Lost City of Khmer Empire Finally Found in Cambodia!
Archaeological evidence of this lost city has previously been restricted to a few apparently isolated shrines but airborne lidar scanning, combined with ground-based surveying techniques, have identified an “extended urban network” dating from the 9th century AD which archaeologists say is the city of Mahendraparvata.
An oblique aerial view of the Phnom Kulen plateau and Mahendraparvata. Source: Archaeology Development Foundation/ Antiquity Publications Ltd.
Scanning the Mahendraparvata City Grid
This new lidar research project was funded by the Archaeology and Development Foundation and by the European Research Council (ERC) as part of the Khmer Archaeology Lidar Consortium and the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative. And among the hundreds of new observations presented in the scientists paper, which was published in the journal Antiquity, the jewel in the researcher’s crown was locating Mahendraparvata, a capital city of the Khmer Empire dating from the 8th to 9th century AD.
Mahendraparvata, a capital city of the Khmer Empire dating from the 8th to 9th century AD. (Evans / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The lidar scans identified a vast centrally planned urban area encompassing about 15.4 - 19.3 square miles (40 - 50 square kilometers) on the plateau and Mahendraparvata represents the first large-scale “grid city” built by the Khmer Empire on the Phnom Kulen massif. Furthermore, the city, which predates the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia, that was ruled over by King Jayavarman II, had a complex network of major thoroughfares dividing the central zone into a grid system with land parceling and subdivided city blocks.
“Totally Unique” In The Khmer Empire
Across the city grid the scans found a series of both civic and spiritual architectural installations, for example, a series of shrines, mounds, ponds, a large water-management system of dams and a major unfinished reservoir surround an administrative center, a royal palace, and a massive state pyramid-temple.
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Map of the central grid of Mahendraparvata on top of a lidar-derived hillshade model. (Evans / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
But even with this new evidence, in their paper the archaeologists show caution at jumping to the conclusion of the prevailing ‘hydraulic city’ theory, as the water channels don’t seem to be designed for irrigated rice agriculture and it is more probable that Mahendraparvata was a dedicated seat of civic and spiritual power. While Mahendraparvata has an extended city grid the archaeologists saw no attempt to define a central area with a wall or moat, like is seen at Angkor and all later Khmer cities and this is “totally unique” in the Khmer world.
Axis and orientations of the central pyramid, reservoir, and associated shrines at Koh Ker (top) and Mahendraparvata (bottom). (Evans / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
If fact, this style of urban development is consistent with other recent work on “tropical urbanism” in the Khmer and Maya homelands and from the new “landscape-scale perspective” which was offered by lidar, the scientists now consider the city not as an organized geometric space, but instead as components of a “messy and complex continuum” of urban and rural space.
Mahendraparvata’s Size Double that of Cambodia’s Largest Ancient City
This is not the first time lost cities have been found in Cambodia with lidar scanning as in 2016 an article in the Guardian discussed archaeologists finding “multiple, previously undocumented medieval cities” not far from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat. At the time, Australian archaeologist Dr. Damian Evans announced that cutting-edge airborne laser scanning technology had revealed multiple cities between 900 and 1,400 years old beneath the tropical forest floor, some of which rival the size of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
An example of a newly documented temple site in the forests of the Phnom Kulen region. (Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Dr. Mitch Hendrickson, the director of the industries of the Angkor project and assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Illinois, said the initial survey had been a “major game-changer” in understanding how the Angkorian Khmer people built, modified, and lived in their cities. Before 2016 it was known that Preah Khan of Kompong Svay was significant, but it was established as the largest complex ever built during the Angkorian period at 8.5 square miles (22 square kilometers), but Mahendraparvata is double this at 15.4 - 19.3 square miles (40 - 50 square kilometers).
Double Barrel Approach to Studying Mahendraparvata
Now that scientists have completed their lidar coverage of the forested Angkor region, the work described in this paper effectively draws 150 years of archaeological mapping work in the Greater Angkor region to a close and sets the stage for what the researchers are calling a more “sophisticated spatiotemporal modeling of urban form”.
And the scientists say that by blending data gathered from Angkorian household archaeology with aerial scanning, finer-grained demographic models can be built which might finally resolve some of the outstanding questions concerning the origins of Angkor: how it expanded, collapsed, and was rebuilt over the centuries becoming one of the largest civilizations of the ancient world.
The original report is available from Antiquity Journal, DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.133
Top image: Khmer Empire city found north of Angkor Wat. Here, Ta Prom Khmer ancient Buddhist temple in jungle forest. Source: Banana Republic / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie
Chevance, J., Evans, D., Hofer, N., Sakhoeun, S., and Chhean, R. 2019. Mahendraparvata: an early Angkor- period capital defined through airborne laser scanning at Phnom Kulen. Antiquity. [Online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.133