27/02/17 – A Day in the Field, Part 1

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At the end of a day of bushwhacking, there’s no place for my feet but up.

Before I get started, I’d like to take a minute to mourn the passing of my luggage into Airport Hell. It was lost forever, 26 days ago, because of the mafan of many (if not all) China Southern Airlines’ flight staff in Beijing over Chinese New Year, and Korean Air’s inability to confront the folks at Beijing Capital Airport for fear of rousing a sleeping bear and making China angry. Either that or it was stolen, but the narcissist in me likes the geopolitical angle.

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Ugh, goddammit China…why am I going back next year?!

Still, Rest in Peace old bag, old clothes, new clothes, new sandals, all of my toiletries except for my face soap and toothbrush, my blown-up laminated GIS map of Angkor Thom, and the fancy new white-out markers that came with it. You will be missed and brought up again and again to continuously one-up people’s travel hiccups.

Having read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha recently, I feel like that if I was ever meant to attain Enlightenment, losing all my possessions and throwing myself into the wilderness of Angkor Thom might count as me becoming an ascetic, i.e. Step One. But it’s actually been an amazing experience (despite the bag fiasco and getting my credit card frauded last week), and even with the work that’s been done in identifying statues and sima stones by the EFEO and APSARA at every Buddhist Terrace thus far found, there’s so much more to do.

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For example, answering skill-testing questions: if the GIS map says there’s one way out of the woods, your data is ten years old and that path has now grown over with poisonous thorny vines, and the sun is now setting, how screwed are you?

Another, actual example: I’ve spent the last two days thinking about the way laterite bricks were moulded at a number of sites in order to understand how Buddhist Terraces and the smaller buildings around them may have been related.

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Center-right: a pile of spilled laterite bricks reveals some carved masonry. It may or may not be the top of a small shrine or stupa, and there’s another one about 20m east that suggests that it was.
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This is the intact one, but because of 9 billion thorns on top of it I haven’t tried to climb that side.

And more questions keep piling up as the data set gets bigger!

Because I only get my official research permit signed next week, I’m currently georeferencing points and not taking any real notes or measurements yet. Before I came to Cambodia, I constructed a multi-layered GIS map using older GIS data (2004) and newer LiDar data (2008 – so not really newer) in order to figure out where Buddhist Terraces might be. Might be. And every day before I go out, I’ll upload the points I’m interested in georeferencing (as well as some I can seek out if I finish too early) to my GPS and then go out and find them.

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My own points and lines superimposed on the pre-existing Angkor GIS map (Gaucher et. al 2004), not the LiDar (I promised Damian Evans I would not commit such a sin). The proven Buddhist Terraces are in pink (because why the hell not?), the (I) are the “I have no idea wtf this is, even after finding it” sites, and any structure that might have been something monastic, or is surrounded by sima stones, even though the structure is all gone, is a green dot. They all come out as little flags on my GPS, but have ATV, UK (unknown), or BT codes that will likely change to something entirely different in the future.

The area above is the area directly south of the Bayon, and a number of structures have that (I) symbol because they don’t quite fit the rectangular dimensions of Buddhist Terraces but they also might be interesting considering so many Theravada structures surround them.

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Just for reference, this is what a Buddhist Terrace is supposed to look like when it was first built (minus the attached temple).
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And this is what one looks like after 500+ years of neglect and no attempts at a good restoration.

But overall I don’t spend much time with the (I) structures. I’m primarily looking for Buddhist Terraces, and if I can find sima stones surrounding a square east-west oriented structure or earthen mound, even if only one or two are left, or if old site reports/photos say there were sima stones that have since been stolen, then I’ve almost 100% of the time found one.

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Look mama! I dun found me a boun-da-ree stone and a wall’a’dem lat-ee-raites!

If not, and the structure is either missing all its original stone (despite being previously catalogued as having a spillover or a few blocks) or it’s simply not a Buddhist Terrace with sima, then I’ll take a point to georeference it properly and move on. It’s something called “ground-truthing”, and it’s a useful concept because it’ll help you determine which sites are necessary for in-depth note-taking and which sites are worth a short visit and maybe a photograph.

