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Greater Angkor, Cambodia Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Karen Coates

Greater Angkor • Cambodia


This computer reconstruction of Angkor Wat is based in part on a new map of the site and the vast urban landscape that surrounded it. (Courtesy Tom Chandler/Monash University)

The capital of a Khmer state that flourished between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, Cambodia's Angkor is one of the most intensively studied sites in the world. But it continues to inspire more questions than answers, the most fundamental being why the sophisticated Khmer Empire collapsed. In 2007, research into the mysteries of the world's largest preindustrial city reached a milestone with the completion of a 10-year mapping project, which yielded clues suggesting that the sprawling metropolis may have collapsed under self-induced environmental pressures related to overpopulation and deforestation.

"Angkor was a vast inhabited landscape...larger than anything previously known," says Damian Evans, deputy director of the Greater Angkor Project (GAP) and lead author of the group's findings. Their map covers more than 1,100 square miles, detailing thousands of features that were part of an elaborate irrigation system.

The GAP team combined previously existing ground surveys, aerial photos, and radar remote-sensing data provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab to create the comprehensive map. It shows an urban center surrounded by dispersed agricultural villages, local temples, and small reservoirs. The team found evidence of silted canals and breached waterworks that suggest the people of Angkor were eventually unable to maintain the vast irrigation system because of erosion and increased flooding. The map also shows the metropolis extended miles beyond the ruins within today's Angkor Archaeological Park. "Extremely valuable archaeological material stretches far beyond the World Heritage zone," Evans says.

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© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America