In what is understood to be a significant archaeological breakthrough, a rare sandstone turtle sculpture has been unearthed beneath the earth of a former pond at Siem Reap province’s Bayon Temple.

The temple, one of the most famous of the many wonders of the Angkor Archaeological Park, is renowned for its intricate carvings and massive stone faces. 

The recent discovery of the precious sculpture – which measures 57cm in length, 43cm across and 21cm in depth – demonstrates that the temple still has historical secrets to reveal.

This discovery was made by a project team from the APSARA National Authority (ANA), who unearthed the statue at a depth of 1.5m.

Long Kosal, ANA spokesperson, underscored the importance of this find in the broader context of the temple's history. 

“While many believed there was nothing left to find, our archaeological research has uncovered evidence that Bayon Temple actually boasted two ponds on its eastern side,” he explained.

“This necessitates a reassessment of the historical significance of these sites,” he added.

Tourists visit Bayon temple in Siem Reap province.Yousos Apdoulrashim

The recent excavation not only challenges previous assumptions about the temple's structure, but also enriches the narrative of the temple’s construction, which took place during the 12th century reign of King Jayavarman VII.

“This means that the remarkable construction from the 12th century, under the visionary leadership of Jayavarman VII, will be reintroduced in the 21st century. This restoration holds far greater value than the discovery of a turtle sculpture,” he told The Post. 

The ANA, which is committed to the conservation and study of Cambodia’s ancient heritage, sees the discovery as an opportunity to deepen understanding of the region's historical architecture and debunk myths about lost underground structures. 

According to Kosal, this find, along with the recent uncovering of the foundation of an ancient temple adjacent to the Angkor Park’s Lolei Temple, highlights the dynamic history embedded within Cambodia's landscape.

Lolei, the northernmost temple of the Roluos group of three late 9th-century Hindu temples, faces structural pressure due to the construction of a contemporary pagoda. 

A rare sandstone turtle sculpture has been unearthed beneath the earth of a former pond at Siem Reap province’s Bayon Temple. Heritage Protection Police

“The construction of the pagoda may exert pressure on the temple's foundations. Hence, in collaboration with monks, locals, and authorities, it was decided to modify some structures on the hill,” said Kosal, reflecting the community’s involvement in preserving the Kingdom’s historical heritage.

A team from the ANA then excavated the relatively shallow hill and uncovered numerous ancient temple structures.

The latest discoveries at Bayon and Lolei temples not only provide new insights into the architectural endeavours of the ancient Khmer, but also reinforce the importance of collaborative archaeological practices, he explained.

With each layer of soil removed, the history of the Khmer Empire is slowly pieced together, offering a clearer view of the proud civilisation's legacy.