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Truth: there are sima here; this is a Buddhist Terrace. Dare: I dare you to walk 20m further into that Tomb Raider-esque tangle of vines to try to find the central sanctuary so you can actually categorize it.

I learned on my second day that despite the fact I stacked the layers on top of each other near-perfectly, my GIS map is somewhat warped – some points are upwards of 30m in the wrong direction, and that is a pain in the ass to try and find. That’s why I started taking new GPS points and uploading them to a new GIS model, and eventually I’ll have to go back to the structures I identified in the first three days and georeference them properly. Considering this is my first time doing survey all on my own, and I’ve got 2 1/2 months left in this field season, I’m fine with a bit of trial-and-error. As both of my advisors say, it’s all about learning at this point – you’re not expected to have survey or excavation down to a science until you’re finished your PhD. Original research requires original methodology.

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It’s nice when ancient bricks pop out from the undergrowth so easily – this was the first new Buddhist Terrace I found this year less than an hour into my survey season and it was the last one I found for nearly two days.

So every day of the seven survey days I’ve done thus far, I’ve started around noon and worked until between 4-5pm. Why such a short workday? Well, Cambodia is hot! When I was excavating at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay last year, in the cool season, we were up at 5:30am in order to avoid the afternoon heat, and that was considered mild at 34 Celsius (around 100 Fahrenheit). In the past, I’ve done the opposite and worked in the PM because I’m worse with humidity than with pure heat, but at some point last week the temperature began to change from “cool”-hot (high 29, low 20) to dry-HOT (high 37, low 25). In the next week or two I’ll change up my work schedule, as soon as I get my permit, for an AM workday – there’s no reason to get heat-stroke (which happened last Sunday) and passing out in the woods until dusk (which thankfully did not happen last Sunday) if you don’t have to.

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I sat down here and almost didn’t get up. Considering maybe five people ever year ever come back here, you’re really lost if you nap past dusk.

However, if I don’t have much time for whatever reason and I want to get a quick day of research in because I’ve got something very specific to do, I’ll go between 3:30 – 5:30 when the sun is lower in the sky. For example, on the last day of last year’s preliminary survey I had to find one Buddhist Terrace I needed to figure out what was going on along the West Gopura Road, and while it took me two hours to find, that was all the time I needed in the end.

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It ended up being the really cool one with the elephant statue, too.

But it’s important to know when you’ve reached your intellectual quota. Savants like my advisor Ed can think in any climate and any environment for 24 hours a day, but us normal-smart people get 10-12 hours maximum of intelligent critical thinking per day (if that) in 2-3 hour bursts. Mine comes in some pretty bipolar waves – on my second day I’d walked all the way along the East side of Angkor Thom through the woods and was just getting over my arachnophobia, so rather than taking a look at another point I eventually georferenced a day later, I sat down for an hour in the shade, drank my entire water bottle, bought a Coke from a local vendor, and cleared my mind as I waited until my brain was working properly again.

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On top of some prime real-estate, too!

Because this is your road, and undertaking a perpetual steeplechase in the scorching heat is exhausting:

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It’s either thorns or red ants that turn you into a pincushion out here, and after getting attacked by a colony of the latter yesterday after moving the wrong branch, I’d rather the thorns.

Every Buddhist Terrace at Angkor Thom is surrounded/accompanied by a dozen Old Growth trees, a thousand New Growth vines, a hundred spiders, a million thorns, and without a compass, GPS, or spatial understanding, a sense of absolute discombobulation – an EFEO researcher named Jacques Gaucher cleared a huge number of Buddhist Terraces back in 2003 to catalogue the statuary, but the foliage grew back tenfold in the fourteen years that followed. To walk 200m is to perpetually remember the Five D’s of Dodgeball: Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive, and…Dodge. You can’t let up for a second or you’ll bang your head on a thorny tree or get a spider in your face.

