29/03/17 – A Day in the Field, Part 2

The photo I send to APSARA at the end of my permit to say: yes, I am using your permit to do research.

It’s been more than a week since my last post, which is quite unusual because I really enjoy writing these blogs. But I’ve either been hard at work in the field busy, or sick with dysentery. Yup, what killed the OG Angkorian adventurer Henri Mouhot in 1861 is now on the retreat inside me on the third day of five on antibiotics. It’s incredible how susceptible my body has been to getting sick since halfway through The China Project: in two months, I’ve had hypothermia (possibly twice), a bad lung infection, multiple bouts of food poisoning, and three stomach viruses.

Not to mention the hundreds of cuts, scrapes, bites, and stings of the last seven weeks of survey, but I’ll admit those are all voluntary and come with the job description of Buddhist Terrace Jungle Explorer. As is the sprained ankle I’ve been walking around on for the last four days that was the result of falling side-footed into a snake hole and getting the hell out of there as fast as I could before anything started slithering.

So what’s changed since A Day in the Field, Part 1?

Well, first off, I’ve got official, Cambodian clearance to get my research done:

That’s right, I’m no longer an academic vigilante! But I also look like I’ve just had a death certificate stamped…

It confuses a number of the APSARA officials at the entrance gates to Angkor as to why I’m not wearing glasses here, but my passport photo (this one) was from an age where I was glass-less…ah, when I was young. And you have no idea how mafan wearing glasses are in the woods: so many vines have hooked them or knocked them off, so many thorns have left dents in them, and so many Khmer people as a result have asked inquisitively “Why you need glasses? It is bright outside. Why not wear sunglasses?”

Umm, what?

Those eyes say it all – wtf?

ANYWAYS, the point above is that after five weeks of doing “illegal” survey (“y’all better not be doin’ any of that learndin‘ stuff now without oh-fficial per-mission, ya hear?”) I am now a legal surveyor affiliated with the EFEO and APSARA. Next year, it’ll be with the University of Toronto and APSARA, but we were pressed for time and I wasn’t even allowed to take measurements let alone catalogue without a permit. But now I am, happily, and I’ll walk you through a day of this next, much-less-stressful step in the process.

Starting with the new, proper use for my spider-thwacker!

As of about a week ago, I’d finished ground-truthing about 95% of all the monuments/architectural features/piles of rock that had been previously found (but never published upon or given more than a few lines in a site report) by other archaeologists, including a few of my own identification that hadn’t been discovered or were glossed over. My surveying predecessor at Angkor Thom, a French architect named Jacques Gaucher (I’ve mentioned him), appeared more interested in the statuary and variation of the sima stones found at whatever sites he came across based on the reports and photographs he submitted to APSARA, but his GIS map was 90% accurate despite sometimes being a little inaccurate on the shape of the ruins he found. I’m still lucky to have had that (as well as the old 1910s and 1930s maps he used) at my disposal beforehand, which let me focus more on figuring out why things were built the way they were, where they were, how they were, and (in a twist that happened last week) possibly when they were.

Now, because I wasn’t quite in the mental mindset to set out and catalogue with my stomach on the fritz, 95% has turned into 99%. With the exception of two or three structures that were incorrectly mapped in the first place, which I’ll probably go out and find (or try) in my very last week in Cambodia, I’m done that portion of my PhD research for good.

Shapes are fun!

The map you see here is my completed and labelled rough copy GIS map of Angkor Thom’s minor elements (i.e. excluding all temples except for the Bayon), with points of various shapes and colours delineating different found features, red lines delineating ancient roads, and blue lines delineating ancient and modern water features that I…well…don’t particularly feel like going swimming in. I have another map of georeferenced GPS points that I’m working on right now, but, like I said, my classification for a lot of these structures might change so I’m not going to mess with the Good Copy until I know I’m happy with everything.

Those nice green stars are either Buddhist Terraces or sandstone/laterite monuments with sima stones surrounding them (which are, 95 times out of 100, Buddhist Terraces). They’re easy to identify, and despite none of them being exactly the same due to the locality of their construction and the variations in their decay, they pretty much run by the same set of rules: face east, have a central sanctuary with altars or a pedestal, have remains of a wall around a raised earthen mound, and have sima or the remains of them at some of the eight subcardinal points. In total, I’ve counted fifty-two, which made the former director of the EFEO go “HOLY SHIT”. And that number might rise even more as I go back and catalogue a few structures I’ve got questions about.

