Archaeologists uncover hidden medieval cities in Cambodia

Laser scans reveal multiple cities hidden beneath the jungle, shedding new light on the ancient Khmer Empire that built Angkor Wat.

Laser technology has uncovered multiple ancient cities beneath the jungle of Cambodia, a discovery that archaeologists studying Angkor Wat's medieval civilization are calling the greatest in decades for their field. 

The previously undocumented cities, ranging from 900 to 1,400 years old and rivaling the size of Cambodia's current capital, Phnom Penh, were discovered near the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat, which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists per year as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was constructed during the early to mid 1100s by King Suryavarmn II of the Khmer Empire.

Historians had long suspected that the Khmer Empire included more cities in addition to Angkor Wat, and scans made in 2012 confirmed the existence of Mahendraparvata, another ancient temple city located nearby. The new scans, made with laser scanning technology known as lidar, map out in greater detail the full extent of Mahendraparvata, as well as other cities and a complex system of waterways. 

"We always imagined that their great cities surrounded the monuments in antiquity," lead researcher Damian Evans told AFP. "But now we can see them with incredible precision and detail, in some places for the very first time, but in most places where we already had a vague idea that cities must be there."

The discovery also provides historians with new insights on the "collapse of Angkor," Dr. Evans told The Guardian. "There's an idea that somehow the Thais invaded and everyone fled down south – that didn’t happen, there are no cities [revealed by the aerial survey] that they fled to. It calls into question the whole notion of an Angkorian collapse."

The research done by Evans and his colleagues, known as the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI), was supported by Cambodia's government as well as international organizations and universities. 

A spokesman for the Apsara authority, the government body that manages the Angkor complex, told AFP that while the lidar revealed "a lot of information from the past," further research would be needed. Analyzing the data and conducting field research will take years, Evans told the Cambodia Daily. 

David Chandler, the foremost expert on Cambodian history and author of multiple books and articles on the subject, says Evans and his team have rewritten history with their discovery.

"It will take time for their game-changing findings to drift into guide books, tour guides, and published histories," Dr. Chandler told The Guardian. "But their success at putting hundreds of nameless, ordinary, Khmer-speaking people back into Cambodia's past is a giant step for anyone trying to deal with Cambodian history."

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