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These were under the world’s largest spider-web known to man, so sometimes it’s worth it to make the journey out.

But you can develop a rhythm, and I’ve found it helpful to use the same footstep pattern in the same terrain. Of course, then the terrain changes immediately from thorny vines to thorny brambles, and you have to go back to the start.

Anyone (fictional or nonfictional) who explores, surveys, or considers themselves an adventurer has their personal kryptonite, the one thing that completely paralyzes them with fear and makes them need to sit down for a minute or run away screaming. For Indiana Jones, it was snakes. For T.E. Lawrence, it was even the idea of quicksand. For Lara Croft, it was intimacy. For me, at least for the first few days, it was spiders.

(I still have to get a good photo of one but I’ve lately been more occupied with tossing them out of the way than getting some good eight-legged selfies…good riddance).

Before my first survey day I never considered myself an arachnophobe, and I’ve even held a few pet tarantulas without any problems, but the first time a Giant Golden Orb Weaver scurried off my head into the web I’d just walked through, I was done. Sprinted from one web into another into another, and eventually got to a Buddhist Terrace where a giant footlong motherfucker was staring at me like the final boss in a video game.

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I have a totally new level of respect for Sam and Frodo, even higher than before.

But there are always solutions. You realize quickly (and then with a night of research afterward) that despite their size, Giant Golden Orb Weavers, like all carnivorous animals, just want to get out of the way of the thing they can’t quite eat. Like a Blue Whale to a Great White Shark, you are too big. But their webs contain the toughest silk of any spider, so getting stuck was always a pain in the ass that made my new-found arachnophobia skyrocket. Fortunately, I have this:

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Appropriately leaning on some laterite bricks beside a giant trapdoor spider web…

I can’t take any measurements yet, but I sure as hell can use my meter measure (christened the Spider-Thwacker) to gently and tactically move vines, spiders, and spider webs. I’ll never kill one with it, but they do fly far when you catapult their webs out of the way (woohoo for exoskeletons!). It’s actually proved an incredibly useful tool, and the best I can imagine for moving foliage besides for straight-up slashing it down with an oh-so-illegal-without-the-Ministry-of-the-Envirnonment’s-permission machete.

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Outside of APSARA’s authority (PKKS 2016), there are absolutely no rules on this. So I both used a machete and nearly severed my leg with it when the blade fell off the shaft mid-swing. Rules…rules are good.

There actually are a few cleared paths in the woods, but they rarely go anywhere, and if they do, they cut right through a pre-existing structure and that’s just dumb…

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(Road cutting bottom-left to bottom-right side profile) Now we’ll never know whether those two shrines were connected somehow. Thanks, 1920s French colonial forest rangers.

When I arrive at a georeferenced structure, marked with a point on my GPS, it’s almost always 9-10m off. So instead of calling out “Buddhist Terrace! Where are you?” I look for a specific type of ground-pattern: rectangular and raised. You can see that through the foliage easily because man-made structures will always warp the natural landscape.

Even if it’s just an earthen mound.

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I took this point as a result of my GIS map’s warp, but there is actually a bit of leftover laterite in there. Trees tend to eat laterite bricks like spiders eat mosquitoes, though: liquify them.

I’m able to identify anything that resembles a corner, I look for the sima closest to it or follow what is usually a subtle wall. If I find sima stones, I figure out which way it’s facing (straight or diagonal left/right) so I can identify where the central sanctuary, or balan, might be.

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Here’s the sima…or two halves of it…
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And less than 5m away is the central sanctuary, the top tier of the terrace (or the only tier; in many cases, a Buddhist Terrace is just a simple one-tier substructure).

Simas are thought to only have been planted surrounding the immediate area where monks are ordained, however big or small, so the balan is never far away. On larger Buddhist Terraces where a large standing or sitting Buddha may have been placed, the balan is made of laterite bricks.

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Believe me, this is going to make a lot more sense in next year’s IBF when I get permission to clear them all.

