Laser scans reveal hidden cities under Cambodian jungle

One of Cambodia’s most popular tourists attractions is Angkor Wat. But the temple complex is only a piece of the Khmer empire, as archaeologists have discovered more of the ancient civilization through innovative scanning technology.

This year, archaeologists Shaun Mackey and Kong Leaks, who are part of the Cambodia Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI), used last year’s data from an aerial survey to help excavate areas of the country.

Lidar, which is short for “light detection and ranging,” shoots quick pulses of light at the ground, collecting data that can be used to create a high definition image of what’s underneath. The way the lasers bounce back indicates subtle changes in the landscape, showing that the environment has been altered – likely by previous civilizations. The technology is even able to see what’s underneath thick vegetation and other obstructions.

Archaeologist Damian Evans, who leads CALI, attached lidar onto helicopter skids that flew over the Cambodian landscape last year. CALI’s helicopters flew for about 90 hours and surveyed more than 734 miles of terrain. What they discovered were new temples, quarries, dams and networks of roads and waterways.

The lidar survey allowed archaeologists to target excavation sites more accurately, allowing them to find the best places to dig. The men were able to find water jars in Site 305, indicating that a housing community existed in the area. Others were able to discover evidence of what Angkorians ate, which included rice and pomelo fruit, and how they prepared their food.

Lidar is even changing how we understand history. The long-held belief that Angkor was sacked by an invading Thai army, which forced the population to move closer to what is now Phnom Penh, is being reshaped. Scans showed no evidence of a population influx in the area, suggesting that perhaps the collapse came from other means.