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Archeologists Jean-Baptiste Chevance and Sakada Sakhoeun at a temple in Phnom Kulen. (Erika Pineros For The Globe and Mail)
Archeologists Jean-Baptiste Chevance and Sakada Sakhoeun at a temple in Phnom Kulen. (Erika Pineros For The Globe and Mail)

How a vast ancient city was discovered in the Cambodian jungle Add to ...

‘It should be about here,” Stéphane De Greef says. He glances at a hand-held GPS, then examines his surroundings: charred tree stumps, termite mounds and a low tangle of bushes, saplings and thorny vines that cling to clothing and scrape flesh.

On the GPS screen, a black-and-white image shows that he is standing where two straight lines converge – the intersection of two highways that are 50 metres wide, an ancient crossroad now obscured by an abandoned jungle farm.

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“There was a city under our feet,” the Belgian cartographer says, “but for so long, we were lacking the tools to see it.”

Lessons from the past

In June, an international team of researchers announced the discovery of a 1,200-year-old city cloaked in the forests of northern Cambodia. It was the size of the country’s modern capital and so sophisticated that the lead scientist feels it may even produce a better understanding of modern cities.

Abandoned to the jungle for a millennium, Mahendraparvata (Mountain of the Great Indra) was located – with the help of a Canadian engineering firm – atop Phnom Kulen, a sparsely populated plateau just 40 kilometres northeast of Angkor Wat, the famed temple complex that is Cambodia’s greatest tourist attraction (it drew more than two million visitors last year).

To contemporary Cambodians, Phnom Kulen is a place of living myth. It was here that, in 802, the legendary King Jayavarman II declared himself the divinely sanctioned ruler of a newly unified and independent Cambodia. This gave rise to the Khmer Empire – a civilization that would build the ancient city of Angkor, the largest preindustrial settlement in the world, and dominate the region for the next 600 years.

Scholars have long known of Mahendraparvata’s existence. Working from 10th- and 11th-century Sanskrit inscriptions found elsewhere, French teams began to traverse Phnom Kulen in the 1880s, hoping to find traces of what had been one of Jayavarman II’s capitals. They discovered dozens of overgrown and crumbling Hindu temples atop the plateau, but few signs of earlier habitation.

With academic attention focused on the grander monuments at nearby Angkor, their work remained obscure, and the hunt for Mahendraparvata came to a halt in the late 1960s with the outbreak of civil war.

For more than two decades, Cambodia remained closed as it was governed by succession of authoritarian regimes. The bloodiest of these, the infamous Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, maintained a presence at Phnom Kulen until 1996 (17 years after being driven from power), leaving behind a cruel legacy of anti-personnel mines and amputees.

Four years later, French archeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance began to do research in the area. In 2008, he created the Archeology and Development Fund (ADF), the area’s only research outfit. It also invests in development projects, which help the 4,000 people living atop the sprawling plateau today, most of whom survive by slash-and-burn farming, illegal logging and poaching.

“Phnom Kulen is isolated and poorly studied. It’s uncomfortable working here and dangerous too – I just love it,” Mr. Chevance says.

A guiding light

Finding a city buried in the jungle requires more than passion.

Damian Evans, a Victoria native who came to Cambodia as an undergraduate researcher and now leads the University of Sydney’s archeology centre at Siem Reap, had been studying the area for years. “The first 10 years of my work here was focused on using aerial photographs and radar to map Angkor’s extended agro-urban periphery, but there were always these big blank spaces in the middle of my maps where forests stood,” he says.

Then he was approached by the Indonesian arm of Vancouver-based engineering, surveying and mapping firm McElhanney. The company offered him the use of lidar, a laser tool that succeeded in uncovering archeological sites in Central America, at cost.

Similar to radar, lidar can measure subtle differences in surface elevation by emitting hundreds of thousands of laser pulses per second, then calculating the time it takes them to return. When combined with GPS technology, lidar data can be used to create detailed topographical maps.

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