Household Archaeology at Angkor Wat

(This article by Dr. Alison Kyra Carter first appeared in the Khmer Times on July 7, 2016. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.)

When you picture Angkor Wat, you might think of the imposing and elegant temple surrounded by a thick forest of trees. However, archaeologists now know that when Angkor Wat was built, it was surrounded by a series of mounds that are likely places where people lived.

Angkor Wat is just one temple in the Angkorian Empire, the heart of which covered an area of 1,000 square kilometers and may have contained a population of as many as 750,000 people. Investigating the question of where Angkorian people lived is one focus of the Greater Angkor Project (GAP), a collaborative research program between the University of Sydney and the APSARA Authority, directed by Dr. Roland Fletcher.

One way to begin understanding the lives of the non-elite members of Angkor is by excavating their households. Through excavations of their living spaces, archaeologists can understand the daily practices of people in the past. This kind of work can also tell us more about the variation between different households, communities and settlements, as well as the differences between elites and non-elites. In this way, we can come to understand Angkorian society from the ground up.

Archaeology at Angkor has primarily focused on the imposing stone temple structures, whose inscriptions tell us about the gods, kings, and elites. We have only a few clues about the lives of everyday Angkorian people. In 1296 AD, a Chinese envoy named Zhou Daguan visited Angkor and described what he saw. He observed that high status people lived in large houses, parts of which were covered in roof tiles, but that commoners lived in smaller houses with thatch roofs. This is the only written description of the houses of the citizens of Angkor, but there are also depictions of houses and daily life on the bas-reliefs of the Bayon temple. A French-Cambodian team has also excavated some houses in the outer Angkor region. However, we know little about the housing of the central area where the majority of the temples are located and where many people lived.

For several field seasons GAP, led by Dr. Miriam Stark, has undertaken excavations inside of temple enclosures, like Angkor Wat, in order to look for evidence of habitation. This is partially due to inscriptional evidence suggesting that some people lived in the areas immediately around the temples. For example, an inscription from Ta Prohm describes a large number of people associated with the temple and estimates of perhaps 2,000 people living within the temple enclosure.

This work was greatly aided by the recent lidar (light detection and ranging) survey of the Angkor region. With this new view of Angkor’s ground surface we can peel back the tree layer surrounding temples like Angkor Wat and clearly see the landscape modifications around the temple. In the case of Angkor Wat, the lidar survey revealed a series of mounds and depressions within the enclosure that were arranged according to the cardinal directions.

In 2010 and 2013, GAP investigated these mounds with a series of small 1×2 meter excavations at several locations inside the Angkor Wat enclosure. This research provided evidence that the mounds were places where people were living. Radiocarbon dates indicate that the mounds were constructed and inhabited primarily from the 10th-13th centuries AD. However, our work is also showing evidence for use of the mounds in the post-Angkorian period, from the 15th-17th centuries AD.

These excavations were exciting, but the small excavation units left us with many questions. I was interested in knowing more about the activities taking place on a single mound. Therefore, in June and July of last year, with funding from National Geographic, I was able to assemble an international team in collaboration with University of Sydney and the APSARA Authority, including my colleague Chhay Rachna, and we focused our efforts on more extensively excavating a single mound within the Angkor Wat enclosure.

There were several research questions we wanted to investigate. First, we wanted to confirm our suspicions that people were, in fact, living on the mounds. Our small trenches pointed towards this, but we hoped a larger excavation would give us more evidence, such as finding parts of a house structure and identifying the types of household activities taking place on the mound. Secondly, we wanted to know if non-elites were living on the mounds. We believed this was likely the case, because the mounds were restricted in size, which would imply the houses might have also been small. However, finding more information on the structure and layout of a house and the types of goods associated with the household would help us better understand the different resources people were using. Lastly, we wanted to investigate how long and how intensively the mounds may have been occupied.

During our field season last summer we excavated 22 trenches and a total area of approximately 41 square meters on a single mound. Although we did not find a complete house structure, we found postholes that could be related to part of a house. We also found many large pieces of sandstone, and we believe that people living in Angkor Wat were probably recycling these stones from the construction of the temple. However, we are not yet sure of their function. One idea is that they may have acted as a path or floor surface underneath or around a house.

One of our trenches was in the depression bordering the north edge of the mound. While it might be tempting to refer to these depressions as ponds, work by our geoarchaeology specialist, Dr. Yijie Zhuang, suggests the depression was seasonally wet and dry and may not have held water year-round.

We also found evidence for household activities, such as cooking. On one part of the mound we found fired clay and brick. Other areas had burnt charcoal pieces, evidence for possible cooking fires, and fragments of an Angkorian stove. Many of the ceramics we found were earthenware ceramics, and some had evidence of charring on the exterior, which we associate with cooking on a fire. There were also pieces of Angkorian stoneware vessels, including pieces with brown and green glaze on their exterior surface and small numbers of imported tradeware ceramics from China. We found only one complete vessel, called a khouch, which was located underneath a possible house floor.

In addition to ceramics, our plant specialist, Dr. Cristina Castillo, has also found rice grains, pieces of pomelo fruit rind and seeds of a plant that belongs to the ginger family, including some from the tratuk plant, which is traditionally used as a medicine. This work is just beginning to tell us about the plants, fruits, and vegetables that people living on the mound might have been eating and using.

This work is still ongoing with many questions that need to be addressed. However, we look forward to continuing to uncover more information about the daily lives of the Angkorian people. Our research demonstrates that it is not just the temples that are an important focus of study, but that the areas where people are living can also be a valuable source of information about Angkorian society and the lives and accomplishments of the Angkorian people.