Stone, Richard (2006) The End of Angor

Stone, Richard (2006) The End of Angor - NEWSFOCUS The...

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The End of Angkor The collapse of a great medieval city suggests that environmental miscalculations can spell doom for even the most highly engineered urban landscapes 10 MARCH 2006 VOL 311 SCIENCE 1364 NEWS FOCUS SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA— Crouching in the bottom of a gully, Roland Fletcher traces with his finger the beveled edge of a pitted, grayish- red rock. The carved laterite block with a sloping face fits snugly in a groove in the block below. “It’s a fancy piece of work,” says Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney, Australia. Centuries ago, the people of Angkor built immense sandstone palaces and temples on foundations of laterite, a spongy, iron-laden soil that hardens when exposed to air. In excavations begun last year, Fletcher’s team discovered that the half-meter-long block is just one piece of a dilapidated platform extending 20 meters underground in either direction. The platform appears to be the remnants of a massive spillway, possibly used to disperse flood- waters unleashed by monsoon rains. “Nobody had ever seen a structure of this kind here before,” Fletcher says. The spillway helps resolve one debate, showing that the majestic waterworks of Angkor—a Khmer kingdom from the 9th to 15th centuries C.E. that at its height encompassed much of modern-day Cambodia, central Thailand, and southern Vietnam—were designed for practi- cal purposes as well as religious rituals. But this singular piece of medieval engineering may also offer clues to a more profound rid- dle—not because the spillway exists, but because it was destroyed. Ever since Portuguese traders in the late 16th century described the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat rising from the forest canopy, people have wondered why the once-gilded temple devoted to Vishnu—humanity’s largest religious mon- ument—and the city connected with it were abandoned about 500 years ago. The list of suspects proposed so far includes marauding invaders, a religious change of heart, and geological uplift. Now Fletcher and his colleagues have new evidence that the very grandeur of Angkor’s complex plumbing, the lifeblood of the city, left it vulnerable to collapse. In a provocative new interpretation of Angkor’s demise, Fletcher, co-director of the Greater Angkor Project (GAP), a 5-year survey and excavation sponsored by the Australian Research Council, proposes that the trigger may have been a com- bination of rigid infrastructure, environmental degradation, and abrupt changes in monsoons. He and other scholars caution that the case is not closed. “It’s hard to put a finger on any one reason for the collapse,” says Charles Higham, an anthropologist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, whose startling finds at earlier Thai sites are illuminating the origins of Angkor (see p. 1366). If the GAP team is right, Angkor—the most
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This note was uploaded on 10/22/2010 for the course ASB 326 taught by Professor Falconer during the Fall '08 term at ASU.

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Stone, Richard (2006) The End of Angor - NEWSFOCUS The...

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