On a smaller one, there’s usually a scattering of altars in the central area with more cascaded to each side. I’ll take a new point, regardless of the accuracy of the old one, either at a visible sima or the central balan – the latter is easier to match up on the GIS, but the former is easier to find if I had trouble finding the balan.

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This cache of altars was so cool – it was like finding a sacrificial cult site in the woods. I was expecting chanting and bird-masks. But Buddhists don’t get down like that. Oddly, though, it wasn’t a Buddhist Terrace. No sima to be found and the structure behind it wasn’t rectangular.

On average I georeference/identify between 2-3 Buddhist Terraces every day, although sometimes these numbers can range between 0-6. In total, Buddhist Terraces and other monuments included, I’ll find and georeference as many as a dozen, and sometimes I’ll take new points if I see something I want to spatially analyze/photograph/3D model later. I’ll usually spend 15-30 minutes at each site depending on the natural accessibility, quality of the remains, and how long it takes me to find a pair of upright or overturned sima stones. As I said before, I’ll note down where I’ve taken my GPS point, take a few photos of the architectural features and some of the statuary, walk the length of the structure, and then keep moving. If I get tired or overheated, I’ll rest and drink some water, and if my brain is just not working, I’ll note down the last terrace I went to and approach it with a fresh mind the next day I’m out surveying.

I haven’t put any reference numbers on any of these photos (like I usually do) because I’m not even sure whether I’m keeping my classification system yet, so what you’ve seen here is a few representative photos of what I’ve found in the woods at Angkor Thom in three weeks thus far of survey (two this year, one last year): the scattered of remains of 31 confirmed Buddhist Terraces, 3 sima-demarcated areas without any architectural remains, two stupa/shrine-sites, one prayer hall (vihara), and twelve unidentified architectural features. I’m so incredibly happy about the amount of data coming out of this project, and in my next “A Day in the Field” entry I’ll talk about how I’m beginning to notice patterns in construction, ritual presentation, layout, clustering of structures, and association with temples.

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And 150+ overturned altars.

The even more insane thing than the number of Terraces I’ve found is that I’m halfway through the second of four quadrants of the ancient city. On Friday I finished up georferencing a large monastic cluster in the SE Quadrant, and as of yesterday I’ve started to move down the South Gopura/gatehouse road, but I haven’t even started on the NW and SW Quadrants. The NE I finished last week, but had to take a bit of time off because my parents are in town. I’m taking the day off today as well to do a big data dump and recalibrate my GIS map – some points have been upwards of 45m south of where I’ve marked them on my maps, and while trekking through the woods is fun and all, the number of insects that like to fall down from the trees, infinite dead-ends, and endless supply of thorn-bushes make me want to find what I’m looking for ASAP.

I’m also taking the day off today because yesterday I decided to correct the perpetual warp between my GIS layers/GPS points by georeferencing all four of the corner-temples (Prasat Chrung) along Angkor Thom’s city walls. Folks, what’s 4x3km? That’s what I thought.

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They’re definitely pretty, and no Prasat Chrung was built exactly alike, but with 6/12km to go at 3pm in the afternoon (park closes at 5:30 and it takes way longer than you’d ever think to walk a dozen clicks along a city wall) all I wanted to was snap a photo, take a few points, and quickly move on.

My research in many ways is well underway, but is also just getting started – I haven’t taken a single note yet outside of a georeferencing spreadsheet (I’m going back, don’t worry Ed) but I’ve begun mentally mapping the Theravada Buddhist world around me. I never could have imagined collecting this much data, nor being thrown into an impregnable jungle world for five hours every day to find it. I’ll write more exploring my preliminary observations of the architectural features as a whole, my theory on “Zones of Religion”, and some “highlight finds” in my next entry on fieldwork, but for now I need to go get a haircut – my Kurt Cobain look from High School is coming back full-force.

Happy trails…or some other hokey Yellowstone Park-esque goodbye greeting about hiking through the woods!

Andrew Harris

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