Did the ancient Angkorian people really abandon the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia several hundred years ago? New excavations by archaeologists have yielded clues that may answer that question and many more.
Millions of people come from all over the world to see Angkor Wat for themselves. The ancient temple rises out of the jungle around it and is famous as an example of how nature can take over a space that humans once tamed.
King Suryavarman II had the temple built in the 12th century, and it served as a central location for the people from then until the civilization collapsed in the 15th century around 1431 when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded and sacked the city.
Angkor Wat began as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire until the people converted to Buddhism.
But ever since the decisive invasion in 1431, even historians have characterized the Cambodian UNESCO World Heritage site as a place abandoned and discovered by Westerners as if it had been lost.
That, however, is not the case.
University of Oregon Assistant Professor of Anthropology Alison Kyra Carter and her team have undertaken recent digs at Angkor Wat, which have provided clues revealing more about the temple and the Angkorian civilization that she would go on to write about in an article published by Heritage Daily.
“Instead of focusing on the temple itself, we looked at the occupation mounds surrounding the temple,” Carter wrote. “In the past, people would have constructed houses and lived on top of these mounds. LiDAR surveys in the region clarified that Angkor Wat, and many other temples including nearby Ta Prohm, were surrounded by a grid-system of mounds within their enclosures.”
The people who lived on these mounds may have included “religious specialists, temple dancers, musicians or other laborers,” although there’s not enough evidence yet to know for certain.
“Over three field seasons, my colleagues and I excavated these mounds, uncovering remains of dumps of ceramics, hearths and burnt food remains, post holes and flat-lying stones that might have been part of a floor surface or path,” Carter continued.
The team collected pieces of charred wood and used radiocarbon dating that revealed a variety of dates ranging from the late 12th century to the early 15th century, which is when Ayutthaya attacked.
“Based on our excavations, it seems that the occupation mounds were abandoned or their use was transformed during this period,” Carter said.
She then makes it clear that the research shows that the people never abandoned Angkor Wat.
“[T]he temple of Angkor Wat itself was never abandoned,” she wrote. “And the landscape surrounding the temple appears to be reoccupied by the late 14th or early 15th centuries, during the period Angkor was supposedly sacked and abandoned by Ayutthaya and used until the 17th or 18th centuries.”
So, perceptions of the temple being abandoned by society are wrong. Prior to the sacking in 1431, King Jayavarman VII established a new capital and state temple north of the site, which resulted in a demographic shift. The population around Angkor Wat slowly dwindled, but it did not completely disappear.
In fact, there are fourteen inscriptions from the 17th century revealing that Japanese Buddhists traveled to and settled in the area alongside the Khmer people. Buddhists continue to utilize the temple today.
In her conclusion, Carter writes that Angkor Wat is a “microcosm of the civilization” and that while demographic shift resulted in areas around the temple to be abandoned, the temple itself was not, although a dwindling population ultimately led to neglect, which is why huge banyan and silk-cotton trees were left to grow up in and around the temple, a sight that can still be viewed today.
Most importantly, she writes, the cliche of Angkor Wat being suddenly discovered in the jungle as if it were lost all this time, can now be retired.
As one of the most important Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat can be seen as a kind of bellwether for broader developments of the civilization.
It seems to have undergone transformations at the same time that the broader Angkorian society was also reorganizing. Significantly, though, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. What can be abandoned is the tired cliche of foreign explorers “discovering” lost cities in the jungle.
While it seems clear that the city experienced a demographic shift, certain key parts of the landscape were not deserted. People returned to Angkor Wat and its surrounding enclosure during the period that historical chronicles say the city was being attacked and abandoned.
To describe Angkor’s decline as a collapse is a misnomer. Ongoing archaeological studies are showing that the Angkorian people were reorganizing and adapting to a variety of turbulent, changing conditions.
The stunning architecture of this temple complex has survived for centuries through peace and war and all the turmoil civilizations go through. Like the Parthenon of Ancient Greece or the Colosseum of Rome, Angkor Wat stands as a monument to the people who built it, ensuring that the ancient Angkorian people will never be forgotten and will continue to live on long after all of us are dead and gone.
To learn more about Angkor Wat, here’s a documentary via YouTube:
Featured Image: Wikimedia