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A Forgotten History of Angkor Wat Revealed in its Vandalism

by Allison Meier on May 29, 2014

Elephant graffiti revealed at Angkor Wat (© Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

Elephant graffiti revealed at Angkor Wat (© Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

A history of vandalism in one of the world’s most famous monuments has been analyzed, revealing long-lost art. In a paper published this week in the quarterly review Antiquity, researchers used imaging technology to uncover the hidden paintings of Angkor Wat.

The Cambodian temple, renowned for its incredible carvings, began as a Hindu religious center that was later transformed into a Buddhist site, and fell into neglect in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, it was never completely abandoned, and traces of its use are secreted in the scraps of paint on the walls.

A music ensemble revealed in the paint at Angkor Wat (© Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

A music ensemble revealed in the paint at Angkor Wat (© Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

“What these paintings do is attest to the continued vitality of Angkor during this period of history, which is something that’s too often ignored or downplayed. […] Our understanding of this ‘middle period’ of Khmer history is extremely poor, and almost no archaeological work has ever been done on it,” University of Sydney archaeologist Damian Evans told the Phom Penh Post.

The research was carried out by rock art specialist Noel Hidalgo Tan of the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at Australian National University, along with Im Sokrithy, Heng Than, and Khieu Chan of Cambodia’s APSARA Authority. According to Lizzie Wade at Science magazine, many archaeologists have long believed that parts of the temple were once covered in paint, and traces of pigment have been frequently noticed on the walls. What makes this new research a breakthrough is its application of decorrelation, a digital enhancement technology. As the researchers state, although “difficult to see with the naked eye, [the paintings] can be enhanced by digital photography and decorrelation stretch analysis, a technique recently used with great success in rock art studies.”

Angkor Wat (photograph by Narin BI, via Flickr)

Angkor Wat (photograph by Narin BI, via Flickr)

The technology has also been used by NASA‘s Opportunity rover to analyze the terrain of Mars (here’s a discussion of the process from 2005 at the Society for California Archaeology). The revealed paintings, long thought to be only vandalism, include among the disorderly drawings some very deliberate work depicting ships (indicating European contact), animals like elephants, buildings, and even a mural of Buddha harkening to the temple’s spiritual transition. The researchers note: “The paintings found at Angkor Wat seem to belong to a specific phase of the temple’s history in the sixteenth century AD when it was converted from a Vishnavaite Hindu use to Theravada Buddhist.”

This is yet another example of old vandalism and the art of lay people revealing forgotten stories of the world. Other researchers have recently examined the messages scratched at Pompeii showing social relations in the society, tags from gladiator afficianados at the Colosseum discovered last year during its cleaning, and a 3D laser scan at Stonehenge showing axehead graffiti and inscriptions from later Victorian visitors.

More on the graffiti at Angkor Wat can be found at “The hidden paintings of Angkor Wat” in Durham University’s review, Antiquity.

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