Airborne laser technology has uncovered a network of roads and canals, illustrating the remains of a bustling ancient city linking Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temples complex.
The discovery was announced late on Monday in a peer-reviewed paper released early by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. The laser scanning revealed a previously undocumented formal urban planned landscape integrating the 1,200-year-old temples.
The Angkor temple complex, Cambodia’s top tourist destination and one of Asia’s most famous landmarks, was constructed in the 12th century. Angkor Wat is a point of deep pride for Cambodians, appearing on the national flag, and was named a Unesco world heritage site.
Archaeologists had long suspected that the city of Mahendraparvata lay hidden beneath a canopy of dense vegetation atop Phnom Kulen mountain in Siem Reap province. But the airborne lasers produced the first detailed map of a vast cityscape, including highways and previously undiscovered temples.
“No one had ever mapped the city in any kind of detail before, and so it was a real revelation to see the city revealed in such clarity,” University of Sydney archaeologist Damian Evans, the study’s lead author, said by phone from Cambodia. “It’s really remarkable to see these traces of human activity still inscribed into the forest floor many, many centuries after the city ceased to function and was overgrown.”
The technology, known as lidar, works by firing laser pulses from an aircraft to the ground and measuring the distance to create a detailed, three-dimensional map of the area. It is a useful tool for archaeologists because the lasers can penetrate dense vegetation and cover swaths of ground far faster than they could be analysed on foot. Lidar has been used to explore other archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge.
In April 2012, researchers loaded the equipment on to a helicopter, which spent days crisscrossing the dense forests from 800 metres above the ground. A team of Australian and French archaeologists then confirmed the findings with an expedition on foot through the jungle.
Archaeologists had already spent years doing ground research to map a 3.5 sq mile section of the city’s downtown area. But the lidar revealed the section was much bigger – at least 14 sq miles – and more heavily populated than once believed.
“The real revelation is to find that the downtown area is densely inhabited, formally-planned and bigger than previously thought,” Evans said. “To see the extent of things we missed before has completely changed our understanding of how these cities were structured.”
Researchers do not yet know why the civilisation at Mahendraparvata collapsed. But Evans said one current theory is that possible problems with the city’s water management system may have driven people out.
The next step for researchers involves excavating the site, which Evans hopes will reveal clues about how many people once lived in the city.
- Here’s why Angkor Wat was just named the best tourist attraction in the world
- Saving Angkor Wat: Japanese historian honored for work
- Japanese who helped save Angkor Wat gets ‘Asia’s Nobel’
- Japanese who helped save Angkor Wat awarded “Asia’s Nobel”
- Archaeologists at Angkor Wat find large buried statue
- A best-selling author reveals what it was like to get a flesh-eating disease while exploring a ‘lost city’ in the Honduran jungle
- People hadn’t set foot in this ancient ‘lost city’ in the Honduran jungle for 500 years — until now
- Elon Musk’s grandparents were adventuring pilots who spent years looking for a lost city in the desert
- Mesmerizing maps reveal which cities around the world are most likely to fall apart
- Lost cities