Angkor Wat Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Cambodia.


UNPRECEDENTED details of medieval cities hidden under the jungle in Cambodia near Angkor Wat have been revealed using lasers, shedding new light on the civilisation behind the world’s largest religious complex.

While the research has been going on for several years, the new findings uncover the sheer scale of the Khmer Empire’s urban sprawl and temple complexes significantly bigger than was previously thought, archaeologists
said earlier this month.

“We always imagined that their great cities surrounded the monuments in antiquity,” Australian archaeologist Damian Evans said. “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.”

Angkor Wat, a Unesco World Heritage site seen as among the most important in southeast Asia, is considered one of the ancient wonders of the world. It is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and remains Cambodia’s
top tourist attraction.

Angkor was constructed from the early to mid 1100s by King Suryavarman II at the height of the Khmer Empire’s political and military power. It was among the largest pre-industrial cities in the world.

But scholars had long believed there was far more to the empire than just the Angkor complex.

The huge tranch of new data builds on scans that were made in 2012 that confirmed the existence of Mahendraparvata, an ancient temple city near Angkor Wat.

But it was only when the results of a larger survey in 2015 were analysed that the scale of the new settlements became apparent.

Many of the cities surrounding the famed stone temples of the Khmer Empire were made of wood and thatch which has long rotted away.

“The lidar (airborne laser scanning technology) quite suddenly revealed an entire cityscape there with astonishing complexity,” Evans said. “It turned out we had been walking and flying right over the top of this stuff for 10 years and not even noticing it because of the vegetation.”

Among the new scans already published are a detailed map of a huge city complex surrounding the stone temple known as Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, a series of iron smelting sites dating back to the Angkor era and new information on the complex system of waterways that kept the region running.

The data also maps out the full extent of Mahendraparvata, information that will make future digs much more accurate and less time consuming.

“What we had was basically a scatter of disconnected points on the map denoting temple sites. Now it’s like having a detailed street map of the entire city,” Evans said.

While the Khmer Empire was initially Hindu, it increasingly adopted Buddhism and both religions can be seen on display at the complex.