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Agro-Urban Environments and Implications for Resilience in Medieval Cambodia

November 14, 2018 | Sarah Klassen

Lidar and satellite imagery from Angkor Wat, 2012. Image courtesy Damian Evans.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire (9th–14th centuries CE) and emerged as one of the largest low-density urban complexes in the preindustrial world after a millennium of gradual urbanization across Southeast Asia. Despite Angkor’s longevity, some scholars, beginning with Groslier (1979), argue that the collapse of an unsustainable hydraulic network and the extensification of the agro-urban periphery were major factors in the abandonment of medieval Angkor as the center of the Khmer state. However, all such studies focus on Angkor, specifically, without attention to its context within the framework of a regional urban network. New evidence suggests that Angkor was the central node in a complex urban network stretching across mainland Southeast Asia. In recent years, imagery from two lidar missions (2012 and 2015) have been used to map seven previously known but largely undocumented urban landscapes (Koh Ker, Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea, Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan Kompong Svay, Longvek, and Banteay Chhmar). The revelation of these urban areas suggests that a complex web of agricultural and occupation spaces linking more densely inhabited urban nuclei may have been a ubiquitous, defining feature of Khmer landscapes.

Sarah Klassen is a Fall 2018 Mellon Fellow and is the codirector of the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI).