Mysterious New Structures Reveal Angkor Wat’s Embattled History

A number of hidden structures have been discovered at Angkor Wat. Gisling via Wikimedia Commons

Despite being one of the world's most iconic archaeological sites, Cambodia’s ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat remains shrouded in mystery, with lingering controversy surrounding its original name and purpose. Part of this uncertainty can be explained by the fact that the site underwent a series of developments, alterations, and changes of function as the social and religious fabric of the Khmer empire fluxed over a period of six centuries. Untangling the convoluted history written into the remains of Angkor Wat has kept archaeologists busy for years, and a brand new discovery has now added another dimension to the story.

Reporting their findings in the journal Antiquity, Damian Evans and Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney have described the discovery of a wooden structure that they believe may have acted as a fortification against the encroachment of an invading army. The features were revealed using a technique called light detection and ranging (LiDAR), a remote sensing method that involves firing rapid pulses of laser light at a surface. The time for these to bounce back to a detector is then recorded, resulting in the creation of 3D images of any hidden objects that might be present. By utilizing this method, the researchers were able to identify a number of items buried beneath buildings and vegetation.

Of particular interest is the wooden structure, which the team estimates dates back to the latter years of Angkor Wat’s time as the capital of the Khmer empire, prior to its demise in the 17th century. As such, they claim the discovery may provide evidence of a final attempt at defending the ancient city against the growing threat posed by neighboring cities such as Ayutthaya.

Believed to have been built in the 12th century as a shrine to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat is thought to have later served as a Buddhist temple, while also providing a burial site for influential figures. These historical developments add to the archaeological value of the ruins, since it gives researchers the opportunity to explore the ways in which the site fluctuated over the centuries in response to wider regional changes. For instance, the latest round of discoveries has also uncovered a series of unexplained structures that appear to have been constructed during the complex’s early years and later built over.

Among these are a number of demolished towers that the researchers believe acted as a shrine during the initial construction of Angkor Wat. Additionally, the entire site was found to be bounded on one side by an enormous spiral structure, measuring more than 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) in length. Though the function of this strange boundary remains unknown, Fletcher claimed in a statement that it represents “the most striking discovery associated with Angkor Wat to date,” adding that “it has no known equivalent in the Angkorian world.”

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