The red stars, meanwhile, are Buddhist Terrace-shaped structures that no longer (or never did) have sima stones. There’s only four of them at Angkor Thom, and three of them are extremely interesting (one had simas in 1918 but doesn’t now and is kind of blah). For example, one of them may have two phases of construction due to the addition of a brick mound and wall to a pre-existing laterite and sandstone structure, one of them is the first Buddhist Terrace I ever found and definitely has a connection to West Prasat Top Temple, and the last one is…well…check out the photo from the 1920s when it was first cleared and then abandoned again:

Underground excavation didn’t happen much in remote corners of Angkor Thom during the first phase of the EFEO, but this is #2 or 3 on my excavation wish-list today (EFEO Archives, c. 1931)
Finding this way back in the woods was my Raiders of the Lost Ark moment of ground-truthing…even though it’d been found 80+ years earlier.

Those ugly I’s? “Unknown Architectural Points of Interest”, or UK. And I’ll be sorting through these soon. So far they consist of something as banal as a pile of blocks surrounding a pond to a hilltop shrine to a lookout point at the highest point in all of Angkor Thom. They’ve each got a blurb, and one or two of them have turned out to be Buddhist Terraces themselves or supporting buildings. Because, as I mentioned in previous entries, only one building per monastery is meant to have sima stones! If the Khmers built them properly, they would’ve had other monastic buildings like vihara (prayer halls), mandapa (meeting halls), chedis (stupas), and monk’s quarters…although those were rarely made out of wood. Some of the UK buildings have been neglected since their discovery despite their proximity to ancient monastic complexes, and the EFEO turned one extremely important one into a graveyard for all of the pilasters it replaced during its anastylosis of the nearby Baphuon temple, which APSARA has since turned into a garbage depot.

Once treasure…
Now trash. A huge number of bricks were reused to reconstruct the Buddhist Terrace next to it, but the ruins of the windows and the doorways are a testament what was once a truly unique building here (notice the green garbage bin poking out).

This monument, UK042, I’ve been able to re-envision from archival photos from the EFEO website. In 2014 they published all their photo archives online publicly, but as you can see they still have a watermark on them so in order to publish you need to send an email to the EFEO in Paris I think. You can find their photo archives from their work in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos from the 1910s to the 1960s here.

Digressing, it’s incredible how many little things you find in the woods. From a local shrine reconstructed from temple bricks in the 18th century to an enormous Buddhist Terrace temple renovation ordered by Indravarman III as one of the first Theravadan structures of a brand-new cosmic renewal of the ritual landscape, a number of UK structures might end up being just as important as the sima-delineated ones.

And there’s other points on there too: terraces attached to/associated directly with temples, funerary stupas, chedis, and structures that probably were Buddhist Terraces that are either missing sima, any masonry to speak of, or are straight-up too dangerous to explore further. But, as I remind myself every day, this is just a PhD, not a life’s work, so unless you have legitimate reason to go tangential, save the idea, write it down, and come back to it later. You’re here for the Terraces.

DSC_0889 (2).JPG
Although I’ve had a bad habit of chronicling local wildlife, for example this 25cm Orb Weaver made me officially get over my arachnophobia with the saying: there’s always a bigger fish.
And the fact that these lizards like to hang out behind the router by my hotel room is the logic behind why my wifi sucks in my hotel, right?

So here’s my day, using yesterday as a good case-study:

Similar to when I was ground-truthing, I’ll plan a route out the night before of sites I want to catalogue. Although, this time, it won’t be some hell-bent death march trying to beat the clock where I don’t really know how to tactically move myself around the site and get stuck between a thorny vine and a giant spider. No, now after spending seven weeks in the woods I’ve got a good hang of things, and especially now that the map is entirely georeferenced I can find every terrace I’m looking for that day relatively easily. And, in order to properly catalogue and photograph my findings, I need to slow down. So cataloguing 2-3 terraces in a day (and sometimes even one!) when I’ve still got five weeks in-country is perfectly acceptable.

