New Findings Hint at The True Reasons For The Decline of Angkor Civilisation

by Alison K. Carter

A fresh attempt in explaining the "disappearance-transformation" of the ancient Khmer power center.

West Gate Angkor Thom Phooto Laurent Dambies 2022

Publication: ScienceAlert from The Conversation

Published: June 4th, 2019

Author: Alison K. Carter

Pages: 1

"Scholars have long argued against this interpretation, and archaeological evidence is shedding even more light on the decline of the Angkorian civilization. The process was much longer and more complex than previously imagined", notes the author in preamble: "Angkor's collapse may be better described as a transformation."

Instead of the cataclysmic explanations of the decline -- either from armed invasionsor from some dramatic climate change --, this essay reflects a compendium of causes leading to the "abandonment" (to use a term more and more used by modern researchers) of Angkor as a center of power. Amongst them:

  • "Paleoclimate research has highlighted region-wide environmental changes that were taking place at the time, too. A series of decades-long droughts, interspersed with heavy monsoons, disrupted Angkor's water management network meant to capture and disburse water."
  • "At the same time, maritime trade with China was increasing. The relocation of the capital further south, near the modern capital of Phnom Penh, allowed rulers to take advantage of these economic opportunities."
  • "Constructing stone temples and writing inscriptions are elite activities – these last instances at the Angkorian capital happened during the region-wide adoption of Theravada Buddhism that replaced Hinduism. This religious shift disrupted the pre-existing Hindu-based power structures. Emphasis moved from state-sponsored stone temples and royal bureaucracy to community-based Buddhist pagodas, built from wood (...) One study of the moats around the walled urban precinct of Angkor Thom suggest the city's elite were already departing by the 14th century, almost 100 years before the supposed sack of the capital by Ayutthaya."

Such a "disaffection of the elites" could also explain the growing rivalries between political and religious factions, the disruption of dynastic succession, and the return to the dissemination of power among regional rulers that had prevailed before the "Golden Age"of Angkor.

This article draws some indications from a scientific publication, 'Geoarchaeological evidence from Angkor, Cambodia, reveals a gradual decline rather than a catastrophic 15th-century collapse', by Dan Pennya, Tegan Halla, Damian Evans, and Martin Polkinghorne (PNAS Vol. 116-11, 25 Feb.2019).

Photo: Restoration of Angkor Thom West Gate, 2022. By Laurent Dambies for Angkor Photography Tours.

Tags: power, decline and fall, climate, Khmer Empire, historiography, Khmer dynasties, Khmer elites, collapse, archaeology

About the Author

Alison Carter

Alison K. Carter

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon, USA, Alison Kyra Carter researches the political economy and evolution of complex societies in Southeast Asia. Other research interests include the archaeology of East and South Asia, materials analysis and LA‐ICP­‐MS, craft technology and specialization, household archaeology, ritual and religion, trade and exchange, and bead studies.

Alison Carter is currently Principal Investigator and Project Co-Director (with Miriam T. Stark) of P'teah Cambodia, an archaeological investigation of Pre-Angkorian, Angkorian, and Post-Angkorian residential spaces in Battambang Province. The project started in May-June 2018 with excavations near Prasat Baset Temple (see project website).