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Studying Angkor from a higher perspective

Studying Angkor from a higher perspective

FRAGMENTS OF HISTORY

A lintel piece from the temples of Kapilapura is aclue to the vast puzzle to be pieced together as part of an ongoing task of identifying and preserving the origins of the Ankorean history.

SIEM REAP - At first there is not much to see; the dirt road is one of many that

snakes through Angkor. Only a slight rise in the surface of the road hints at what

Christophe Pottier already knew was there.

"This is a temple," he exclaims almost jokingly while gesturing toward

the unspectacular mound.

The side of the road holds proof of the ancient structure's existence as Pottier,

an architect from the French Institute for Far Eastern Studies (EFEO), picks up a

fist-sized chunk of rock and examines it. On its corner are the unmistakable curves

of Angkorian carvings.

Pottier first saw this previously uncharted temple, and hundreds more, from the air.

A specialist in monumental structures, he identifies buried temples using aerial

photographs that reveal remains not easily seen from the ground.

The most common feature he looks for in the photos is a trapeang, a rectangular man-made

water reservoir that is similar to the giant barays constructed on the west and east

sides of Angkor that were the center of an astoundingly advanced irrigation system.

It is unclear whether trapeangs were also used for irrigation, but it is quite certain

that they were almost always built next to temples, which were often surrounded by

moats. To the west of many of the trapeangs are the horseshoe-shaped remains of the

moats. At their centers lie hidden temples.

While charting about 400 previously known sites of ruins, the EFEO team in Siem Reap

has identified 200 new sites along the way. The work grabbed international attention

earlier this year when NASA promoted its radar-imaging systems at a February press

conference by showcasing the space agency's assistance to archeologists surveying

Khmer temple remains.

NASA first took radar images of Angkor from the space shuttle in 1996. A year later,

more detailed images were taken by plane.

NASA's radar imaging technology bounces radar waves off the planet from above to

measure changes in elevation. The end results are extremely precise topographical

maps. With the help of the images several sites of ruins near Siem Reap have been

located by Elizabeth Moore, head of the Department of Art and Archeology at London's

School of Oriental and African Studies, including a football-field site 30km away

from Angkor Wat.

KAPILAPURA

Radar images taken by the US space agency NASA brought this 10th century temple to the attention of archeologist Elizabeth Moore. Statues found at the site have led her to believe that the Hindu deity Vishnu was of particular importance in early Angkorian religious rituals.

But unfortunately for the EFEO office in Siem Reap, no computers exist in Cambodia

that are advanced enough to process the radar images. Instead the team has done the

majority of its work using old-fashioned aerial photography taken in 1992.

Moore and EFEO have nonetheless worked together to explore the less-obvious structures

of Angkor. Most of the buried temples are older and smaller than the intact structures

that draw thousands of tourists to Cambodia every year. The large site discovered

by Moore is the exception rather than the rule.

Yet the sites should not be discounted for their size. One almost forgotten temple,

Kapilapura, caught the eye of Moore as she studied the radar images. The 10th century

structure, first seen by Westerners nearly a century ago, is the home of the misnomered

"Inscription of Angkor Wat", which revealed a wealth of information about

the builders of Angkor after it was discovered. Angkor Wat itself was built about

200 years after the inscription was written.

Archeologists date the beginning of the Angkor period at 802AD, when King Jayavarman

II first unified a large number of settlements and held an extravagant ceremony at

Phnom Kulen. Even older pre-Angkorian sites have been found but not thoroughly explored

because current research funding is earmarked for the Angkor period.

Kapilapura dates to the first of three Angkorian cities. The ancient metropolis was

believed to be centered around Phnom Bakheng, best known for the view of the sunset

it offers to modern-day tourists.

The renewed interest in Kapilapura may also have shed more light on the religious

practices of ancient Khmers.

Several statues of the Hindu god Vishnu were found on the site in the 1920s when

it was first excavated. Their presence suggests to Moore that the deity may have

had special significance in early Angkorian rituals.

"In this particular case, an existing feature that was highlighted to an incredible

degree by the radar has yielded what are, for me, really exciting archaeological

implications about the evolution of the city," Moore said at the NASA press

conference.

NOT MUCH TO SEE

From the ground the only hint of this buried temple is a few laterite blocks poking through the earth.

Kapilapura is now being recleared with the help of the International Labor Organization

(ILO) for further study. About 20 Cambodians were removing vegetation from the site

Sept 8. The temple will then be maintained to halt the damage the growth, and regrowth

since it was first found, has wrought.

Pottier explained that letting the site be reclaimed by mother nature only to clear

it again accelerates its slow decomposition.

"Clearing is fine, but you must take care," he said. "Each time you

clear you lose some elements. It's like a bass relief, every time you brush it, you

lose a little bit."

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