We’ve long been fascinated with bygone, mysterious civilizations and their great cities hiding mythical treasures and secret arts. Centuries of wonder have long driven foreign explorers to explore the abandoned ruins left by these ancient people. Well, that’s the common backdrop of explorer movies like Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. Truth is, there are no ancient magical artifacts hiding in these ruins — there’s only the mystery of a once rich and flourishing civilization to be discovered. One particular place of interest is Angkor Wat of Cambodia.
A brief guide to Angkor civilization
Known as the Khmer Empire, it was a gargantuan civilization in Southeast Asia, comprising Cambodia, southeastern Thailand, and northern Vietnam. The ancestors of this civilization were believed to have come from the Mekong River during the 3rd millennium B.C. and built their first habitation on the shore of Tonle Sap.
Jayavarman II started the empire when he consecrated himself as a universal ruler and “god-king” in A.D. 802, lasting until the 14th century when, supposedly, the capital of Angkor was abandoned. During its classic era, numerous religious buildings were constructed, like the famous Angkor Wat temple.
The fusion of Pali and Sanskrit rituals gave birth to a unique blend of Hindu and Buddhist belief systems. This system became the foundation of their religion, politics, and economy. Most likely, Cambodia’s role in the trading system linking China, India, and Rome made this fusion possible.
Piecing the puzzle that is Angkor Wat
Beyond what was once the moat is a temple of Angkorian architecture. The Angkor Wat temple was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II for the Hindu religion. The long colonnades ending in galleries where sculptures line up the walls ascended towers, bas-relief wall carvings, and much more — one could only imagine how splendid it was back in its prime. Even as a ruin where myriad questions echo, it carries an intriguing charm. Most historians believe that the civilization crumbled after the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked the Angkor capital city in 1431.
University of Oregon assistant professor of anthropology Alison Kyra Carter and her colleagues uncovered many new insights regarding Angkor Wat. Their discovery claims that the Angkor civilization didn’t actually disappear. In fact, it continuously adapted and evolved to the many changes as time went on.
Discoveries and timelines
In cooperation with APSARA Authority that oversees Angkor Archaeological Park, Carter and her fellow archeologists explored the surrounding areas of Angkor Wat. What was once believed to be sacred precincts or “temple-cities“ were actually occupation mounds of workers working at the temple. Still, who occupied these homes is up for debate. After employing radiocarbon dating on charcoal pieces found in the ancient residences, the researchers created a satisfying chronological order of events that transpired in the Angkor civilization.
In the 11th century, the space around what would be the Angkor Wat temple was already inhabited. By the early 12th century, the temple was constructed, followed by the mound-pond grid system. There was a gap in the datings. Around the late 12th or early 13th century to the late 14th or early 15th century, these houses were either abandoned suddenly or transformed for other uses.
However, compared to the previous narrative that Angkor was deserted and forgotten in the 14th century, findings show that the surrounding areas were reoccupied and used until the 17th and 18th centuries. And most notably, Angkor Wat temple was never actually abandoned. Many mysteries still remain among the ancient ruins.