Yesterday, this was approximately my route, it took four-and-a-half hours to catalogue and walk, and it took me around a square in the NE Quadrant 100-400m south of the northern wall of the city:

Three Buddhist Terraces and one half-mound with a weird altar (investigated and catalogued clockwise) – not bad for a day where my stomach was kicking and screaming.

The two Buddhist Terraces on the north part of my route were ones I’d georeferenced nearly a month prior, and so the route was familiar and I catalogued them both in less than an hour. The south one meanwhile, I had all wrong: my original GIS warp had the structure located 35m north of where it actually was.

And what I once thought was one piece of laterite sitting in a pond became this:

It’s really 50% of a Buddhist Terrace – you’ve got your usual 16 simas, a back-bit that drops off wit laterite encasing, but it’s all on the side of a hill. There’s no real…front.
I’ve started the altars with trees growing through them “planters” – there’s usually at least one at every overgrown terrace.
It rained two days prior – every stone gets a really nice coating of green moss that dies when it gets too hot. That’ll probably be in…four days?

The first thing I’ll do while cataloguing is do a slow walk up, down, and around the area of the terrace. There’s no clipboard, no camera, and no notes – just me, my GPS, and my meter-stick. It helps me not to jump to any conclusions immediately, which as a fast-thinker who can be quite excitable has made me look like a naive idiot in conversation with other archaeologists (See Bangkok 2015) who are able to put two and two together and go: “nope, nope, sorry, you’re wrong.” That’ll take about fifteen minutes – maybe twenty-thirty if the terrace is big or it’s unclear where it stops and starts.

Then I’ll do a bit of measuring. Because I’m alone, and because rolling a tape out is so 2015 (and I don’t currently own a tape measurer), I use a laser pointer.

For dramatic effect, and out of focus, but you get the picture.

This little guy I’ve been using since Rongxian and haven’t once needed a battery change. It can measure from A to B, it can calculate pythagorean equations, and most importantly it lets me take measurements on my own without needing someone to keep the tape straight. It can often be a bit tricky to line it up perfectly with the edge of a terrace, or lose sight of the laser if the plane becomes too horizontal, and I’ll prop my clipboard up on a rock as a visible target. The measurements will never be perfect, but if Marchal usually rounded down from 0.44m and up from 0.55m, I’m okay with saying that a terrace measuring 13.46m x 7.93m on one measure and 13.39m x 7.89m on another is essentially 13.5m x 8m. During this pre-clearance phase, it’s a miracle I can get anything to read with all the foliage in the way. I’ll use trees on edges of terraces as well to mark an endpoint, which is often easier than a white clipboard, and yesterday I actually successfully used a spider-web on my third try at measuring the horizontal dimension of the second terrace I surveyed.

This is what I love about being a PhD student: with the exception of permissions, a lot of your fieldwork is entirely on your own, and entirely trial-and-error until you can afford expensive field equipment. My laser measuring tape cost me about $79 USD ($99.99 CAD) at Home Depot, and has been worth umpteen times that.

Clipboard: posed for academic effect.

The next step is recording. I’ll record the location data when I’m back with my GIS model (ex. nearest arterial road, nearest Buddhist terrace distance, distance to Bayon temple, etc.) but I can do the GPS coordinates there. Then it’s materials, presence of sima stones, extant statuary, relation to bodies of water (also doable with the laser measuring tape) overall architectural layout, a description of the central sanctuary or balan, and whether there’s any supporting buildings. I’ll give a short description of the terrace’s main features as well, and I’ve begun to sort them into groups based on these basic characteristics.

Last is photography. That’s the fun part but sometimes the tough part. The cover over many Buddhist Terraces is such that there’s no real way to photograph it so that you see more than a mound and a poorly-shrouded wall. Some will be cleared next year, and others were, but foliage grows back at an alarming rate in the jungle so if Gaucher cleared a building in 2004 it’ll look like it did in 1861 by the year 2008. I’ll photograph the main structure, the front steps (if there are any), do several profile shots of the central sanctuary, take a few of the sima stones to prove that it is, indeed, a Buddhist Terrace, and then do the fun part: the statues.

