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Lion statue unearthed from reservoir in Cambodia.    Source: Department of Protection and Conservation of Ancient Constructions

Exquisite 12th Century Lion Sculpture Dragged From Reservoir in Cambodia

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In Cambodia, a major discovery has been announced. Officials from the Department of Protection and Conservation of Ancient Constructions have stated that a large statue of a medieval lion was discovered. It was found in a reservoir near a historic temple complex and archaeological site. The lion is unique and has been returned to a nearby temple, where it once stood centuries ago.

Government archaeologists were investigating the site of an ancient jetty at an old reservoir, known as a baray, that dates from the mighty Khmer Empire , best known for its former capital Angkor Wat . The experts were working within the precincts of the Banteay Chhmar temple complex which is in Cambodia's northern Banteay Meanchey province. While working on the jetty, they came across a monumental sculpted figure, completely by chance. The archaeologists first identified the feet of the statue and its base. Then with the aid of some local workmen they began to dig and they found a massive figure of a lion, of a type made to guard temples and other important sites.

People posing for photos with a newly discovered 7ft (2m) tall lion statue in Banteay Meanchey Province. (Photo released by Cambodia's Culture Ministry / Xinhuanet)

People posing for photos with a newly discovered 7ft (2m) tall lion statue in Banteay Meanchey Province. (Photo released by Cambodia's Culture Ministry / Xinhuanet)

A guardian lion statue

Xinhua Net quotes Prak Sovannara, from the culture ministry's heritage department, as saying that ‘It was buried more than a meter under the ground and is still in good shape’. The monument was so heavy that it had to be lifted out of the earth by a small crane. There was some damage to the tail and feet, but this was only minor. Prak Sovannara, told Xinhua Net , that this ‘a guardian lion statue was made of sandstone and dates back to the late 12th or early 13th century’. Two other pieces of lion’s figures were also found at the site.

The unearthed lion sculpture is 7 feet high (2 m) and 2 feet wide (70 cm). It has been suggested that it weighs up to two tonnes and is much bigger than similar lions that have been recently found. The figure is very stylized and ornately decorated, with ‘ancient designs and floral motifs’ reports The Star . The sculpture was made in a style that was influenced by Indian models and which was very popular in the medieval Khmer Empire .

Banteay Chhmar Temple entrance. (CC BY-SA)

Banteay Chhmar Temple entrance. ( CC BY-SA )

The archaeologists were able to date the lion to the reign of King Jayavarman VII . He built the Banteay Chhmar temple complex, one of the most important Khmer sites outside the majestic remains of Angkor Wat, but which has been little studied. The main temple which gives its name to the site is known as the ‘citadel of the cat’ in Khmer, according to the Visit Banteay Chhmar website.  Its outer walls have massive bas-reliefs that depict scenes of war and peace. There are nine smaller temples in the complex that was once protected by a moat and walls.

All the walls within the temple complex had a decoration, scene or deity carved on it, but the best have been removed to museums or stolen. (Anthony Tong Lee / CC BY-ND 2.0)

All the walls within the temple complex had a decoration, scene or deity carved on it, but the best have been removed to museums or stolen. ( Anthony Tong Lee / CC BY-ND 2.0 )

It appears that the lion at one time fell into the reservoir near the jetty. It was erected to protect the nearby main temple from evil spirits and magic. The Star reports that ‘after hundreds of years guarding the temple, the lions collapsed into the reservoir and sank into the mud’. It is not known if the sculpture fell into the waters because of subsidence or if it was deliberately toppled during the fall of the Khmer Empire .

Returned to its temple

The authorities decided to place the lion once more in its former position before a nearby temple. The Star reports that ‘a team of technicians from the ministry cleaned the statue and proceeded to place it in its original location’. It will once again guard the temple against evil forces and demons after many centuries. 

The authorities believe that there are many more artifacts to be found in the reservoir. This temple complex is one of several that the Cambodian authorities have nominated for the prestigious status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The newly recovered lion may help Banteay Chhmar to achieve this much sought-after distinction.

Top image: Lion statue unearthed from reservoir in Cambodia.    Source: Department of Protection and Conservation of Ancient Constructions

By Ed Whelan

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