The temple of Angkor Wat was bounded by a 'mysterious structure' 1.5 km long

A reconstruction of what Angkor Wat would have looked like.

The temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the largest religious monument in the world, was larger than previously thought, according to Australian archaeologists who used ground penetrating radar to investigate the 12th century complex.

The Greater Angkor Project, led by Professor Roland Fletcher and Dr Damian Evans from the University of Sydney, discovered that the complex had more components and was bounded on its south side by a unique and massive structure.

“This structure, which has dimensions of more than 1500m × 600m, is the most striking discovery associated with Angkor Wat to date,” says Professor Fletcher.

“Its function remains unknown and, as yet, it has no known equivalent in the Angkorian world.”

View over Angkor Wat from the west, looking towards the Kulen hills; the extent of one quarter of Greater Angkor is indicated by the distance between Angkor Wat and the north-eastern outer edge of the urban complex near the grey line of the base of the hills. Image: Mike Coe.

The team also found Angkor Wat, the centre of what was the Khmer Empire, includes buried towers built and demolished during the construction and initial use of the main temple.

The areas surrounding Angkor Wat have long been assumed to be sacred precincts or temple-cities. However, the research has found evidence of low-density residential occupation, including a grid of roads, ponds and mounds, possibly used by people servicing the temple.

The team has also discovered that Angkor Wat was fortified with wooden structures sometime late in its history. Dr Fletcher says the results reveal how Angkor Wat may have made its last attempt at defence.

“Angkor Wat is the first and only known example of an Angkorian temple being systematically modified for use in a defensive capacity,” he says.

“The available evidence suggests it was a late event in the history of Angkor, either between AD 1297 and 1585, along with other defensive works around Angkor, or perhaps sometime between AD 1585 and the 1630s, representing a final attempt to defend Angkor against the growing influence of (neighbouring city) Ayutthaya.

“Either date makes the defences of Angkor Wat one of the last major constructions at Angkor and is perhaps indicative of its end.”

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