Although Angkor Wat in modern Cambodia is 900 years old, archaeologists are only beginning to research the history of the people who lived near the temple.
The massive temple, which covers an area half the size of Cannon Beach, was discussed by Alison Kyra Carter, Ph.D, assistant professor in the University of Oregon’s archaeology department, in a lecture at the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum March 28.
The lecture was one of a series of lectures presented this year at the history center.
From the ninth to 15th centuries, the Angkor Empire included much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam; the capital city, Angkor, was in Cambodia. While the Cambodians always knew about Angkor Wat, the temple, overrun by jungle, was brought to public attention in a journal written by a French explorer in 1860.
Since the temple’s discovery beneath the tree trunks that grew over great parts of it, archaeologists have studied the structure for many years. But in 2013, with the use of a lidar laser scanner mounted on a helicopter, scientists discovered what may have been an entire village surrounding the temple. Laser beams penetrated the forest canopy and revealed a three-dimensional underground landscape, showing a grid of squares with a mound in each square. Archaeologists believe this grid could have been ancient streets and canals, and the mounds may have been where houses once stood.
Displaying a slide outlining the temple and the grid, Carter said, “Every time I see this, my heart jumps because it’s so exciting to see the original landscape around these temples.”
Through inscriptions on stone panels attached to the temple, researchers learned much about those who built the temple and the kings that ruled the empire — the upper 1 percent of the Angkorian society, Carter said.
“From 100 years of research on Angkor we have a really good idea about the top level of this society, but we don’t know anything about what the normal peoples’ lives were like.”
Political conflicts in Cambodia and the Vietnam War halted research for 25 years, beginning in 1970.
After the war, “there was a huge vacuum in human resources. (There were) thousands of sites, hundreds of Angkorian sites and almost no one left in the country who had any training or background in studying this culture and preserving these sites.”
A push by Cambodians and by foreign researchers to rebuild the training program in Cambodia has resulted in a large contingent of local archaeologists, Carter said.
Carter first became intrigued with Angkor as an undergraduate student; she has worked as an archaeologist at the village surrounding Angkor Wat as well as at Barsaet, another Angkor temple. Carter lived in Cambodia for a year while writing her Ph.D dissertation.
“There’s a lot to be done still; we’re really trying to understand the civilization, understand the people who lived here,” she said.
To do that, archaeologists are doing what Carter termed “household archaeology,” where the homes and artifacts of those who once lived in the temple village are being uncovered.
If each mound in the grid had a house on it and each household contained 10 family members, there could have been a population of 2,830 in the temple enclosure, Carter said.
Because the site is still forested and difficult to penetrate, archaeologists have “worked small and built up over time.” Those small excavations of a few mounds signaled that they may have, indeed, been households.
In 2015, they expanded their excavations and discovered post holes where houses might have stood and sandstone pieces that could have been parts of roads or flooring. They also found charcoal and a ring of stones and brick underneath it, indicating a possible cooking site, along with charred plant remains, including rice, citrus and ginger. Many ceramic pieces also were uncovered.
At one house where the archaeologists dug, “they had ceramics from all over the world; they had ceramics from China, and they had ceramics from the northern edge and from the southern edge of the Angkoran empire,” Carter said.
Carbon dating puts the ceramics at the 11th and 12th centuries, about the same time the temple was being built.
While it seems that houses were in the grid, many questions remain, Carter noted.
“We still don’t know who was there and what occupation they had….I strongly suspect they worked at the temple,” but researchers have yet to find the evidence. It is also uncertain whether people lived there permanently or temporarily, especially after Angkor Wat changed from being a Hindu temple to a Buddhist temple.
Carter returns to archaeological digs in Angkor during the summer. She noted that those who are interested in participating can contact Earthwatch Institute, which has spaces available in several seven- and 14-day expeditions from May 26 through June 13.
“If you watched this (slide show) and said, ‘I really want to get my hands dirty,’ you can join us in Cambodia and dig with us in the fields,” Carter said.