vishnu
March 14, 2016

Massive 11th century metal workshop discovered in modern-day Cambodia

An enormous bronze workshop has been found next to the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom—the capital city of the powerful Khmer Empire which once spread across a large part of Southeast Asia from roughly the 9th to 15th centuries CE.

At the empire’s height, the capital city grew to be about the size of modern Los Angeles, with about one million residents, and tens of thousands of bronze, silver, and gold statues were spread across the whole empire—although where they came from has long been a puzzle for archaeologists.

It was generally thought that such statues were “where they were to be installed or venerated,” according to site researcher Martin Polkinghorne in the Phnom Penh Post, but the evidence has been lacking, and now this massive workshop puts a hitch in that theory.

dig

Cambodian archaeologists working at the dig site.

Evidence of metalworking

Originally thought to be a stone workshop, they uncovered evidence of extensive metalworking: half-finished bronze statues, large furnaces, chunks of unused metal, and crucibles that could hold about a half-gallon (2 liters) of molten metal. Carbon dating has now placed the workshop right at the height of the Khmer Empire, under the reign of god-king Jayavarman VII—between the 11th and 12th centuries CE.

This crucible was used to hold molten metal in the 11th century

This crucible was used to hold molten metal in the 11th century.

“We’ve demonstrated that there is a centralised workshop with very large-scale production,” Polkinghorne told the Post. “It was a great find. We were really excited.”

Which means that most if not all fabrication of these tens of thousands of statues happened in one place—right next to the Royal Palace—before being shipped to their respective locations. This now adds a new weight to the power of the elites, as the metals used in statues (copper, tin, gold, and more) were quite expensive. Creating statues, then, reinforced the power of elites while also demonstrating the might of the gods.

statue

Piece of a leaded bronze 15.5cm statue found at the Angkor Thom Royal Palace dating to the late 12th/early 13th century. Credit: Brent Crane

This likely includes one of the most famous statues of Angkor, the West Mebon Vishnu, which is a car-sized fragment of a reclining Vishnu. It’s estimated that its full length was about 20 feet (6 meters) and took several months to make.

“Primarily, sculptures are important because they have power to restore and also communicate legitimacy,” Polkinghorne explained. “Artistic skill is a coveted and almost highly secret skillset that the king is tapping. He’s using that knowledge to legitimize himself.”

Archaeologists long wondered where something like the The West Mebon Vishnu could have been manufactured-- and this workshop could be the answer

Archaeologists long wondered where something like the The West Mebon Vishnu could have been manufactured-- and this workshop could be the answer

Of course, while this is a huge discovery, there are still some mysteries regarding the site. Its full boundaries are unknown—there might still be more—and where the metals came from to make all the statues is still unknown. In modern-day Cambodia—where the ruins of Angkor Thom are now found—there are no significant ore or metal deposits. Researchers hypothesize the metals were brought in via trade, but as of yet they aren’t certain.

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Image credit: Phnom Penh Post