The Launch Forward
Every January, during Cambodia’s dry season, Australian archaeologists fly in to excavate sites identified on Evans and Pottier’s map or verify their own remote-sensing findings. The Greater Angkor Project now includes a paleobotanist, a radiocarbon-dating specialist and an American Vietnam-vet pilot, who flies the archaeologists over their sites in an ultralight plane for quick aerial views. These days, the scientists are also trailed by documentary crews filming segments on the discovery of Angkor’s canal-based culture.
With Fletcher jetting around the world, Pottier has become the weary supervisor of a dozen young Anglo-Saxon scholars. At drinks after days spent in the field, the running joke is a well-delivered “Eet eez obviez!” Down the road from the EFEO, the Australians are renovating a house that will serve as the project’s headquarters. They say they’ll decorate it with animal skins and tacky paintings—a direct affront to refined French taste.
Bill Saturno returned to Marshall Space Flight Center a few weeks after our visit to Lingapura. Now equipped with firsthand knowledge of what to search for, he and Tom Sever decided to order Ikonos images of Angkor. They will process them this summer and then travel next winter to Angkor to verify their findings with Evans.
Meanwhile, JPL researchers are busy refining synthetic aperture radar. The latest operational version, Geosar, is the most elegant yet. Whereas eight to 10 people are needed to operate an Airsar flight, Geosar fits into the hull of a small Gulfstream jet. Most important, it has four times the resolution of Airsar, along with a longer band of radar that can penetrate through the forest canopy, allowing archaeologists to see beneath the trees rather than just read the tops of them. Evans is hopeful. “If it lives up to its promise,” he says, “Geosar may revolutionize the way our work is done here.”
Fletcher envisions a Geosar run over much of northern Angkor. As with Airsar, he’s waiting for a government agency or private company to pay for a flight. After that, he would like to try out the technology over early settlements in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, comparing the results against Angkor. Evidence is building, he says, to suggest that Angkor is not an isolated case—that there were other sprawling, low-density cities in southeast Asia. The question is whether they, too, ensured their downfall by overengineering their landscape.
That next phase of work could have far-reaching implications. As urbanization spurs an explosion of slums in Asia, Africa and Latin America, development experts are debating how to accommodate megacities. Fletcher simply sees a resurgence of Angkorian-style settlements. He thinks remote-sensing work on the sprawl of the past could illuminate strategies for sustainability, or at least show what doesn’t work. The demise of cities like Angkor won’t necessarily mean that today’s megacities “will fail catastrophically,” he says. “But we had sure better find out.”
For a look at the archaeology in action, launch the gallery here.
Mara Hvistendahl has written about science and the environment for Harper’s, the Financial Times and Archaeology.single page
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