Paintings Provide Glimpse of Post-Angkorian Life

Archaeologists often say that there is no such thing as an unknown monument or ancient feature in Cambodia: They all reside in local memory. But unearthing the full extent of these features may require outside help.

The “discovery” of informal paintings on the blank walls of Angkor Wat, which was announced Wednesday in the archeology publication “Antiquity,” is such a case.

Painting of a pyramid structure found in the south entrance chamber of Angkor Wat's third enclosure. In the work, which may actually represent Angkor Wat, the building is reflected in water below, as Angkor Wat is often shown on postcards today.  It is shown here using software enhancement. (Antiquity Publications Ltd.)
Painting of a pyramid structure found in the south entrance chamber of Angkor Wat’s third enclosure. In the work, which may actually represent Angkor Wat, the building is reflected in water below, as Angkor Wat is often shown on postcards today. It is shown here using software enhancement. (Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

Some of these faded paintings were already known to Cambodians. But what came as a surprise is the fact that there are more than 200 of those paintings throughout the monument’s three enclosures and that some of them are elaborate scenes. A few are faint lines far too high for any casual visitor to notice, and which only a person with the specialized skills of Noel Hidalgo Tan could notice.

Mr. Tan is a PhD student studying Southeast Asia’s prehistoric rock art at the Australian National University. Trained to spot faint traces of millennia-old paint on cliffs in the wilderness, he said, “After a while you are just attuned to discerning anything that may resemble a painting.”

While walking through Angkor Wat in 2010, Mr. Tan thought he saw such traces in dark corners of the monument and decided to photograph them with his digital camera. Later on, he enhanced them on his computer. “All these paintings came up, which was amazing,” Mr. Tan said.

After returning to Cambodia in 2012, he asked the Apsara Authority for authorization to take photos throughout Angkor Wat using a flash, as some paint traces were in shadows. Working with Cambodian researchers, he systematically photographed promising surfaces, and later used image enhancement software to bring to life the indistinct images.

What soon became obvious is that the paintings were mainly casual drawings done by ordinary people rather than scenes commissioned for court or religious purposes. The images range from lions and elephants, musical instruments, ships and buildings, plus a few handprints.

Although they cannot be dated until paint specks are analyzed, they likely date from the 16th century on, according to Im Sokrithy, an archeologist and deputy communications director for the Apsara Authority who worked with Mr. Tan to research the paintings. When Angkor was Cambodia’s capital through the mid-1400s, he said, “No common people were allowed in the temples: only the high priests and the king.” Ordinary citizens would not have had the chance to tour Angkor Wat, let alone paint on its walls.

But later on, Mr. Sokrithy said, “The temple became well known for Buddhist pilgrimage all around the country and the region. Many, many pilgrims came to visit the temple. So maybe they left their marks that they had been here.”

Scholar Vittorio Roveda, who has written extensively on the meaning of wall sculptures at Angkor and on Cambodia’s pagoda paintings, said that the variety of themes suggest that many different people painted them.

“The paintings are original, probably made by artist/artisans during moments of relaxation, jokingly, as a way to relieve their fantasy,” he said in an email. “They used hidden portions of walls probably not to be criticized by their supervisor—or to mock him. They are not ‘graffiti’ by vandals or visitors, but paintings executed by men who had access to scaffolding, paint, brushes, and time. They belonged to the official team/workshop.”

These artisans and workers might have been members of restoration teams who were brought in to restore the temple during the 16th century. As Mr. Tan and Mr. Sokrithy mention in “Antiquity,” King Chan commissioned in the mid-1500s a restoration program of Angkor Wat, which transformed the Hindu monument into a Buddhist sanctuary.

While these paintings require further research, their existence adds to the limited knowledge on the post-Angkorian period.

“These paintings give us a glimpse into that world, one we know relatively little about,” said archeologist Dougald O’Reilly of the Australian National University, who founded the heritage preservation organization Heritage Watch, and is involved in several archeological projects in Cambodia. “I don’t think there is much doubt that Angkor continued to be used and was a place of importance to the local population long after the collapse of the Angkorian state.

“It is likely that Angkor Wat was always used or known about: So huge is the edifice it required state-level authority to clean and restore and keep the jungle at bay, as happened in the 16th century and later in the 19th century.” After the signing of the 1863 Protectorate Treaty between France and Cambodia, the French embarked on a second restoration of Angkor Wat.

Although the discovery of the paintings is too recent for the Apsara Authority to make any plans for their preservation, Mr. Sokrithy suggests that a location map of the paintings may later be produced for visitors.

In the meantime, Mr. Tan is going back to his PhD thesis on prehistoric art in Southeast Asia and is happy to leave to other researchers the work on Angkor Wat paintings.

“It’s just one of those things: I happened to be at the right place at the right time,” he said.

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