Angkor Wat May Have Been Larger Than Modern-Day Boston

Angkor Wat May Have Been Larger Than Modern-Day Boston

Recent archaeological research has unveiled the possibility of ancient Angkor Wat having a population bigger than modern-day Boston. Thanks to research done through the use of LiDAR – a light detection remote sensing method – and other machine sensing equipment, archaeologists now have a better idea of the overall populace of Angkor Wat.

What is Angkor Wat?

Angkor Wat is located in northwest Cambodia. It is a temple complex spanning 402 acres of land and is the largest religious structure in the world. Standing right on the centre of Angkor Wat is a central spire that stands 65 meters (215 feet) tall surrounded by four towers. The entire structure, including its three large galleries, sits inside of a 2.2-mile long outer water, which is then surrounded by a 3-mile moat.

angkor wat
Angkor Wat. Photographed by Alison Carter of the University of Oregon

Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II. Originally, it was intended to be a personal mausoleum for Suryaman. However, in the late 12th century it was converted into a Buddhist temple. Also located in Angkor (specifically Angkor Thom), the centre of Jayavarman’s capital were the Bayon temples. Similarly grand, and richly decorated with smiling faces carved into the towers, the architecture of this building is said to pay tribute to both the Hindu God Brahma, as well as Buddha.

What Detection Methods Were Used?

The archaeological data gathered to come to this conclusion was initially gathered 30 years ago by the APSARA Authority of Cambodia. This initial data was put together from on-the-ground excavation work. After this, the modern-day technique of LiDAR and other remote sensing techniques were used. LiDAR, otherwise known as Light Detection and Ranging is a mapping tool used from an aeroplane.

The device relies on light from a laser to calculate the distance from the device to the ground. This is done by timing how long it takes for the light from the laser to bounce back. This method of area mapping allows Archaeologists to view the area below with extraordinary detail.

The University of British Columbia published an article in the online journal Science Advances with the Diachronic modelling of the Angkor Wat population based on their LiDAR research. LiDAR is capable of identifying human-made features that could be mistaken for natural formation if seen from ground level by the human eye. It is a transformative technology that has proven invaluable to archaeological research the world over.

What Did the LiDAR Find at Angkor Wat?

Combined with previous research material, the LiDAR was able to detect the lost structures of the general populace. The homes of these everyday inhabitants, who wouldn’t have the money for more expensive materials, are thought to have been built using more organic materials. All while using wooden posts as the framework. As such, these homes will have collapsed and rotted over time, leaving very little visible evidence of their existence.

Image credit: UNESCO World Heritage Center

This being said, topographical mapping has revealed areas where mounts in the earth show what would have been the houses of the city dwellers. This mapping appears to show a once-thriving community of people, building what could only be described as a city of homes and temples. All living and working together, to the tune of roughly 900,000 people.

Alison K. Carter, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon, says that it is a semi-heavily forested area. Meaning walking around at ground level doesn’t give you a clear idea of what’s beneath you. Carter says, “you can tell there is something in the landscape around you. But you just cannot see anything clearly.” According to the lead author of the study, LiDAR gave a “beautiful grid”. These show depressions and mounds that could be interpreted as small ponds.

How They Got to 900,000 Inhabitants

Research teams combined the LiDAR data with machine-learning algorithms. All in order to determine population growth over time. This was done under the assumption that each household contained 5 people. The algorithms helped to sort temples from domestic structures, whilst the LiDAR data provided a map of the environment. From these results, they determined that the metropolitan areas centred around Angkor Wat would have grown at a tremendous rate after the city was founded in the ninth century.

angkor wat population
Image credit: Sarah Klassen, Alison K. Carter, Jonathan Niles-Weed, Damian H. Evans, Scott Ortman, Miriam T. Stark, Christophe Pottier, Alyssa A. Loyless, Martin Polkinghorne , Gary P. Marriner, Piphal Heng, Michael Hill, Pelle Wijker, and Roland J. Fletcher

The above image shows the resulting map displaying density population growth per hectare between the 9th and onset of the 14th century. Co-authors of the study, Sarah and Carter Klassen, spoke with The Conversation on the population estimate. Sarah and Carter Klassen have suggested that if the population of 900,000 is correct, or close to the correct number, that would make Angkor comparable to the Roman Empire at its height, with a population of 1 million.

If this has piqued your interest in seeing how the population would look when mapped out, please find below a video by Sarah Klassen showing the population density in the Greater Angkor.



Eloise is a lifelong gamer, a studier of Ancient History and Archaeology, a pet care journalist, a new mother of one, and film studies graduate with a desire to pass on her own knowledge so that others may benefit from it.

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