Archeologists Use Lasers to Locate Lost City in Cambodia

The use of high-tech laser scanning systems – aka LIDAR – has proven to be highly effective for archeologists. These systems have the ability to penetrate through thick foliage and other materials to see what lies under a jungle canopy or even covered by centuries of undergrowth. As a result, hidden structures, temples, and even whole citifies have been found in a various part of Central and South America, where dense rainforests have grown up to reclaim regions that were once dominated by vast civilizations. Now, we can add Cambodia to the places that have made similar discoveries, as it was announced earlier in the week that researchers using lasers have uncovered a lost city that was once the capital of the Khmer Empire.

The discovery was published in the scholarly journal Antiquity, which shares more details of the find. The city is believed to be Mahendraparvata, which was a seat of power back in the 8th and 9th century. That makes it older than Angkor Was, which is the site that the Khmer are most famous for due to its massive temple complex and the fact that it has remained accessible into the 21st century. But Mahendraparvata may be larger yet and it appears to be the first city that was built in a planned, grid-style fashion, by engineers working within the empire.

Archeologists have long believed that Mahendraparvata sat in a remote region near Cambodia’s Phnom Kulen mountain, but up until now they hadn’t found a lot of hard evidence to support that belief. A few small shrines had been uncovered, but no major complexes that would indicate a city existed there. Their searches were hampered by the dense jungle however and the region is still littered with landmines left behind by Khmer Rouge militants that operated in the region 25 years ago. That makes it unsafe for visitors to this day and has prohibited any serious expeditions from truly exploring the area.

The initial LIDAR scan of the region took place back in 2012, with a more extensive follow-up coming in 2015. Over the past few years, archeologists and researchers have been pouring over the data obtained in those scans, identifying 3D structures. This enabled researchers to be airlifted directly into those sites for on-the-ground confirmation. So far, the data points to a city that is more than 40-50 square km (25-31 sq. miles) in size. More importantly, the team behind the discovery has identified a palace center, a network of streets, several local shrines, and other landmarks that indicate that Mahendraparvata was a capital city that contained a royal court.

Other points of interest include a large-scale water management system, a dam, and artificial reservoirs. Those structures indicated that the inhabitants of the city had to use irrigation to create flood plains for growing rice – something archeologists believe was ultimately futile. Eventually, the capital was moved to Angkor, which offered more suitable means for growing a food supply.

All in all, a fascinating discovery. As always when I read stories like this one, I can’t help but wonder what else is out there, just waiting for us to find it?

Kraig Becker