidence.


LiDAR redefines the landscape of Angkor Wat at multiple scales, not only contextualising the temple within its urban and infrastructural context, but also clarifying various elements within the moated area and revealing micro-topographic patterns at a household scale that have never before been observed.

Vicinity of Angkor Wat

Numerous temples, oriented east-north-east, surround Angkor Wat (Figure 3), with the majority conforming, at least roughly, to the moated mound of smaller Angkorian temple sites (Stark et al. …

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