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Digging for where the gods were constructed

The West Mebon Vishnu in the National Museum. Photo supplied
The West Mebon Vishnu in the National Museum. Photo supplied

Digging for where the gods were constructed

One of the most famous bronze sculptures found at Angkor is the West Mebon Vishnu. Dating to the 11th century, the piece now at Phnom Penh’s National Museum is merely a fragment – albeit a car-sized one – of the top half of a reclining Vishnu.

Archaeologists estimate the four-armed Hindu deity’s original length at six metres, which makes it comparable to the largest bronzes in the region. Ancient artists would have spent months slaving over it. Yet where Angkorian bronze makers would have spent those months in toil has long puzzled researchers – until now. 

The discovery of a sprawling bronze workshop found adjacent to the ancient Royal Palace of Angkor has gone a long way in solving the riddle. The significance of the site was first revealed during a dig in 2012, but the first-ever comprehensive report was published late last month in the 100th edition of the Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient (BEFEO), a journal that has reported the major archaeological finds of Angkor since 1901.  

The workshop was found by chance. Martin Polkinghorne – who co-authored the report – and a team from the APSARA National Authority and École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) were there excavating what they believed was a stone workshop, a site originally found in 1926 by EFEO conservator Henri Marchal.

They collected evidence of stone-making, but they found other things too: half-finished bronze sculptures, hefty furnaces, fragments of unused metal and weighty crucibles that could hold up to two litres of molten bronze.

A large crucible once used to hold molten alloy found at the workshop site. Photo supplied
A large crucible once used to hold molten alloy found at the workshop site. Photo supplied

Later, carbon dating would reveal that the workshop was likely in use from the 11th to the 12th century, the pinnacle of Angkorian civilisation under the reign of Jayavarman VII, the famed god-king who oversaw the construction of the Bayon among other edifices.

“We’ve demonstrated that there is a centralised workshop with very large-scale production,” said Polkinghorne this week over the phone from Adelaide, Australia, where he teaches at Flinders University. “It was a great find. We were really excited.”

The reason the workshop’s discovery is so important, Polkinghorne said, is that it turns previously held assumptions about Angkorian bronze work on their head.

The prevailing idea before was that “sculptures were created on the site where they were to be installed or venerated”, he said.

This workshop near Angkor Thom, which the team estimates could be as long as a kilometre, suggests that the fabrication, or at least a large percentage of it, was centralised and industrial. Angkor’s masterpieces were ordered for takeaway. 

Bronze statues were highly valued in Angkorian times, Polkinghorne said. Copper and tin, materials used to make bronze, were rare and valuable.

Often the statues were gilded with gold. Despite the expense, such sculptures were found all over the region, including as far as Sri Lanka.

Cambodian archaeologists toil at the workshop site where their forefathers also toiled, with bronze, fire and hammers. Photo supplied
Cambodian archaeologists toil at the workshop site where their forefathers also toiled, with bronze, fire and hammers. Photo supplied

One 12th century inscription known as the Preah Khan references 20,400 statues of bronze, silver and gold across Angkor, which at its peak stretched into Thailand and Laos.

The workshop discovery revealed something else that was previously unknown. Its close proximity to Angkor Thom, the seat of royal power at Angkor, tells archaeologists that the artistry was likely overseen by Angkorian elites. 

“The kings were investing huge resources into these statues,” said Polkinghorne. 

The statues had a double meaning. They reminded Angkorians of the awesome power of the gods but also of the more immediate authority of the king, he said. 

“Primarily, sculptures are important because they have power to restore and also communicate legitimacy,” Polkinghorne explained. 

“Artistic skill is a coveted and almost highly secret skillset that the king is tapping,” he continued. “He’s using that knowledge to legitimise himself.” 

Alison Carter, an honorary associate at the University of Sydney and a visiting assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, called the bronze workshop “a significant find”.

Carter, whose excavation at Angkor last year focused on the lives of ordinary Angkorians, praised the project for revealing more about the nitty-gritty of the ancient empire, details of which archaeology remains largely in the dark about. 

Piece of a leaded bronze 15.5cm statue found at the Angkor Thom Royal Palace dating to the late 12th/early 13th century. Photo supplied
Piece of a leaded bronze 15.5cm statue found at the Angkor Thom Royal Palace dating to the late 12th/early 13th century. Photo supplied

“These [statues] were made by real people and Martin’s work is helping us understand how these objects were crafted,” she said via email.  

It was a sentiment echoed by Polkinghorne. “We’ve kind of outlined the bigger picture of Angkor, but now we’re looking at the more minute details, how things were made,” he said.

To that end, Polkinghorne described the method of bronze-making likely used at the workshop.

The method, known as lost-wax casting, involved using a wax model of the sculpture that the artist would cover in a clay mould. The wax would then be melted out and filled with a molten alloy for molding. The method was used in China, India and Europe as well, but “there’s no question that the Angkorians mastered it”, Polkinghorne said. 

Many questions still remain unanswered. The exact boundaries of the workshop are yet to be determined, and there may be more like it. As to the source of the metals that supplied the bronze-making process, archaeologists are not certain about that either.

There are no significant ore or metal deposits known in present-day Cambodia, according to the BEFEO paper, which speculates that the metals were likely obtained through trade. Further excavations at the site are in the works, Polkinghorne said, but still we might never know all the answers. 

As a self-doubting Henri Marchal lamented after revisiting the potential workshop site in 1934: “Forever these same old assumptions, for which it is impossible to prove either their truth or falsehood.”


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