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New Discoveries Radically Change What We Know About Ancient Cambodia

Terrain in the mountains to the north of Angkor. (Courtesy image of The Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative)

A cutting-edge airborne laser scanning technology revealed multiple underground cities of up to 1,400 years old, which are approximately the size of modern-day Phnom Penh.

Archaeologists in Cambodia have found previously undocumented cities near the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat. The unprecedented discoveries could drastically alter the way ancient Southeast Asian history is viewed.

The Australian archaeologist who published the findings on Monday announced that cutting-edge airborne laser scanning technology revealed multiple underground cities of up to 1,400 years old, which are approximately the size of modern-day Phnom Penh.

Officials in Cambodia hailed the discovery on Tuesday.

Damian Evans, the academic who published the research and worked in partnership with the Apsara Authority and Ministry of Culture, was quoted in the media as saying that one of the ancient sites discovered, named Mahendraparvata, is regarded as the Angkorian Empire’s first capital, complete with an extensive road and irrigation network.

The site was discovered at Kulen Mountain in Siem Reap province.

Long Kosal, spokesman for the Apsara Authority, said the use of airborne laser-scanning technology called Lidar had been ongoing since 2012.

“The evolution of the cities, the structure of the living space at that time… they were enormous compared with what we previously thought,” he said. “Lidar gave us new discoveries, showing us Cambodian history at that time, the Khmer Empire.”

He added that only last year had the scope of the research been expanded to almost 2,000 square kilometers in Siem Reap, prompting the recent discoveries.

“So the Lidar technology gave us leads to do further research about Cambodia’s history, or a new history of Cambodia, perhaps particularly related to Khmer civilization, and the people living at that time – the most prosperous era of Cambodia,” Kosal said.

Prak Sunnara, director general at the heritage department of the Ministry of Culture, said the new technology had proved extremely “convenient” as it meant that archaeology teams no longer needed to spend months conducting painstaking excavations that often bore little fruit.

“Therefore, the scanning data gives us the exact shape of the areas, which is convenient for us,” he said, adding that the government was using the Lidar data to apply for World Heritage status for Kampong Thom province’s Sambo Prey Kok temple.

Sambo Mannara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, told VOA that the discovery of Mahendraparvata was a reminder of the once-prosperous Hindu civilization that flourished in the region.

“As a historian, I’m proud off the successful discovery off this city, which is about the same size as Phnom Penh. I would like to thank and express my gratitude to those who worked hard to discover this priceless civilization of Cambodian history. I hope the government and researchers will keep on the task to reveal further the history of the city from the 9th century,” he said.

Evans told the Cambodia Daily that Mahandraparvata, like the city of Angkor and other newly-found large cities, were abandoned by Khmer kings in the late 15th century due to “political turmoil”.

However, Kosal said that there was no clear evidence of what fate had befallen the ancient kingdoms.

“We need to conduct some excavation or examine the place with our officials to make sure it is different from the data we obtained,” he said.