“Huge, low-density cities like Angkor were relatively unusual in the medieval world, but have become a defining characteristic of contemporary urban life,” he explains. “Over time, the populations who inhabited these early Cambodian cities found themselves increasingly constrained by a legacy of centuries of massive infrastructural development. It seems to have created a kind of inertia that limited their capacity to adapt to changing environmental circumstances.”
In the case of Angkor, it is believed that the eventual failure of the massive city’s canals and reservoirs – a complex yet rigid hydrological system that probably supported a population of nearly one million – may have hastened the Khmer Empire’s demise.
“Ultimately, our objective is to see what kind of lessons can be learned that are of broader relevance to contemporary societies,” Mr. Evans says.
At Phnom Kulen, meanwhile, the team labours on. Three more months are needed to finish ground verifications, and excavations have only just begun.
Moreover, with ancient roads and highways stretching to the very edges of the 30 square kilometres surveyed by McElhanney, Mr. Chevance is trying to raise money for a second lidar campaign next year to determine the true size of the long-hidden city and to see what other mysteries may be concealed by the forests of Phnom Kulen.
“I believe Mahendraparvata is much bigger than the window we’re glimpsing,” he says. “We would like to use lidar to survey five times what we’ve already covered. If all goes well, we’ll be working up here for years to come.”
Lidar at a glance
Lidar (light detection and ranging), which was developed in the 1960s, measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light.
First used in meteorology.
Used to map the moon’s surface in 1971.
Used by an archeologist for the first time in Costa Rica in 1988.
Became a powerful surveying tool with the advent of reliable GPS systems in the 1990s.
Used extensively over the past five years to map archeological sites in Mesoamerica.
Cambodian survey was the first of its kind in Asia and the largest archeological lidar survey ever conducted in the world.
Commonly used today in forestry, mining, geology, surveying, coastal management, etc.