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Saving Angkor temples - one stone at a time

Saving Angkor temples - one stone at a time

In the next 25 years, this area is going to become the main place for researchers of archeology and restoration…

Therefore, protection is badly needed.”                                 – Ros Borth, Apsara Authority



An employee of Archaeological Survey of India repairs an ancient rock belonging to a temple at Ta Prom.

Siem Reap – As tourists gaze up at the giant smiling faces of the Bayon temple complex, a crane hiding behind the nearby food vendors hefts the next block of intricately carved ancient stone from the pile of pieces recovered from the temple grounds. Temple reconstruction laborers on top swarm to find the right fit for the new piece. 

The workers are part of the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA). They are reconstructing the 13th century temple’s southern library on a temporary concrete platform away from the main temple site. When all pieces are checked and meticulously recorded, the library’s wall will be moved and permanently secured together on its original site. 

JSA is one of 40 restoration groups from 15 countries currently working on temple restoration and preservation projects at Angkor Archeological Park.

"All of the teams have a slightly different policy for their restoration work,” said Ichita Shimoda, technical advisor for JSA.

"Influence from work background and especially from cultural thinking effect the way a project is engineered,” he said. 

Temple restoration styles and methods have varied greatly since restoration work began in the early 1900s and continue to differ from team to team.

The method of anastylosis, wherein walls are carefully taken apart stone by stone and reassembled on concrete foundations, was first used at the Banteay Srei temple 32km from Siem Reap in the 1930s and has since produced many complete structures at Angkor Archeological Park, including much of Angkor Wat itself.

Other work involves repairing collapsed sections and reinforcement to prevent further collapse. In some cases, work consists of no more than clearing jungle and maintaining the grounds.

Phillippe Dalonge, culture program specialist for The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), says that Western and Asian restorers have particularly different ideas.

Although temple work within the Angkor Historical Park must be overseen by UNESCO and the Apsara Authorities, Delonge said the extent of restoration is often a cause for long debate. Many believe in preservation, not restoration; others want to rebuild the whole structure.

JSA believes in "conservation of original technique,” says Shimoda. New technology is applied as much as possible to the original construction techniques. The theory is that much of the beauty of the temples lies in their aged condition.

"Their life is like human life; it will become old and finally die. This is a natural and beautiful thing. Old is also beautiful,” Shimoda said.

"But sometimes for human life, medical care can help prolong life in a healthier condition. We can extend the life of the temples in the same way.”

The Swiss take the concept a step further. Their goal at the temple complex of Banteay Srei is to stabilize and maintain the site in its current state.

"Our approach is to preserve not rebuild,” says Romana Tedeschi, project manager for the Banteay Srei Conservation Project (BSCP).

"If you rebuild you need to dismantle the existing structure and add new materials and carvings. We don’t touch it if it’s not necessary. Part of the charm is that it’s not perfect.”

The work of BSCP includes clearing vegetation, repairing the original drainage system, installing stabilization beams on walls in danger of collapse and monitoring stone movements to pinpoint future danger areas.

Although it is located some 25km from the main temples, Banteay Srei, famous for its intricately carved pink sandstone, is one of the three most visited temples. It currently receives around 1,700 visitors a day, according to Tedeschi.

With such large crowds it is difficult to find a balance between protection and tourism. Tedeschi says in the future the number of visitors to Banteay Srei may need to be limited.

Taking a very different approach is the Chinese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (CSA) working at Chau Say Tevoda. Their  goal – somewhat controversial – is to completely rebuild the temple, replacing all missing pieces with new material.

Many new pieces have been installed to rebuild the South library, creating a patchwork of old and new. Only 440 original sandstone blocks could be found, and 181 new pieces had to be prepared.

Meanwhile, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has found their work at Ta Prohm uniquely challenging.

Renowned for the majestic trees that have crept across the temple ruins for hundreds of years, their roots are now entwined with temple walls. One of the challenges of restoration is finding a way to preserve the trees while preventing them from further damaging the structure.

ASI project leader D S Snood says the trees are just as much a part of the history and beauty of Ta Prohm as the structure itself.

"We are not in favor of restoring the whole structure because the collapse is also part of the history,” says Snood.

"Instead we selected nine locations where attention is required for the safety of tourists and the preservation of the structure. This will give visitors an idea of how it looked originally.”

Most of the stones require some repair; broken pieces are fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, steel rods are drilled into the stone for reinforcement, cracks are filled and stones tested before reinstallation to ensure they can take the load.

Snood says the methods can be slow and difficult, but they maintain authenticity.

Fifty laborers and 35 experts are expected to take 10 years to complete the restoration. Ros Borth, deputy director general in charge of Apsara’s Department of Monuments and Archeology, says the restoration work is endless.

"In the next 25 years, this area is going to become the main place for researchers of archeology and restoration because it is a vast area with 40,000 hectares of land inscribed in the World Heritage List as rich in archeological potential,” says Borth.

"Therefore, protection is badly needed.”

The first restoration work at the park began in 1907 under the direction of École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), which cleared vegetation, repaired foundations and installed drains to protect the buildings from water damage.

Work was carried out on about 50 temples in the region by EFEO up until the early 1970s when the Khmer Rouge advance forced the French to leave. During the years of conflict that followed, the temples suffered surprisingly little damage.

"The Khmer Rouge impact on the temples was almost zero,” says Christof Piogipr, an archeologist who has worked on temple projects for years. In 530 temple sites, damage from bombing or other armaments was barely evident, he says.

Khmer Rouge soldiers did dismantle four Buddha statues at Angkor Thom, but no damage was done to the pieces. The Buddhas were reassembled in the 1980s and can be seen today.  


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