In the popular imagination, Cambodia calls to mind two polarizing images: Angkor Wat and the nation’s bloody recent history under the iron-fisted rule of dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. As the nation gradually emerges from the trauma that was its 20th century, archaeologists are beginning to venture back into its dense, steamy jungles where significant discoveries await—among them, the ancient Khmer city of Mahendraparvata.
“Several decades of conflict and civil strife have meant that, until the 1990s, modern archaeology had more or less passed Cambodia by,” Damian Evans, head of the University of Sydney’s archaeology center in Siem Reap, told The Diplomat. “We’ve arrived at a point where Cambodia has one of the world’s richest archaeological landscapes, that also happens to remain one of the least-studied. It has enormous archaeological potential.”
Mahendraparvata (Mountain of the Great Indra) is located on the plateau known as Phnom Kulen, where in 802 AD King Jayavarman II declared himself the divinely sanctioned ruler of Cambodia, giving rise to the Khmer Empire, which famously built the city of Angkor 40 kilometers to the southwest and came to dominate the region for the next 600 years. The site has long been known about in the West, with French archaeologists hunting for it in the 1880s armed with 10th and 11th century Sanskrit inscriptions. While they found a number of Hindu temples on the site, the bulk of the significant discoveries remained underground. In the late 1960s the search for the buried city came to a standstill when the nation became embroiled in a bloody civil war, followed by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It was not until another French archaeologist by the name of Jean-Baptiste Chevance launched the Archeology and Development Foundation (ADF) Phnom Kulen Program in 2008 that serious attention was once again focused on the site. Alongside exploring the site, ADF also invests in development on the plateau, which is home to some 4,000 people who survive by “slash-and-burn farming, illegal logging and poaching,” as noted by journalist Daniel Otis, who ventured into the dense jungles of northern Cambodia along with Evans and a team of archaeologists and cartographers. The ADF also introduced the Apsara National Authority on the plateau, which is now run by a team of a few dozen local villagers who guard and maintain these archaeological sites in close collaboration with the archaeologists on site.
According to Chevance, a number of factors put Angkor in the spotlight while Mahendraparvata waited to be unearthed, among them: the religious significance of Angkor, the difficulties associated with accessing the site on Phnom Kulen, and the fact that it is all but buried in important forest cover. “The Angkor complex is much denser than Mahendraparvata,” Chevance told The Diplomat. “However, the urban organization (of Mahendraparvata) is strictly organized and orientated in a natural environment which is not a flat plain like the site of Angkor, but is rather chaotic (valleys, cliffs, rivers).”
Defining the contours of this geographically complex site would not be possible without the use of a technology known as Lidar (light detection and ranging data), which is revolutionizing archaeology today. In a nutshell, cartographers and archaeologists are using Lidar to map out the contours of Mahendraparvata, with Canadian company McElhanney handling the technical side. This breakthrough technology beams billions of laser pulses down from a helicopter to collect data points, which are then used to create a 3-D map of the site’s topography.