History professor Ken Hall studies extant temples, which play a significant role in the country’s recovery from its violent past.

In a sacred space that remains the world’s largest monument to any religion, the Hindu-Buddhist temple complex at Angkor, Cambodia, has survived centuries of civil and regional war to become a symbol of possibility. Its stone buildings that stand yet today speak to a sprawling, once-grand metropolis — and now help anchor a rebirth of Cambodian culture and enterprise in the form of a rebuilt highway system, agricultural and commercial expansion, national unity and increased tourism.

History professor Ken Hall has been traveling to the Angkor Wat temples for research since the late 1990s, including a 2012 residency as a Fulbright scholar. He returned to the reinvigorated country in December to discover more about the medieval civilization based in what is today northern Cambodia.

Hall spent four weeks with an international field study at key archaeological sites of the Khmer Empire, which existed from the ninth to the 15th centuries and at its height covered an area that included eastern and central Thailand.

Photo show excavations sites dating to the Khmer Empire.

Archaeologists are excavating key sites of the Khmer Empire.

“The outcome of these new archaeological recoveries will fill gaps in our knowledge of regional history,” he said.

Hall, a distinguished senior fellowship scholar at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, worked with other global academic specialists excavating the remains of Koh Ker, a ninth- and 10th-century capital city in northeast Cambodia recently cleared of land mines from when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia in 1975-79.

Early results have shown the site’s importance as a residential, water management, ritual and political center, which “will lead to more extensive excavation at Koh Ker sites that have the greatest significance in reaching an understanding of a much more complicated community than anticipated.”

He noted that these new excavations and those at an earlier capital site in 2015 have led experts to believe that the Angkor civilization originated in northeast Cambodia’s agricultural and ritual centers rather than along the Mekong River in southeast Cambodia, as previously believed.

“Cambodia’s highways have been rebuilt with Angkor at its center and spokes leading to major secondary Angkor-era temple sites on rebuilt Angkor-era roads.”
— History professor Ken Hall

Hall’s research puts a historical perspective on Southeast Asia and the Angkor civilization, which was one of the most advanced societies of its time, said Kevin Smith, chair of the history department.

Ken Hall works with global academic specialists in excavating remains of the ruins in Cambodia.

Ken Hall, center, works with global academic specialists in excavating remains of a former capital city.

“We tend to think of the ancient and pre-modern world — if we think of them at all — in terms of separate, disconnected civilizations,” he said. But Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, along with the cultures that accompany them in Southeast Asia, interacted substantially.

The Angkor Wat has taken on special significance in Cambodia as the country recovers from decades of violence.

“Cambodia’s highways have been rebuilt with Angkor at its center and spokes leading to major secondary Angkor-era temple sites on rebuilt Angkor-era roads,” Hall said.

The roads support agricultural expansion and let cash crops and people move to urban markets. The increased tourism, especially in the core Angkor temple complex at Siem Reap, has helped Cambodia economically and culturally. And the complex is so vital to restored national unity that Angkor Wat has a central place on the nation’s flag.

“International assistance, including designation of Angkor as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has initiated the stabilization and reconstruction of endangered temples,” he said.

Yet, as the country builds and rebuilds, Hall points out that there’s a race to save historical sites that compete with proposed development. “What we are doing enhances global understanding of Cambodia’s civilization. Our recovered artifacts, — which include numerous Cambodian and imported ceramics, remains of seventh- to 15th-century buildings and vast water reservoirs — provide vital links to Cambodia’s past.”