New research unravels rise and fall of ancient Cambodian city Mahendraparvata
A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE has shed new light on the ancient city of the Khmer Empire era, Mahendraparvata, which was rediscovered in June last year by an Australian team of archaeologists.
The existence of the city, located on the slopes of Phnom Kulen Mountain in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, had been known for decades, and Cambodians and their ancestors have been living in that part of Southeast Asia, apparently without interruption, for thousands of years. However, much of it lay concealed by forest and earth until mapped and uncovered by an archaeological expedition with the aid of airborne laser scanning technology.
The significance of last year’s discovery is that the high-tech LiDAR scanning device enabled researchers to ‘see’ the city in immense detail, down to tiny clearings in the forest and piles of dirt left over from a building construction.
According to Dr Damien Evans, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Sydney, and member of the research team: “Even the smallest and simplest human interventions in the natural environment – clearing a patch of land and building a field wall around it, or piling up a bit of dirt to build a house on – can, in aggregate, have profound impacts on regional ecosystems and create a material legacy that can influence the destiny of a people for hundreds of years into the future.”
The evidence that emerged from the use of the mapping technology supported the theory that the severe environmental impact of deforestation and the dependence on water management led to the eventual demise of the civilization of Angkor.
The latest study, conducted by a team of archaeologists led by Dr Dan Penny from the University of Sydney, sought to examine this theory further by examining soil cores and vegetation samples from one of the ancient reservoirs in the region for evidence of intensive land use during the occupation of Mahendraparvata, which began in 802 AD. The research revealed more than four centuries of intensive land use around the ancient city, including the operation of a reservoir, and suggested the Phnom Kulen plateau was flooded in the mid to late 8th century AD.
The main historical and geographical significance of the Phnom Kulen plateau lies in its role as Angkor’s source of water. However, the settlement in Mahendraparvata was intensive enough to trigger extensive soil erosion within the reservoir over a span of approximately 250 years beginning in the middle of the 9th century. This is the first indication that settlement was not only extensive, but also intensive and enduring, with a marked environmental impact.
This supports the view that vast exercise in terraforming eventually played a role in undoing the civilization of Angkor. According to Dr Evans, the local authorities have inherited the ancient legacy of hydraulic engineering and are currently engaged in an epic struggle to prevent potentially disastrous flooding around the temples, even as the explosive growth of nearby Siem Reap city creates new challenges to the integrity and sustainability of the site.
Dr Evans describes the true significance of the research: “In places like Cambodia, the surface of the landscape contains an entire history of how humans have interacted with their environment, with each successive civilization inscribing its own distinctive chapter and shaping the future direction of the narrative. For the very first time, LiDAR allows us to literally shine a light into the forgotten pages of that history, and to appreciate the stories of places like Angkor in all of their awe-inspiring grandeur and complexity.”