Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Beyond the Greater Angkor Region

How did Angkor interact with regional urban centers? How did the settlement system impact the society's agricultural system and regional resilience?

2021 - 2022


This project addresses issues of water management and agricultural production in urban and regional contexts through an archaeological case study of cities in the Khmer Empire (9th – 14th centuries C.E.). The project takes place within the framework of a dynamic and multidisciplinary network of scholars interested in human-environment interactions in mainland Southeast Asia. We are now seeking to understand the resilience of urban centers over time through existing archives of archaeological data, along with new data acquired with cutting-edge remote sensing instruments. 

Social relevance

Understanding processes of urbanization, regional networks, and the ability of systems to undergo change while maintaining the same functions, i.e. their resilience, is critical for the continued existence and growth of communities today in urban and rural contexts alike. This is particularly crucial in developing urban areas in tropical environments characterized by monsoon systems, like Southeast Asia.

Archaeology has a rich history of investigating human-environment coupled systems in urban settings and is well-suited to identifying characteristics of resilient systems over the course of centuries. Recent studies have also highlighted the utility of archaeology for analyzing human-environment interactions at multiple scales of space, from the micro-scale up to regional scale and beyond.

Though detailed analysis has been conducted on the giant low-density complex of Greater Angkor, to date, urban resilience has not been investigated in the context of regional networks over the long term in medieval Cambodia. In 2012, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that water will be the main pressure on society in the coming years, especially in increasingly urbanized regions. Rapid urbanization in the last five millennia has been characterized by hydroclimatic instability and issues of water management; the archaeological record offers us a laboratory for understanding the dynamic interplay of these processes over the broadest possible scales of time and space.

Scientific relevance

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire and emerged as one of the most extensive low-density urban complexes in the preindustrial world.  Khmer inscriptions indicate that Jayavarman II founded the imperial kingdom in 802 CE after unifying the extended Khmer world within a single socio-political system.

After unification, urbanization was rapid and expansive. By the 12th century CE the empire covered most of mainland Southeast Asia and continued to flourish until the 13th century CE before entering a period of decline. Despite Angkor’s longevity, some scholars, beginning with Groslier (1979), have argued that the collapse of an unsustainable hydraulic network, the extensification of the agro-urban periphery of agricultural communities, changing precipitation patterns, and the emergence of a densely-populated urban core were major factors in the abandonment of medieval Angkor as the center of the Khmer state. This work is similar in nature to other studies that have highlighted the human-environmental interactions over the long scale. 

Why Leiden University?

The Archaeology faculty at Leiden University is currently at the forefront of machine learning applications for archaeology and are looking to expand the research programs in their department, which is now part of the new SAILS program that seeks to expand this research field. Through my work in Cambodia and ongoing leadership of a joint program with the EFEO, I also now have access to the world’s largest archive of high-resolution archaeological lidar data. We are collaborating with researchers at Leiden University to combine datasets for comparative projects and, as part of this, we may participate in the framework of an annual competition, such as ImageNet.

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