20 February 2018

From SensiLab to Angkor

The Visualising Angkor team visited Cambodia in January to conduct research. Brent McKee has written about the trip.

Visualising Angkor, one of SensiLab’s longest running projects, is constantly being updated and expanded to explore new interpretations of archaeological and historical research. So in late January 2018 researchers from SensiLab – Elliott Wilson, Brent McKee and Mike Yeates – lead by project director Dr Tom Chandler, travelled to Cambodia as part of a virtual heritage data gathering expedition.

Arriving in Phnom Penh, the team met the director at the National Museum of Cambodia and later visited the museum’s metal conservation lab. With expert help from the museum staff, the team 3D scanned several bronze artefacts from the Angkor period (8th to 14th century CE), including two ornate bronze palanquin hooks, used to hold a suspended cloth for a high ranking official or noble, and one decorative bronze hair pin, which may have either adorned a high-ranking woman or the statue of a god. These amazing pieces would ideally feature in a new visualisation drawn from the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a 13th century Chinese emissary to Angkor, who described the palanquins he saw there in detail.

The team met Dr Martin Polkinghorne, who was supervising a dig in Longvek
Longvek was briefly the royal capital in Post-Angkorian times

From Phnom Penh, the team travelled 46km north to the site of Longvek, which was briefly the royal capital in Post-Angkorian times, where they met with Dr. Martin Polkinghorne (University of Flinders) supervising an archaeological dig. Near Longvek, Dr. Polkinghorne and his team have discovered the location of an bronze forge, once used as part of a 16th century metal workshop. The SensiLab team was able to capture a 3D point cloud – or 3D model – of the forge as revealed by the excavation. This bronze forge was likely similar to the ones used at Angkor for the casting of statues and architectural fittings, and therefore makes an ideal study to support the virtual reconstruction of an Angkorian workshop featuring animated artisans engaged in bronze casting.

The team travelled to Siem Reap on the following day, a modern town just outside the ruins of Angkor. As well as returning to the primary research site of the famous Angkor Wat temple, the SensiLab team embarked on a number of destinations further afield, such as the well-preserved shrine of Prasat Trapeang Phong in the southern periphery of Angkor. This relatively minor temple provided an insight into how much of the populace of Angkor lived 1000 years ago in rice farming villages centred around a local shrine.

Field trips to temple complexes away from Siem Reap Province, such as Prasat Beng Mealea, Preah Vihear and Koh Ker, revealed not only the scale of the former empire, but the variety of architectural styles developed over more than five centuries of the Classic Angkor period. The temple complex of Beng Mealea, built in the same style as Angkor Wat, was remarkable in its contrasting state of almost complete ruin.  Using published data from airborne archaeological surveys, the SensiLab team was able to cross-reference the grid layout and residential areas within Beng Mealea’s enclosure, measure areas of earthen mounds where houses would have been, and check the size of the residential water ponds against the width of roads and causeways. Not only will the data collected here will be used to simulate different levels of population density within Angkorian temple enclosures, but the Beng Melea temple complex would be a good candidate for a digital reconstruction project in the future.

Preah Vihear is an 11th century Angkorian temple constructed on a cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains
The site of Koh Ker in northern Cambodia; the 10th century capital of the Angkorian empire
The team also returned to their primary research site of Angkor Wat

In the final days of the field trip the team met the researchers behind the Sounds of Angkor Project, supported by Cambodia Living Arts to discuss collaborations in digital soundscape design based on reconstructions of Angkorian music ensembles that are no longer in existence. The team also had the opportunity to meet with archaeologists Prof. Roland Fletcher (University of Sydney) and Dr. Christophe Pottier (EFEO) to review AI programming and 3D visualisation progress in SensiLab’s latest simulation of 12th century Angkor Wat. The meeting was very productive and a number of suggestions for alternative simulation scenarios were discussed.

The trip was a great opportunity for the Sensilab team to visit and directly experience the archaeological sites that they had been modelling in virtual reality, and connect with local organisations and experts in the field. The team is looking forward to utilising the data collected to improve their evidence based reconstructions of the past, with the overall goal of visualising the entire great city if Angkor.