These are a few highlights from the past five days of cataloguing:

Preah Pithu temple boasts one of the more complete, intact, and most importantly visible Buddhist Terraces at Angkor Thom. If you’re lucky, and I reach the end of this entry after it finishes, there’ll be a pretty good 3D model of it below.
And when the central sanctuary and the statues are all together, which they usually are, then great!!!
This is what part of a broken 1.3m Buddha head looks like.


This one might cause a few controversies…kiiiiiinda looks like someone carted this one over from Thailand…
Not decked out in gold and fabulous like this one at Sukhothai, but that finger-flow is definitely there.

There were actually two hands found at the new terrace, but they were both two right hands…

I think the point is that they were both earth-touching and they belonged to two big-ass Buddhas. But you can notice the shoddy craftsmanship here and the chisel-marks as products of a later period, so I’m thinking this hand was from the original Buddha. Also, is Gautama a cartoon character, because he’s only got four fingers?

And, last but not least, the best statue of the week: an elephant’s ass inside an altar.

The rider actually has some really nice carving on his back – pity it’s floral, which means it’s everywhere so it can’t tell us much.

Wait, never mind, it was the top of a lingam in front of an altar:

Otherwise known as Theravada Circumcision.

After one last sweep of the area with my backpack fully loaded and GPS out, I’m on my way through the woods to the next one. One of the last boxes I tick on any of my field recording sheets is “suggest to APSARA for clearance”. Most of them, to be honest, I check “no” because of a limited amount of time and funds. For example, I wouldn’t clear any of the three from yesterday’s cataloguing; the one with so many statue fragments can’t really tell us more than “this was a place where statue fragments were deposited”, and the first two were actually quite visible through the weeds except for the physical surface. It’s packed earth, which is nothing to lose sleep over, and it wouldn’t make a compelling 3D model either because the corners are two layers of cascaded laterite and the central sanctuary is part-sandstone and part-termite mound in most cases.

But Dominique Soutif, the former Director of the EFEO, is now interested in making excavation a part of my project, and I now have to consider which of these areas might yield some information about Buddhist Terraces constructed further away from the urban and ritual center of Angkor Thom: carbon dates, roof tiles (indicative of royal patronage), ceramics, metal objects, preserved ritual texts (a super duper pipe dream), etc. So clearance is one thing, but digging is another, and now that I have that in mind I consider each site as two different categories.

Would I re-clear this new Buddhist Terrace (ATV023)? No.

Would I excavate at a site where more religious statuary has been deposited than any other site I’ve found thus far at Angkor Thom, most likely indicative of more ritual activity? HELL YES.

So that’s my day, or what will be 90% of them, in the field for the next five weeks of my PhD fieldwork. Apart from cataloguing, I’ll also be doing some 3D modelling (and there’ll be an entry exclusively on my experiences with that in Cambodia in a few weeks) of select terraces and structures, and I’ll also be doing a test-survey of all the mounds and features in a single ancient city block (to be chosen at a later date). Because under every mound is some form of habitation, and if you consider that Angkor Thom was still up-and-running as late as the 18th century, it’s likely at least some of the terraces and whatever’s under those mounds were contemporary with one another.

Oh, yeah, here’s that 3D model I promised earlier.

Preah Pithu Terrace, 2015.
Preah Pithu Terrace model, 2017. Again, Ubisoft, I’m waiting for that phone call…

This Sunday I leave for Laos for a much-needed weeklong vacation to Pakse, Wat Phu, the 4000 Islands (Don Det), and then back into Cambodia to Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh to get my $$ for my poor, dead bag. Francesca (for those of you who never read any of the entries from The China Project she’s the woman I worked with in Rongxian), however, has said she’ll check at Beijing Capital Airport’s Lost and Found for any trace of my bag when she goes to pick up her boyfriend/partner at Arrivals. That’s my last “it’d be hilarious if that actually worked” attempt at ever getting it back – I’m signing the compensation paperwork with the guy from Korean Airlines in Phnom Penh on the 9th of April, but if she’s willing to try, then hell, I’ll take a deep breath and hope for something.

See you in Pakse!

Andrew Harris


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