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Aussies help make Angkor greater

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Dr Damian Evans left director of the Robert Christie Research Centre and Dr Michael Spence vice chancellor of the University of Sydney.

The Australian Research Council has announced another round of funding for the Greater Angkor Project (GAP), spearheaded by the University of Sydney. The state organisation will grant AUS$900,000 over five years to the project – a collaboration with the Apsara Authority, and the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient.

The good funding news came as the university celebrated 10 years of the Greater Angkor Project with a gala dinner at Bayon Temple on December 15. Attended by Australian ambassador Margaret Adamson, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, and the King’s representative, His Royal Highness Samdech Norodom Sirivudh. At the event, university vice-chancellor Michael Spence celebrated the program for both its research value and for its strengthening of international relationships.

“It is a project that is both academically excellent and that has positive benefits for the relationships between Australia and its neighbors,” said Spence, adding that Australia is the fourth largest contributor of development aid to the Kingdom, and there is a large Khmer population in Sydney’s western suburbs.

In a separate project announced last December, the Australian government pledged AUS$1.13 million to be used with US$600,000 from Cambodia to create a management framework for the Angkor World Heritage Site. With tourism growing steadily and ever-increasing development, the management framework should help conserve monuments and archeological sites while spurring sustainable development.

To date, GAP’s most notable scientific achievement has been its discovery of the true spatial size of the Angkorian capital. Before, scientists really only studied the empire’s downtown area, without knowing that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city ever.

Roland Fletcher, an archeologist and founder of the GAP project, had long suspected the civilisation was bigger than thought. When he consulted Christophe Pottier at the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient. Pottier had already mapped out much of the huge landscape.

“This was the real ‘Eureka’ moment at the genesis of the project in 1998,” admits Damian Evans, director of the university’s Robert Christie Research Center. “It used to be a completely natural landscape and it was completely re-engineered and turned into an almost totally artificial landscape revolving around this very delicate balance in water. It’s a remarkable feat when you consider the sheer scale.”

Evans uses satellite imagery to map the ancient city of low-density sprawl. He also excavates and harnesses techniques like pollen analysis to glean clues.

“Our main research focus has been to look at why the capital declined. And our research findings have started to show that the extensive water management system, the sheer size of the city and the impact it was having on the environment was a critical factor in the decline of Angkor,” said Evans.

GAP’s findings were the subject of a July National Geographic story. The much-talked-about article opened some doors.

“Numerous promising research directions have opened up as a result of it. Any publicity is good for Cambodia and that’s part of the reason that we do what we do,” said Evans.

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