Ancient ‘Lost City’ of Khmer Empire Rediscovered Hidden Under The Cambodian Jungle

Ancient 'Lost City' of Khmer Empire Rediscovered Hidden Under The Cambodian Jungle

Ancient ‘Lost City’ of Khmer Empire Rediscovered Hidden Under The Cambodian Jungle

The Mahendraparvata of ancient Cambodia, one of the first Angkorian capital cities of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to 15th centuries, was finally located in Cambodia, northeast of Angkor Wat.

Previously, archeological evidence of this lost city was restricted to a few relatively isolated shrines, but airborne lidar scanning, combined with ground-based survey techniques, identified an “extended urban network” dating back to the 9th century AD that archeologists believe to be Mahendraparvata City.

An oblique aerial view of the Phnom Kulen plateau and Mahendraparvata.

The latest lidar research project was funded as part of the Khmer Archeology Lidar Consortium and the Cambodian Archeological Lidar Initiative by the Archeology and Development Foundation and the European Research Council (ERC).

And among the hundreds of new observations reported in the paper of the scientist published in the Antiquity journal, the jewel in the crown of the researcher was locating Mahendraparvata, the capital of the Khmer Empire dating from the 8th to 9th centuries AD.

Mahendraparvata, a capital city of the Khmer Empire dating from the 8th to 9th century AD.

The lidar scans identified a vast urban area encompassing about 15.4-19.3 square miles (40-50 square kilometres) on the plateau, and Mahendraparvata represents the first large-scale “grid city built by the Khmer Empire on the Phnom Kulen massif.

Furthermore, the city, which predates the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia, that was ruled over by King Jayavarman II, had a complex network of major thoroughfares dividing the central zone into a grid system with land parceling and subdivided city blocks.

Across the city grid the scans found a series of both civic and spiritual architectural installations, for example, a series of shrines, mounds, ponds, a large water-management system of dams and a major unfinished reservoir surround an administrative centre, a royal palace, and a massive state pyramid-temple.

Map of the central grid of Mahendraparvata on top of a lidar-derived hillshade model.

But even with this new evidence, in their paper, the archaeologists show caution at jumping to the conclusion of the prevailing ‘ hydraulic city ’ theory, as the water channels don’t seem to be designed for irrigated rice agriculture and it is more probable that Mahendraparvata was a dedicated seat of civic and spiritual power.

While Mahendraparvata has an extended city grid the archaeologists saw no attempt to define a central area with a wall or moat, like is seen at Angkor and all later Khmer cities and this is “totally unique” in the Khmer world.

If fact, this style of urban development is consistent with other recent work on “tropical urbanism” in the Khmer and Maya homelands and from the new “ landscape-scale perspective ” which was offered by lidar, the scientists now consider the city not as an organized geometric space, but instead as components of a “messy and complex continuum” of urban and rural space.

Axis and orientations of the central pyramid, reservoir, and associated shrines at Koh Ker (top) and Mahendraparvata (bottom).

This is not the first time lost cities have been found in Cambodia with lidar scanning as in 2016 an article in the Guardian discussed archaeologists finding “multiple, previously undocumented medieval cities” not far from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat.

At the time, Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans announced that cutting-edge airborne laser scanning technology had revealed multiple cities between 900 and 1,400 years old beneath the tropical forest floor, some of which rival the size of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

An example of a newly documented temple site in the forests of the Phnom Kulen region. (Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

An example of a newly documented temple site in the forests of the Phnom Kulen region.

Dr. Mitch Hendrickson, the director of the industries of the Angkor project and assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Illinois, said the initial survey had been a “major game-changer” in understanding how the Angkorian Khmer people built, modified, and lived in their cities.

Before 2016 it was known that Preah Khan of Kompong Svay was significant, but it was established as the largest complex ever built during the Angkorian period at 8.5 square miles (22 square kilometres), but Mahendraparvata is double this at 15.4 – 19.3 square miles (40 – 50 square kilometres).

Now that scientists have completed their lidar coverage of the forested Angkor region, the work described in this paper effectively draws 150 years of archaeological mapping work in the Greater Angkor region to a close and sets the stage for what the researchers are calling a more “sophisticated spatiotemporal modelling of urban form”.

And the scientists say that by blending data gathered from Angkorian household archaeology with aerial scanning, finer-grained demographic models can be built which might finally resolve some of the outstanding questions concerning the origins of Angkor: how it expanded, collapsed, and was rebuilt over the centuries becoming one of the largest civilizations of the ancient world.

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