Jungle Atlantis

Jungle Atlantis was a two part series about the medieval city of Angkor, in modern day Cambodia. This is the city that contains the temple complex Angkor Wat, whose ruins have been known to the western world since the 19th Century. The programmes focussed on recent archaeological work in the area, which has been making use of the new technique of LIDAR. This involves an aerial survey of an area using technology similar to RADAR which can accurately map the topography of the land underneath whatever vegetation cover is present. So it’s very good at getting a broader picture of a forested or agricultural site than is possible with conventional archaeology or aerial photography. It’s also very convenient when large parts of your site of interest are covered in land mines, as Cambodia still is.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat was one of several temple complexes in the city, mostly built in the 12th Century AD under the reign of Jayavarman VII. The programme covered a bit of the history of the Khmer Empire around this period – Jayavarman came to power after a particularly brutal civil war, and enforced a change of state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism (signs of which can be seen on the temple decoration as it was started before his reign). The temples are built in stone, and were not just religious institutions but were also administrative centres for the regime. They are where taxes were collected and also where people were educated (those that were).

All the other buildings of the city were made from wood and thatch and have long since vanished. It had previously been assumed that there was a city to go with the temple complexes and traces have been detected with conventional archaeological methods, but it wasn’t clear how far it extended. LIDAR has shown that there was a vast megacity surrounding the temples and extending out quite some way. It was served by a complex infrastructure of wide roads and canals. They repeatedly said in the programmes that this new evidence meant that it’s likely that Angkor was the largest city in the world at the time – I think they said it might’ve had a population of up to 1 million. They kept comparing it to London (which was tiny at the time, we’re talking about just post-Norman conquest here), but never to the cities of the period which were actually large. I looked it up in my historical atlas, and that has Hangzhou in China as the largest city of the 12th Century with a population of approximately 500,000. So if these estimates for Angkor are correct then it was truly huge by the standards of the day.

Angkor, and the Khmer Empire in general, thrived and was successful during a particularly good period climatewise. The monsoon generally didn’t fail, nor was it so excessive as to cause problems. The Khmer people had complicated and extensive waterways and reservoirs which stored the water and channelled it to the fields and to people’s houses. This meant that they could get three or four rice crops a year, growing during the dry season as well as the wet season. The programme showed several of the waterworks which you can still tell are man-made from the straight edges. The decline of the city came after a prolonged period of poor weather. The archaeologists have used tree cores across the region to find this out – basically rather than cut the tree down and count the rings you drill out a rod of wood and count the rings. Rather more convenient to store, as well as less damaging. These show that around when the city declined there had been about 3 decades of poor monsoons and less growth of the trees. This was followed by a particularly bad monsoon which probably caused a lot of destruction when forced through the artificial canals.

This was an interesting two-part series, about a bit of the world I don’t know all that much about. But it did suffer from a lot of padding – I don’t know how many times they told us how LIDAR worked, and showed the same CGI reconstruction of bits of the city, but it was far too many. I suspect they had a little over an hour of material and when faced with a decision between cutting and padding went for the latter.

Episode 5 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Episode 3 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America – Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

Episode 1 of A History of Art in Three Colours – James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.

Rwanda’s Untold Story – part of the This World series. Jane Corbin examining the evidence that Paul Kagame’s regime in Rwanda is not what it seems. The conventional story of the Rwandan genocide is that Kagame’s troops stopped the violence and that since he has been in power there have been no massacres. This programme looked at the evidence that Kagame was involved in the shooting down of the previous President of Rwanda’s plane, which was the event that sparked the 1994 massacres of Tutsis by Hutus. And at the evidence that Kagame and his regime have been involved in the systematic massacre of Hutus as reprisals.

Episode 2 of The Boats that Built Britain – Tom Cunliffe sails six boats that were important in British history.