NASA Zooms in on Famous Ancient Temple Complex

12 February 1998 7:00 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C.--New aerial radar views of ancient Angkor reveal previously undocumented ruins in the famous temple complex, built by the Khmer people in northern Cambodia between the 8th and 13th centuries A.D. Experts say the images, released here today at a NASA press conference, are changing scientists' conceptions about the origin and growth of Angkor.

Angkor includes some 1000 temples covering an area the size of Los Angeles, as well as an awe-inspiring assortment of reservoirs, moats, canals, dikes, and earthworks, said archaeologist Elizabeth Moore of the University of London. But much of the area has not been mapped in any detail, she noted, because dense forest cover and the presence of the Khmer Rouge, the communist insurgent group, make the site both inaccessible and dangerous. The new imaging was done by NASA's Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar, flown on a DC-8 aircraft, which could pick up earthworks as small as 1 to 2 meters high.

The images reveal a forgotten temple ruin adjacent to, and 300 years older than, the famous temple of Angkor Wat. Although the mound containing the ruin is mentioned in travelers' accounts in 1904 and 1925, it doesn't appear on any map, Moore said. The other find is the ruin of a "prehistoric" (that is, before A.D. 800) temple complex northwest of the city of Angkor, including a temple the size of a football stadium (shown by a white arrow in the accompanying image). Moore said the age is uncertain, but that the area contains mounds similar to some in Thailand that may date as far back as 1000 B.C. The findings call into question notions about how Angkor evolved by "radically changing accepted chronologies," said Moore.

The "unprecedented" scope and detail of the images is enabling scientists to map the area more effectively. "I can't emphasize enough how this has changed our study of Angkor," Moore said. According to radar scientist Anthony Freeman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Cambodian researchers will also get to use NASA's new map. Its resolution is 10 times that of the best previous aerial maps, which were made in the 1970s.

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