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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New technology rediscovers Cambodia's history

New technology rediscovers Cambodia's history

Radar imagery is shedding new light on Cambodia's "heart and soul" - the

Tonle Sap and Angkor. Keith W. Eirinberg attended a Florida conference last

month which took a high-tech look at Cambodia's history.

SCIENTISTS are beginning to piece together a new picture of the historic Angkor area

and the Tonle Sap great lake, with the help of radar images taken from the space

shuttle Endeavor, aircraft and satellites.

Among new theories are that Angkor was based around a tree-shaded ancient beach,

and that the western Baray was, in part, a huge animal pen for water buffalo or elephants.

Unlike the builders of many ancient cities in the West, Ankgor's architects did not

rip down large areas of vegetation to make way for their monuments, but built them

between trees. The "temple forest" that exists today is not merely the

result of untamed jungle closing in on ruins neglected over centuries.

The latest discoveries were revealed at the second scientific roundtable on the subject

"New technologies and global cultural resource management" held April 15-19

at the University of Florida, Gainesville. It was organized by two preservation groups,

the New York-based World Monuments Fund and the Royal Angkor Foundation in Hungary.

The symposium brought together specialists in archaeology, architecture, ecology,

history and other fields to meet with scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In a Sept 1994 space mission, NASA's Endeavor took radar images of Cambodia - transmitting

harmless X-ray radiation and recording the rebounding waves - to produce detailed

data on the vegetation and terrain around Angkor and the Tonle Sap.

For the past 14 months, scientists have pored over the images, matching them to aerial

and satellite photographs and cartographic and topographical information.

The results were unveiled to roundtable participants including special guest Vann

Moulyvann, vice-president of Cambodia's Supreme Council of National Culture, who

expressed gratitude for "the enormous advance that this new technology gives

to us to rediscover our past."

In arid climates, radar, which requires no visible light, can penetrate desert sands,

highlighting long-extinct trails, underground streams and springs and buried ruins.

Hopes that the Endeavor images would highlight any buried remains of the Angkor empire

were scuttled because the moist soils of the area were not reflective enough.

Nevertheless, scientists said the radar produced valuable information for scientists

studying the hydrological features of Angkor and the Tonle Sap, particularly when

matched with other available data.

Radar data has enabled Terry Schnadelbach, Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture

at the University of Florida, to develop a theory to explain why Angkor was built

at its particular site.

Comparing data from soil borings conducted by Japan's Sophia University with the

radar images, he determined that Angkor was built upon the site of an ancient beach,

with large sand deposits lying near the surface. The builders of Angkor probably

liked this area of higher ground with its distinct vegetation.

Radar images convinced Schnadelbach that Angkor's builders kept the already existing

tree cover, probably to provide shade, he suggested. Schnadelbach views Angkor as

distinct from ancient cities in the West, where large areas of vegetation were generally

cleared before building was started.

Contrary to widespread belief, the elevated area of Angkor's western Baray was not

formed by sedimentation, according to Sch-nadelbach. The radar data, matched with

satellite imagery and topographic information, clearly shows that the walls of the

baray were built to keep something besides water within the reservoir's boundaries.

Schnadelbach speculates that the elevated area of the baray served as an animal pen

for water buffalo or elephants.

Radar imagery is also providing fertile grounds for research into undiscovered ruins

dating centuries before the time of the Angkor empire.

Dr Elizabeth Moore, Professor of Art and Archaeology at the University of London's

School of Oriental and African Studies, has helped interpret the radar data to identify

68 prehistoric mounds in the Angkor area.

There are four main areas of prehistoric settlement at Angkor: two in the central

area, one is in the Roluos area southeast of Angkor, and the other to the west near

an ancient river bed.

The prehistoric features, previously unrevealed, will provide plenty of scope for

on-the-ground investigation.

Meanwhile, Schnadelbach said the radar clearly showed the presence of a large alluvial

fan that stretches out below the Kulen hills, with earth and stream deposits spreading

toward the Tonle Sap.

The alluvial fan traverses Angkor, going directly through the western Baray, with

unique sinkhole patterns where pockets of water caused the land to collapse.

The radar also showed underground springs as water traveled through internal aquifers

on the way to the Tonle Sap. The ancient Khmers correctly understood this system,

diverting the streams and taking advantage of the springs.

Scientists hope that radar also has great potential to help the future, particularly

with regard to development plans involving the Tonle Sap.

Schnadelbach said he had already discovered new features in the lake's tributaries

near Angkor. At a time when plans to dam the tributaries are being considered, he

said that radar may offer greater understanding of the life-cycle of the unique lake

and its associated rivers and streams.

It may help Cambodia in its attempt to prepare the Tonle Sap to be listed as a bio-reserve

on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

NASA does not have funding for further radar research missions aboard the Endeavor,

but is due to operate an airborne radar system on missions in South-East Asia later

this year.

The World Monuments Fund is talking with the Cambodian government and NASA about

including an overflight of Angkor from a DC-8 jet. If that goes ahead, a computer-generated

three-dimensional topographic map of the Angkor area could be produced, opening up

a new wealth of opportunities for greater understanding of Cambodia, past and present.

(Keith W. Eirinberg is a Fellow in the Asian Studies Program at the Center for Strategic

and International Studies in Washington D.C.)

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